The Finkelstein Files: The Art of Living Joyfully

Tolarno’s, a St.Kilda gastronomic institution for many decades of loyal customers gathered regularly to partake the bonhomie and Mirka Mora murals which festooned the walls with ducks, serpents, floral and doll-like motifs.

One of Australia’s best-loved artist, Mirka Mora has passed this week, aged 90, much to the distress of the visual art community. Her work has been revered, enjoyed and collected for as long as Mirka has been creating it. Mirka, one of Melbourne’s most famous bohemians, transformed the culture of her adopted home town since emigrating to Australia in the 1950s from war-torn France.

“Art is the child of the imagination and gives life”, Mirka famously uttered.

Throughout Mirka’s life, art was a constant. Her sensuous, cherubic figures — described by one 1960s art critic as ‘medieval imps’ — are instantly recognisable. Mirka created a prolific output of work spanning across six decades, with a range of media including drawing, painting, embroidery, soft sculpture, mosaics and doll-making.

 

Mirka Mora with her Soft Sculptures, August 29, 1979. Image Courtesy: Fairfax Media.

 

With more than 35 solo exhibitions throughout her career, including a retrospective at Heide Museum of Art in 1999-2000, celebrated 50 years of her work. Later this year in October, Heide will mark her 90th year with Mirka Mora: Pas de Deux – Drawings and Dolls, with its curators have written a book, Mirka and Georges, to coincide with the exhibition.

 

It seems nearly every Melbournite who has worked, lived and breathed amongst the artistic milieu has a Mirka tale to tell, each more arresting and controversially charming than the next. She was the pied-piper of the art tableuax, weaving her special brand of magic-like pixie-dust wherever she went. What a life worth living! Mirka seemed to leave a trail of art-lovers; charming them with her whacky yet wise stories of her colourful life, led with joy. Her joy was infectious, with people often referring to her child-like approach akin to madness – Mirka was perhaps the most sane of all.

 

Mirka’s studio wall, 2014, Tanner St, Richmond, Melbourne.

Widely respected art dealer, son William Mora explains the magic which was Mirka, “an artist and mentor who touched the lives of thousands, she has had an indelible effect on Australia’s cultural life. The joie de vivre she has shared with so many will continue in her immense legacy of art and her spirit of generosity.”

“Her colourful, sensuous iconography has emerged from the breadth of her interests and reading, her love of classical mythology, her desire to reclaim and make sense of childhood and familial relations, and her recognition of the power of sexual desire”.

 

Mirka Mora, Mother and Child, 1984, Gouache on paper, 18 x 13cm.

 

Carrillo Gantner AO, expresses his heart-felt memories in the forthcoming book Mirka Mora, A life of Making Art by Sabine Cotte, published by Thames and Hudson Australia and  due for release in 2019:

“Many years ago my wife and I were sitting with Mirka in the café at the Australian National Gallery in Canberra. I asked her to tell me the story of her miraculous escape at age 13 from the train heading to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. She started to relate how she wrote a note with the names of the stations she was passing on a scrap of paper addressed to her father in Paris and pushed it out through a crack in the cattle truck in which she was being transported. Someone picked it up and sent it on to her father who worked out where she was headed. He bribed the Nazi authorities and she was released at the gates of Auschwitz with the eyes of the inmates staring out at her through the barbed wire. Then in the midst of the café crowd, Mirka burst into wild, incongruous laughter.


Mirka Mora, Friends and Lovers, 2004, Oil on Canvas, 119.5 x 119.5cm.

 

“Those large round eyes staring out at her are there in so many of her paintings and other works. So is her laughter in the face of death and in her commitment to the outrageous and colourful miracle of life. You cannot help but fall in love with Mirka. Everyone who meets her or stands before her work feels the sense of joy and of life lived to the max. If Australia had National Living Treasures as they do in Japan, Mirka Mora would undoubtedly be one of ours”,

 

Mirka Mora, Medieval Gathering (1987-1992), Oil on Canvas, 122.0 × 214.0cm, Image courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

 

“Mirka always said that my mother bought the very first painting she ever sold, and many others in the decades that followed. They remained the closest of friends and I grew up with regular injections of her art, her delicious French accent and delicious French cooking, her laughter and her occasional behavioural extremes. She always managed to put herself at the epicentre of attention, punching her fist into my 40th birthday cake, grabbing my hand and jumping into the swimming pool fully clothed at a polite Toorak party, turning a thank you speech at a Town Hall dinner in her honour into a dissertation on the delights of the clitoris, or hoisting her hospital gown to show me and her delighted hospital roommates her generous surgical scar and so much more. 

