Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Street Strollers of New York

You know in the couple of years I've been writing this blog, I don't think I have ever featured the writing of Mr Stephen Zagala. The essay below accompanies the current exhibition, New Photography From the Footpath, which opened at Monash Gallery of Art over the weekend. It's a great show and excellent essay. Along with reproductions of Catherine Bell's photographs it's been pulled together into a super cute booklet. You can pick it up for 10 bucks in the MGA shop. 

Images (top-bottom) Catherine Bell, from the series Street Strollers of New York (series no. 48) 2010, courtesty of the artist and Sutton Gallery (Melbourne), Catherine Bell, from the series Street Strollers of New York 2010, courtesty of the artist and Sutton Gallery (Melbourne).


Street strollers of New York is a sequence of photographs that document African-American nannies shuttling white children through the affluent mid-town streets of Manhattan. Catherine Bell’s interest in this subject grew out of her own experience working as a nanny in London; she embarked on this project with the notion to pay tribute to an under-acknowledged workforce. While there is a significant tradition in documentary photography of images of heroic workers, Bell’s images of African-American nannies belong to another tradition altogether – that of the clandestine street photograph. In these pictures, taken with a hidden camera and for the most part without the subject’s knowledge, Bell has cast each nanny in the role of a fugitive.

Bell is an artist who has worked in various media, including drawing, painting, video and performance. For this project she chose to work with black-and-white photographs, because of their association with the gritty realism of street photography. In keeping with the candid strains of this tradition, she has used a small, easily concealed camera to capture her subjects while they are on the move. As a result of this, her images pick up some of the formal qualities that characterise the genre, such and motion blur and coincidental composition.

However, Bell’s investment in street photography has less to do with stylistic traits than with the conceptual ambitions of the genre. For many street photographers, public space can be a theatre for tracking the aberrant complexities of human life as it is actually lived. For Bell, the nannies of New York bring to light the messy actuality of motherhood. In contradistinction to press photographs depicting Park Avenue and Hollywood celebrity-super-mums (who infamously adopt children from third-world countries), Bells’ pictures suggest that the maternal duties of Manhattan’s elites being outsourced to the African-American working class.

Street strollers of New York elaborates on Bell’s long-standing interest in the way that, in popular culture and literature, motherhood is often idealised in ways that deny its physical and psychological challenges. In order to maintain this idealised depiction of motherhood, its realities – its loneliness, its emotional vagaries, its messiness – are disavowed as ‘abject monstrosities’. Bell is interested in the ways that these myths permeate actuality.

The African-American nannies shown in Bell’s photographs can play a role in manufacturing this mythology. That is, the nannies help to distance mothers from the everyday messiness of family life, and give them time to uphold the super-mum ideal. But Bell makes the nannies the stars of her paparazzi-style project, celebrating the errant complexities of the street over the static ideal of motherhood.

- Stephen Zagala

New photography from the footpath
Catherine Bell, Glenn Sloggett, Ian Tippett
3 April 2014 to 8 June 2014

Alongside The Rennie Ellis Show, which celebrates the work of one of Australia’s most prolific street photographers, New photography from the footpath points to the ongoing relevance of candid photography in public space. Catherine Bell, Glenn Sloggett and Ian Tippett are all Melbourne-based artists who embrace street photography as a means of capturing the vitality of contemporary life.

Monash Gallery of Art
860 Ferntree Gully Road
Wheelers Hill Victoria 3150
Telephone +61 3 8544 0500
T–F 10am–5pm S&S 12–5pm

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

From the archives: Dolfi Trost

That saying, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, I’m not so sure about it. I have a pretty good idea how little I know but what’s the use dwelling on that. I’m still feeling sore about the parking ticket from yesterday. Still, every time I stumble across a new artist, someone I feel like I should have known about years ago, I can’t work out whether my education let me down or new discoveries should fall under the category of new research/internet mania.

I spent years studying modernism and then years teaching modernism. I came at it from different departments – art history, cinema and later design. Sure, by the 2000s there was a lot of hoo-ha about modernisms, plural. But I’m still wondering how Romanian Surrealist Dolfi Trost (1916-1966) escaped my cross hairs. How come I never heard of him? Here was someone who was investigating the surrealist drawing technique entopic graphomania in Bucharest (a youtube tutorial might go like this: Draw dots on a page. Join them together.)

I never knew. He published his drawings in a serious looking publication in French if I’m not mistaken Vision dans le Cristal, Oniromancie obsessionelle (Et neuf graphomanies entoptiques from1945. Then he went to Chicago. What did he do in Chicago? Why was he there? Did he marvel at the skyscrapers designed by that well-known European modernist, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and his students at Illinois Institute of Technology? At this point we can only speculate.*

*In the English language, on the web, I can’t find anything.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bella World

Some people have a knack of pulling objects together to create interesting scenes that surprise but also possess a degree of coherence. I love Bella Cooke’s home for this reason. It’s vibrant, crazy fun and restful at the same time. I am not sure how she achieves it except to say she has a great feel for textiles (she has quals in this area), plenty of natural weather-worn furniture, the colour white, fresh cut flowers, and a love of vernacular expression. Magazines often describe it as Industrial but that brings to mind over-sized objects and distressed surfaces. That’s not quite it. Bella loves the local, commercial and small time operators of this world (and celebrates place through her own line of posters). She collects objects d art on the road and fosters the same spirit in her community through a market she runs once a month Seaford Handmade and Homemade Market . Over lunch yesterday with her usual modesty she described herself as a Penninsula bogan. I don't think so.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Flags for Friday

I was visiting sweet polka Marion last week and noticed an embroidery (Don't Stop Cheering) on her wall. It was that good, I felt like cheering.

Then, mooching around in the digital world, I found these lovely textile hangings, recently displayed in Sydney as part of an exhibition titled Maps. Seems they are by the same talented hand, or hands, of Marico and Maricar Manalo.

I like the flag-like nature of these hangings, the eighties vibe, that's a little bit nautical and a little bit vertigo. If I didn't know how to sew I would be tempted to drop five hunjies on one of these. And even though I rarely sew (sewing machine chord, where are you?) that rarely used skill makes me cautious.

I can't make cosmetics as yet, which is why was not cautious when I visited Mecca this week. But that's another story...


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Brendan Huntley

Disorder Disorder, Installation View,  Penrith Regional Gallery, Sydney (2010)

This year I turn forty. You might be wondering where I am at with my mid-life crisis. Right on track, so it seems. A small Cockney accented man has taken residence in my head. He asks me one question “What’s it all for then, eh?” Sharing the space is the world’s most boring forensic accountant who is doing an inventory of my achievements and financial affairs. I am getting a D.

What happened with the expansivness of thinking that characeterised the last decade of my life? Gone. I pen imaginary Letters to My Teenage Self. In them I discourage myself from Following My Dreams.

I am as bored as you are by my status anxiety. Where’s my sense of gratitude right? The thing is I feel it and even express it everyday. It only works half the time.  The other half of the time I am wondering whether I should take up pottery. The many faces of Brendan Hunltley speak to me.