Feature Articles

March Issue 2002

A Few Words From Down Under
About Staying Between the Lines

by Judith McGrath

When you were a kid and used your colouring book what was it your folks would say when you scribbled all over the picture with your favourite colour? With a slightly shaking head and subtle frown I'll bet it was something along the lines of, "Very good dear but are you sure grass is pink? And darling, you're supposed to keep the colour in-between the lines."

This constructive criticism does not encourage budding artists; those who give themselves permission to see grass as pink or allow their most loved hue to spill beyond the borders of the object and off the page. However, it's sound advice for those who one day might be associated with the art world. If they stray beyond the well-drawn lines without specific permission, clucking tongues will drive them back or else take away their crayons.

I'm a freelance journalist in the visual arts and an independent reviewer in This Town. My job often stretches to include giving talks at colleges, offering advice to agents and artists (when asked) and sitting on the occasional judging panel or committee. I attend lots of exhibitions, interview different art practitioners and feed what I learn through various media to be distributed to the public. Basically it involves forming opinions and voicing them. The boundaries are flexible but if I step outside the lines, people will try to take away my metaphorical crayons.

The step was small but took me far. An artist friend told me how an international exhibition organized in London and intended to travel around the globe, fell through due to lack of money and the inability to navigate custom regulations, international financial transactions and high freight costs. She spoke of how the artists were disappointed and fool me suggested a K.I.S.S. solution. K.I.S.S. = Keep It Simple Stupid and it's the only way around most problems as it reduces them in the mind before you begin to deal with them in reality; a system every bank and civil bureaucracy should embrace.

My KISS solution was if you can post a letter airmail, why not airmail a letter size work of art. So A4 Airmail Art was born. A4 is the standard size typing, photocopier or computer printer paper (approximately 8"x11") and fits unfolded in an A4 envelope. (A4 also reads as 'A for', which I think is cute!) We viewed on-line gallery sites and e-mailed artists around the globe inviting them to airmail us A4 size original works of art, any medium, any number that would fit in an A4 size envelope, with the entry fee in Australian dollars. We would mount and hang the work, unframed, in exhibition. This solved the customs and freight problems and as the entry fee was low, only one artist had difficulty exchanging money.

We KISSed each problem as it surfaced and found ourselves curating an exhibition consisting of 83 exhibits in a variety of art styles and techniques, by 26 artists from home and abroad, representing 19 different countries! It was an eclectic collection but we found connections via style, colour, or media and it held together by the similarity of size and presentation.

The promotion for the exhibition was good, the opening was grand, the exhibits looked great, the participants were gleeful, and the attendees' comments were positive, a highly satisfying evening. But the greatest satisfaction was knowing how happy the international artists were at having their original works exhibited in Australia. The artist from Brazil is cheerful as she can now say she has exhibited on every continent! And the Romanian artist is delighted as he sold a work and the rate of exchange is in his favour! There's even an invitation to take the exhibition 'bush' after its run in the current venue finishes. Residents of the small wheat-belt town of Ballidu and students from five regional high schools will have a chance to engage in artwork from around the world. The experience will inspire discussions on art, politics, cultural diversity, philosophical differences, geography and the use of the Internet to conquer the tyranny of distance. It will also offer educational opportunities as one of the local presenters will provide a workshop in digital printmaking.

Within a fortnight of the A4 Art Exhibition opening we needed to hide our crayons. An artist and a writer dared to stray beyond the art world's deeply etched lines to become 'curators'. Quelle Tragique! First came the reviews; one critic dismissed the exhibition as trivial by writing five nondescript lines about it at the end of a column devoted to another show curated by the head of painting in said critic's alma mater. Another review (by a curator enlisted to write crits during the art festival overload) said nice things about the exhibits and noted how the venue's walls needed a repaint before condemning the curatorial efforts.

Besides the curator being critical of a critic curating a show, there were other knockers. One artist who turned down an invitation to participate viewed the exhibition and informed us there was nothing original in the concept, while another thought the works were hung too close together and found five mistakes in the twenty page catalogue. Nice of her to look so closely.

A CD was made so each participant would have documentation of the exhibition and those who could not attend would be able to see the whole collection and read the catalogue. Also, they could be sold to help with finances. One artist offered to make the master but I preferred to employ a professional so the CD would be as secure as these things can be. When the rebuffed artist could not duplicate images from the disc he began questioning copyright procedures. The 'never buy' contingent arrived, loved the works, complained the prices were too high but wouldn't pay ten dollars for a CD. More then a few enumerated other faults suggesting how we should call on them to help 'do it right' the next time. I've coloured them Envy Green.

My colouring book is closed and crayons put away, I'm finished with this page for the moment. As a curator I see how hindsight illuminates the flaws. As a reviewer I see what is more then good and less then best about the exhibition. As an arts writer I see where the knockers are coming from and why they need to have their say. We all have our insecurities so the artist who misses an opportunity must justify his choice, the curator who gets to be a critic must return fire, and the writer who gets to be a curator must accept it when others form opinions and voice them.

To all inhabitants of the global art scene I say, be not afraid of those who stray outside the lines, for if they are destined to be great you can not stop them; and if they are totally without talent they'll know as much without being told.

Judith McGrath lives in Kalamunda, Western Australia. She is a freelance writer and reviewer for various art magazines in Australia. You can see more of her writing on her website at (http://www.artseeninwa.com).

Addendum to A Few Words From Down Under from Dec. 2001 by Judith McGrath

Editor's Note: A friend of McGrath's was nominated for one of those yearly art awards, that always seem to go to the wrong folks (in my opinion). Her friend didn't even know the award existed, but after learning of the fantastic party featuring the Who's Who of the art world, the great meal, and entertainment - she was excited and at the same time, sure something must be wrong. At the time of our printing, the results of the final selections were not known. The following are the results. The full story can be seen on our website at (http://www.CarolinaArts.com) - under the heading -A Few Words From Down Under.

by Judith McGrath

My friend informed me today she did not win a State Art Sponsorship Prestige Award at the gala evening of wine, food and entertainment. She was pipped at the post by the CEO of one of this state's largest companies. He has contributed some $330,000 this year to government subsidised cultural organizations such as the Symphony Orchestra, Ballet Company, Art Gallery and Theatre Company. She enjoyed the evening and was thrilled to be there, although admitted to feeling slightly out of place among the attending corporate crowd as her contribution is more the 'in kind, out of pocket' ilk then the unlimited checkbook type. After she left I couldn't help thinking it's a sad situation when "cultural kudos" are bought rather then won. It begs the question; in an era where generosity is measured by it's monetary equivalent, how do we equate personal satisfaction?


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