Friday, 27 June 2008

Friday, 20 June 2008

Magic Sam

Here’s some more archival material: the covers of the complete run of Ken Bolton’s Magic Sam. I don’t have specific dates for these but the magazine ran from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. It’s a gestetnered affair with screen-printed covers and artwork from the years before general computer use changed the appearance of journals utterly. It’s still the finest example of this kind of production that I’ve seen. Some editors embraced the ratty nature of gestetner and produced magazines that walked the low-tech talk (I think here of Paul Buck). Ken, with his toes in the art world, wanted to do something that would look as good as was possible. The covers and most of the internal designs are his own (with occasional help from a few artist friends).

Issues #3 and #4 (with the near-identical covers) appeared together. One of them even contained a ‘free 45rpm record’:

All of this was done from a house looking out over the Tasman Sea at Coalcliff on the coast between Sydney and Wollongong. A corner of the living room sagged perilously, its foundations eaten away by erosion. The floor was, likely enough, carpeted with visitors, down for poetry readings in the ‘Gong sleeping overnight. They might be roped into helping Ken and Sal Brereton if Magic Sam was coming out. Ken later went on (in Adelaide) to edit Otis Rush though, with the physical production taken out of his hands, this magazine (though always terrific with its content and the art work within) lacked the classy hand-made feel of its predecessor.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

more readings

Last week, in the Blue Bus series, Ian McLachlan played improvisations and Frances Presley, Graham Hartill and Lyndon Davies read poems. Hartill's Selected Poems 1980-2001, Cennau's Bell (Welsh Book Council) looked and sounded good. Frances Presley read new material from a sequence centred on Queen Anne. She is one of the best practitioners of the 'documentary' poem and what she does lends itself well to multiple voicings (in this case Gavin Selerie read a part of the work). Last night at the Shearsman reading Nathaniel Tarn and Lee Harwood launched new books (a selected and a book of interviews with Kelvin Corcoran from Lee). An excellent reading and a good turnout. No pictures from either event I'm afraid (I forgot my camera last week and the images from last night were a bit blurry). It's the end of the season for Shearsman, though the other series I've been attending will go on over summer.

Monday, 16 June 2008

tilt #1

This photograph was taken probably in the late 1940s or early 1950s. You could take a shot from the same position today though there would be two significant differences. Firstly, the foreground would be filled by the blur of fast-moving traffic. Secondly, the two buildings in the middle and to the right of the photograph would no longer appear, replaced by an eight-to-ten storey apartment block dating from the late 1960s or early 1970s. Renfrew Court, the building on the left would be the only unchanged feature.

The building in the centre was a guest house and its address was 195 Beaconsfield Parade, Middle Park, an inner suburb of Melbourne. Behind the photographer is the beach on Port Phillip Bay. The guest house was owned by my grandmother and it was the place where my parents lived when I was born. It extended back for some distance into the block and at the rear there was a further bungalow. I’m not sure which part of the house my parents lived in or how many rooms there were but my grandmother had the large front one with the balcony.

She had become a landlady through necessity. In the first decade of the twentieth century she had become pregnant out of wedlock and had married in a hurry. She was ostracised by several members of her family who were well-to-do business people of Anglo-Welsh extraction named Hughes. The man she married was also well-off, though he wouldn’t, in any case, have been approved of by her family. His name was Isaac Barrow and he was an English Jew who, with his brothers, ran a company that made printer’s ink for the newspapers. He was also eccentric and severely disciplinarian. He made one of his children lay out the pebbles in the driveway so that the long ones were all parallel. The same child was shut out of the house (for all he knew permanently) for some misdemeanour at a very early age. In the late 1920s the family, now with four children, moved for a few years to Wellington, New Zealand. When the depression hit, Isaac Barrow began to show further signs of instability. The family moved back to Melbourne and in 1932, Isaac was confined in the Mont Park Asylum. He stayed there for eight years. My grandmother didn’t visit him, though my mother did, in the company of the man she later married (or so I’m told: it is all rather murky). In 1938 he died of an overdose while undergoing an experimental drug therapy. So, from the early thirties my grandmother ran guest-houses.

195 wasn’t the first of these, but it is the one I know the most about. Its location, relatively close to the city and even closer to the docks meant that it had a number of unusual guests. One of these was John Sangster, later a renowned jazz drummer and vibist. He left, short on rent, and I still own several of his art books (four of the late 1940s Penguin series and a monograph on Picasso by his secretary Jaime Sabartes). Another guest, Murray Archer, was a subsequently well-known news photographer. The most intriguing inhabitants were an impeccable couple under an assumed name. Only after they had left the guest house did we discover that he was Freddy Harrison, a local gangster who, only a year or two later, was machine-gunned down by rivals in daylight near the Port Melbourne docks.

Around 1954 my parents bought a house of their own twelve miles out of Melbourne. So I grew up in the suburbs where my places of fantasy became the mountainous area where my father grew up and the inner-urban places my mother had lived in. As soon as I could, I moved back to the inner-city and as often as I could I would visit the country (often enough not to turn the place into an imagined idyll).