 

Mirka Mora, Together, 1996, Oil on Canvas, 50.5 x 61cm.

 

“For my mother, Mirka represented the freedom of the artist’s life that she wished she herself might have led were it not for family pressures and social convention. For my children, Mirka almost came from another world, bearing the pleasures of surprise and fantasy. She would draw some strange creature for them and inspire them to repay the favour with their own imaginative scribbles. They loved her. Absolutely everyone loved her, whether they were children or elderly students at her Adult Education classes who imagined once again that they just might be.”

 

 

“First and always foremost, Mirka was an artist. She loved to paint or build soft creatures or embroider pictures or set mosaics. Every day of her life she worked tirelessly at her art, always sketching or pulling out her watercolours or researching images in ancient art books, always with the intensity of someone who treasured life and valued time. Even as she grew old, she told me that she had to work at her easel for hours every day, summoning mythological angels, animals, birds and plants in vivid colours. And always there were those eyes.”

Mirka’s vivacious personality and her vitality pegged her as a creative who blurred the boundaries by speaking with spirited sense of humanity. Thank you Mirka – you will certainly always be remembered for your exuberance and for exemplifying the art of joyful living.

Advertisements

The Finkelstein Files: The Lyon Housemuseum

LHM-Architecture-06

The Housemuseum is the story of a partnership between collector and architect Corbett Lyon and his wife, Yueji Lyon, who began shaping their collection of Australian contemporary art over twenty six years ago. The collection was established with the intention of making works available for public viewing, and for research and education. The original Housemuseum is a unique combination of private residence and private museum where ‘museum’ and ‘living’ are brought together in a single building.

 
Above: Christopher Langton’s inflatable sculpture Swell, 2003, sits on a large circular plinth in the
centre of the southern garden concrete and can be viewed through the full height windows of the living room.

From modest beginnings in the late 1980’s , the Lyon Collection has grown to become one of the largest and most significant in the country, offering insights into Australian contemporary art practice from the early 1990’s  through the first two decades of the twenty first century. The Housemuseum was designed by Corbett Lyon, as both a family home and as a building which would allow works from the Collection to be displayed for public viewing. The Housemuseum represents a new an experimental architectural type – a hybrid of house and museum.

Today the Collection holds over 350 works from over 50 artists, representing one of the strongest collections of Australian contemporary art in the country. Following selected artists over the course of their evolving practices, the Collection includes works by internationally recognised Australian artists such as Brook Andrew, Howard Arkley, Patricia Piccinini, Callum Morton, Shaun Gladwell, Daniel von Sturmer and Daniel Crooks and represents many of the key moments and important shifts in Australian artistic practice and thinking.

Above (Right): Stephen Bram, Untitled, 2015, Acrylic on Linen, 278 x 210 cm.

At first glance, Stephen Bram‘s abstract paintings include forms of no recognisable shape splashed across the picture plane, bristling with jagged edges that run helter-skelter over a dark greyish underpainting.  These geometric blobs behave according to perspective and that they spell out the orthogonals of an architectural interior. The blobs at the bottom indicate a floor while the blobs at the top indicate a ceiling. Those to the side are walls. Each composition becomes a picture in spite of the initial appearance of random form. The flat forms with jagged edges behave according to perspective, introducing angles by means of their staggered outline. Their chaotic disposition is scaffolded onto a grid of two-point perspective, where twin vanishing points are situated out-of-frame to the left and the right. In the past, Bram used this rigorous system from the Renaissance to reconcile it with hard-edge abstraction. His works almost effortlessly married the Cartesian apparatus of space with the intellectual apparatus of its deconstruction in flat painting.

Above: Lyon also designed a hybrid pipe/digital organ for installation on the west wall of the music room.

This custom designed instrument combines ranks of real pipes with the digital recordings of actual pipe sounds from the great cathedral organs of Europe.

In the tradition of local collectors such as the Reeds and the Besens, who knew the artists they collected and set up museums for their art (Heide and Tarrawarra respectively), the Lyon family has followed its peer group. But the Lyon Housemuseum is different. The Lyons have opened their collection and home to the public. But the ”ultimate opportunity”, Lyon says, has been the ability to design the house as well, and create ”a new species of building. People have certain expectations on entering a public museum or walking through a large house,” says Lyon. ”We’ve shaken and stirred them, so they are more juxtaposed.” For Lyon, ”absurdly inserting museum spaces – white and black cubes – into a domestic interior, creates a powerful architectural experience”.

Above: Howard Arkley, Fabricated Rooms, 1997 -1999, Acrylic on Canvas, 17 panels, overall 203 x 1930cm.

Once the double-storey white cube is in the home, it’s attacked. Slicing through its white walls, the architects have inserted slot windows that allow views of more artworks, people in other rooms, and views outside the gallery. ”It’s about breaking free of the tyranny that the white cube brings with it,” says Lyon. ”It’s about involving you as the spectator in the whole spatial experience of the building. It’s the opposite of the typical museum where the effort is to cut you off from the outside in order to see the artwork in an almost sacred, timeless space – the temple or tomb where all great art goes to die,” says Lyon.

The building is also anchored by an artwork. Arkley’s massive 17-panel work Fabricated Rooms is on permanent display in the formal dining room above the white cube. Another marker is between the kitchen and the black box, a pipe organ Lyon designed (and plays) for concerts. Private rooms can be closed off as required. ”Shrink-wrapping” it is a huge zinc roof. ”The design strategy of hybridising those opposites – the house/museum, public/private architecture – finds its way into the form of the building,” says Lyon.

Above: Arts patron Yueji Lyon, warmly invites the public to view the the Housemuseum, home to her 20 & 22 year-old daughters, who both incidentally are studying architecture and live in ‘apartment’ pods upstairs.

”The gable-ended roof refers to a primitive form of a house, but it’s clad in black zinc that refers to the monumentality of public architecture.” One of the building’s greatest accomplishments in the public and private juxtaposition is the layering of words throughout the site. For instance, the corner property’s brick fence displays the Kew address in 2.5-metre-high brick letters: Cotham and Florence. Inside, across its ceilings, friends’ names, recipes and other personal notes are ”tattooed” into the timber, in shapes that spell out ”ART”. (see above) These are words and phrases collected cheekily by the four members of the Lyon family during the construction of the Housemuseum. They represent a form of family history at the time the building was completed. The texts include place names, significant people and events, biographical details, family recipes and other markers in the lives of the Housemuseum’s occupants.

Above: Christopher Langton, Cute (Doggy Style), 2011, PVC, polyester resin and acrylic, 198 x 91 x 60 cm approx.

Represented by Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne, Johannesburg-born sculptor, Christopher Langton is a pop sculptor and installation artist who creates plastic blow-up ‘toys’ of frightening proportions. Curator Mark Feary commented: ‘Langton’s work makes you feel good, but only sort of.’ Indeed there is something ominous about these sculptures despite their bright colours, smiling faces and fun media. They blend the playful naivety of Betty Boop and Astro Boy with the more knowing aesthetic palette of Roy Lichtenstein. Langton breathes plastic life into bobbing and bopping figures like a Geppeto gone mad!

Above: Brent Harris, Oceania, Oil on Linen, 179 x 279cm.