Friday, 13 June 2008

loony tunes

ellipse rings
a lip ring
wrung, or


a dog
in a

a junket


a lie


a cue
a queue

a line

a lane


a noun
a stoned


a Birk-


a bit


Thursday, 5 June 2008

some 'dont's' for imagists

watching the detectives

The IT liftout in today’s Guardian contained an amusing note about the fantasy some officials and many members of the general public have that terrorists use photographs to plan their activities. This belief can alter the perception of humble snappers in public places (a friend was cautioned a while back for taking a photo with his mobile of a security notice in a London railway station). The article ran through most of the recent examples of global acts of terror asking whether or not photographs were used as intelligence. In each given case the answer was clearly no. Uncovered evidence hasn’t included any images of the targets at all. The only place, it continued, where photography plays an important role in terrorist activities, is in the movies where some kind of plot device is needed to make the beginning of the film interesting. Real life lacks plot devices. Those who imagine we are out there amassing intelligence on them are often enough amassing intelligence on us via their surveillance systems.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008


shave &
a hair


Sunday, 1 June 2008

moral panic

From half a world away the current Australian panic over the work of artist/photographer Bill Henson seems a sadly familiar one. An artist who has exhibited widely over two decades has work taken off the walls after a children’s rights advocate (Hetty Johnson) complains about an exhibition at the Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Sydney. Several others weigh in, including the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd (a committed Catholic), and men’s movement spokesman Steve Biddulph. The police act in Melbourne and Canberra after further tip-offs that Henson’s work appears in various State and National collections. This disjunction between the art world and the world of law enforcement is reminiscent of the obscenity furore that followed the appearance of the Ern Malley poems in the forties, when, after the imposture was made public, people who would otherwise never have known about Angry Penguins magazine perused the matter and declared it obscene. It’s easy enough to imagine a modern Detective Vogelsang telling the court that the image of a couple going into a park at night could only suggest that an immoral act of some sort was intended, though it’s also easy for the educated to parody his lack of comprehension. The art world rushed in to defend Henson. Petitions were signed and forwarded to the media. Libertarians went into convulsions as usual, strangely duplicating the intensity of the moral guardians. The sanest comment on the matter that I’ve seen to date is on Martin Edmond’s blog.

My own attitude to Henson’s work has changed over the years. When I was an art critic for the National Times on Sunday I wrote pieces on two exhibitions in Melbourne and Canberra. Henson was already showing images of young people in ambiguously threatening states. The work was morally ambiguous, though it has never been any more so than that of Caravaggio. Of the first exhibition, held at the Pinacotheca Gallery in mid-1986, I noted:

The figures, crowds and anatomic details are at once human and inhuman, characters and ciphers . . . Space overall is tight; apparently scattered elements are drawn together. Faces looking sideways are flattened like bas-reliefs. Darkness invades the spaces of a body. Light dapples and breaks up a building. A large central figure is displaced by the image of a hand, a briefcase, a strut of light. In any given image the human figure may suddenly dissolve into a strip or blob of highlight or darkness . . . His accumulated images in full light and part shadow, singular or sequenced, begin to pose questions where a lesser artist would present reductive and self-contained answers . . . The ultimate effect is to heighten the strangeness of the flesh that is so intimately surveyed. Henson’s images which at first seem so transparent end up resisting interpretation be it psychological or formal. In them the matter-of-fact becomes mysterious; the casual, oppressive.

Of the second show, at the Drill Hall Gallery, ANU in early 1987, I added:

These are mysterious, paradoxical images: icons, as their installation and the triptych groupings would suggest, but icons without religion; colour photographs which are apparently drained of colour, though as individual images are examined the colour seems to seep back into them . . . It would be facile and false to draw out a simplistic moral conclusion from these groupings of junkie-children, baroque interiors of galleries and great libraries . . . But it would be equally false to assume that this work is amoral or that it aestheticizes squalor . . . A strange calm pervades the show . . . The interiors are all but empty. The most we glimpse of human figures within them are silhouettes – eaten into by backlighting – of people observing an unrevealed event or object. Against this, the figures of the adolescents are strongly present though the rooms around them may be darkened. Many of these children appear to have been violently abused, with dark blotches of dirt, bruising or blood. Some appear unconscious, on the edge of death; some existing precariously, in the act of shooting up, or droopy-lidded and immobilized afterwards. Some, like the young dark-haired woman looking out at the viewer, are very much alive . . . On stepping out once again into the sunlight of the Capital one is aware of having witnessed something more than the propaganda of ‘good causes’.

In later shows Henson seems to have reacted against the perfections of the work, tearing up and reassembling portions of photographs with black tape though the images of adolescents have persisted. I’ll admit to becoming mildly alarmed at this since it seems to run against the formalist aesthetic that Henson has adduced from time to time. The sheer gloss of the work has also occasioned comment like that of my friend Ken Bolton who suggested that it resembled nothing as much as those commercial images used by Calvin Klein. Despite all this I would defend Henson’s right to exhibit his work and to be taken seriously as an artist. The current critics of his work – and I mean here not the art critics but those who see the work as depraved and immoral – have no desire to admit to grey areas around sexuality and youth, nor do they have any sense of context (an upshot of the possibility of Henson being prosecuted is that in turn, those who show some of his images in the media, including on web pages, might be liable for prosecution themselves). It is possible to admire an artwork while being fully aware of the undesirable undercurrents that it perhaps brings to light (I think here of the seemingly outrageous suggestion the rock critic Lester Bangs once made: that Van Morrison’s album Astral Weeks was really about a paedophilic episode). It ought to be clear that pornography is defined by both the intentions of the producer (to sexually arouse the viewer) and to the conditions of its production (whether or not exploitation has occurred). Whatever we make of his images, Bill Henson is clearly innocent on both charges.