Brent Harris’ paintings and works on paper are brooding, dripping swamplands delineated in the most meticulous way.  Stark planes, often black and white, belie the swooping organic gestures and expressionist shapes. “Many of his forms vibrate, rise and fall, and cause the viewer’s eye much exercise in following them”, noted James Mollison in Art and Australia. But what surprises most is the sensuality of the work; as though the sharp lines and immaculate surfaces can barely contain the emotions brooding beneath.

painted on the base of his second Housemuseum of contemporary art in Kew. Photo: Josh RobenstoneIt clearly is an expensive enterprise (”we don’t talk about how much”) and Lyon says the Housemuseum receives no funding or tax concessions. What’s the incentive? ”The really positive thing we get out of it is that people get the idea.They don’t feel like they’re coming to an institution. People say it’s changed the way they think about Melbourne. We wouldn’t do it if it didn’t have that kind of reaction.”

Designed around a two storey ‘white cube’ at the front of the building and a two storey ‘black cube’ at the rear, these act as anchors for the building and display paintings, sculpture, video work and installations. Family living areas flow around these two anchors, accommodating further artworks, architectural drawings and artefacts. Through this juxtaposition of art and living, the Housemuseum challenges conventional ideas of ‘public’ and ‘private’ and explores new relationships between art and the spaces in which it is viewed. Offering a new platform for works of contemporary art, architecture and design, the new Housemuseum galleries is a major expansion of the Lyon Housemuseum. Due to open mid 2018, the new galleries will provide a series of spaces for international and local exhibitions and events, where new ways of presenting and experiencing art will be explored.

And a hint as to why Lyon has just unveiled an Olympic swimming pool-sized artwork on the base of the yet-to-be built museum next door – painted blue, black, pink and mint green by Melbourne artist Reko Rennie – only to have it built over in a week’s time. Watch the minute-long time lapse video of Reko Rennie’s Visible Invisible, painted on the foundation of Corbett Lyon’s new Housemuseum in Kew.

Above: All images courtesy of John Gollings.

“As part of the announcement on Tuesday January 31 this year, a major new artwork, the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool at 44 x 20 metres, was revealed. Australian contemporary artist Reko Rennie’s VISIBLE INVISIBLE (2017) spreads across the concrete base of the building, forming the foundation of the new galleries. Using 600 litres of Dulux paint to create, the artwork will be visible in its entirety for a short time, prior to being covered by the construction of the new museum. The artwork is visible from the street (as well as passing tram) for the coming weeks. A portion of the artwork will remain visible within the new museum, hinting at the colossal artwork lying hidden beneath.”

Reko Rennie explores his Aboriginal identity through contemporary media, provokes discussion surrounding Indigenous culture and identity in contemporary urban environments. Largely autobiographical, his commanding works combine the iconography of his Kamilaroi heritage with stylistic elements of graffiti. Merging traditional diamond-shaped designs, hand-drawn symbols and repetitive patterning, he works to subvert romantic ideologies of Aboriginal identity.

“Camouflage exploits the vulnerability of visual perception and its subjective relationship with meaning. It usually attempts to render the visible invisible by disorienting our eyes and employing the art of disguise. This work plays with layers of patterning, colour blending and contrasting areas of intensity and flatness in order to turn the tradition role of camouflage on its head. My use of camouflage aims to amplify, rather than conceal my identity, and to stake my claim to a luminous, commanding form of cultural visibility.”

Above: Emily Floyd, WORKSHOP (detail),2012, steel, 2-part epoxy paint, ferrador, each letter approx. 150 x 150 x 40cm.

Set to be one of the largest dedicated contemporary art precincts in Melbourne, the new public art gallery will offer a new platform for works of contemporary art, architecture and design. Part of a major expansion of the Lyon Housemuseum and the result of a $14.5 million donation by the founding benefactors, the Lyon family, the gallery will provide a series of spaces for international and local exhibitions and events, where new ways of presenting and experiencing art will be explored.

Corbett Lyon commented, “We are very excited by plans for the new public gallery and its potential to foster experimentation, ideas and conversations across disciplines – between artists, architects, designers and the public to enrich and add to our city’s cultural life.” He continues, “… As we approach the opening of the new museum we are thinking widely in terms of ideas, exhibitions and events to add a rich dimension to the extraordinary cultural life we have here in Melbourne.”