Art Scene: Melbourne
Assemblage art, post-punk, parties, laundries, and literal trash curated with love. Artist George Egerton-Warburton pens a guide to the Melbourne art scene, complete with a listing of spots to watch.
In spite of enduring one of the longest lockdowns in the world these past few years, Melbourne has been replete with exhibitions, many of them clandestine. Artist-run galleries have always been central here, and the pandemic compounded their necessity. It has also increased their numbers, with one starting seemingly every few weeks. Melbourne is already remote in global terms, and now galleries, some of which resemble post-punk locales from the 1986 film Dogs in Space, exist in pockets of the city that artists did not previously travel to. The community is bereft of private patronage, meaning that young artists make art mostly to participate in a social scene. Set against the beauty and boredom of the Australian suburbs, invisible hierarchies are formed around half-baked translations of discourses stemming from faraway places.
The ethos and aesthetic of Melbourne’s current DIY or artist-run community can be traced back to such galleries as Uplands, Y3K, Hell Gallery, and Joint Hassles, which existed around the late noughties to early-2010s, and the relationship that these spaces had with the Auckland-based gallery Gambia Castle. A few recognisable names were spawned from these communities – Simon Denny, Helen Johnson, Christopher LG Hill, and Sriwhana Spong among them. I hope that some others, such as Tahi Moore and Guy Benfield, will be “rediscovered” at some point. These galleries were also the testing grounds for a generation of gallerists such as Geoff Newton of Neon Parc in Melbourne, Sarah Hopkinson of Coastal Signs (and previously Hopkinson Cundy) in Auckland, New Zealand, and Olivia Barrett of Chateau Shatto in Los Angeles.
Evidently, there’s turnover. Things change, people leave, and leases run out.
At certain points over the last two years, I have huddled into a packed car and travelled half an hour against the current of gentrification’s main migratory paths to arrive at a small gallery with dirt floors deep in the suburbs. Guzzler is a gallery set inside the garage of a house occupied by three men in their 30s and 40s who sought a kind of clandestine autonomy from the Melbourne art world. Directors David Homewood, Luke Sands, and Alex Vivian retrofitted the space by installing pristine white walls that hover over its dirt floor, as well as standard gallery lighting. Between them, they have a penchant for Australian modernist painting and a voracious appetite for art that deals in debasement.
Though they’ve shown a diverse slate of artists, I always thought about the gallery as a sort of recycling centre or transfer station for the excesses of masculinity… the slag cast off in the process of refining a more equitable discourse. In the reappropriation of maligned masculine tropes that are still structurally dominant, uncomfortable viewing is Guzzler’s bread and butter. The first, collaborative show at the gallery consisted of paintings covered in meticulously listed materials, suggesting a level of connoisseurship:
“KFC wet wipes, used face mask, pharmaceutical cardboard packaging, tissue, medical centre business card, cigarette packaging, used tampon, sanitary pad, used ear swab, paper, paint, ziplock bags, parking infringement notice, medication, condom wrapper, TAB receipt, gamblers’ helpline card, blister packaging, red wine, costume piece, dirt, hair, bond repayment card, McDonalds whipped butter packaging, ticket stub, religious propaganda, various self-help handouts, Crown Casino dining card.”
Jokes about art being rubbish and vice versa are an ongoing trope in Melbourne. In a culture that is excluded from the fervour that collectors in the US and Europe have for younger artists, installations consisting of objects picked out of dumpster bins (to which they will later return) are a familiar sight. Whilst for the most part this is an ecology where art often remains indiscernible from rubbish, the pedantic attention to detail at Guzzler suggests otherwise. There is a level of fastidiousness that hinges on extremes; between addiction to substances and addiction to art.
In a discombobulating epoch, Guzzler offered both a place to hide and a hedonistic refuge, where people expel demons artistically and socially. Once word got out, it was possible to see assortments of guests that were as bombastic as the art, such senior Australian artist Dale Hickey alongside faces recognisable from the fashion world, using high heels to navigate industrial amounts of margarine and rat poison while looking for a discreet place to snort ketamine. Whereas it’s common for Melbourne’s artist-run spaces to survive off government funding (or at least the whiff of “opportunity”), no one with money is involved with or present at Guzzler. Everything descends into abjection.
The community is fragile and so when someone leaves, there remains a void. Liam Osborne, who ran a gallery called Punk Cafe from 2015-18, tragically passed away in October 2021. Punk Cafe was a natural successor to the Joint Hassles and Y3K, and shared some sensibilities with music communities that I’m not going to pretend to know anything about. In the months preceding Osborne’s passing, he produced two memorable solo exhibitions at Meow and Guzzler, using the thin membrane between truth and conspiracy as a guiding force.
Meow is a quaint old house in North Melbourne which is enjoying a social life as a gallery on a month-to-month lease before it is demolished or renovated beyond recognition, subject to Australia’s lifestyle obsession (after sporting events, a renovation show called The Block is the most watched television show in the country). Osborne built Meow’s floors over unstable foundations, and in September 2021, mounted an exhibition called “Peace Frog”. A meditation on soft power and the internalization of state interests in cultural activity, the show revolved around a large, rotating peace sign in the middle of the gallery. Extending into the backyard, industrial tanks were covered in adhesive stars to resemble cold war weaponry. Several sculptures had the quality of being executed at the rate that they were thought of, reflecting the infectious energy that conspiracy theories are contingent on. Osborne’s practice was quintessential to Melbourne (his father, Christopher Langton, is also an amazing artist practicing in the city), and his aesthetic reflected the nature of the communities he participated in. Osborne’s paintings and prints had the blown-out quality of photocopied posters from the gigs that he frequented. His sculptures were often made with the same material qualities as the galleries and studios that he helped build, and installations referenced friends he practiced with and sharehouses that he inhabited. He had planned to open a gallery named Detente this year. While his unrealised projects will be missed as much as his gregarious personality, his legacy is literally part of the infrastructure of this community, its walls and floors and terms of engagement.
Hana Earles, one of the directors of Meow, exhibited “Victim of Late Capitalism” near the end of 2020. Several wall-based sculptures constructed from cardboard, tape, and magazine pages expanded outward from stretcher bars with images from popular culture beaming out. Existing on the slippery surface of screen culture, the show used a moodboard-esque sense of fandom (the works happily evoked Isa Genzken’s Spielautomat (Slot Machine) [1999-2000]) to ask: when it comes to the pursuit of leisure and identity, who is working for whom? Tone was important in this exhibition; the possibility but uncertainty of irony discombobulated any straightforward interpretation. An audio work that existed behind a paywall on Patreon accompanied the show – a droll caricature of a business model that attested to the influence that the tight web of podcasters has over the community, across the world from Dimes Square.
World Food Books is an art bookstore and occasional gallery and event space in the historic Nicholas Building in the middle of the city, an ongoing sanctuary to creative tenants. The small store has become somewhat of an institution, immeasurably influencing a generation of artists through the introduction of otherwise inaccessible browsing material. Joshua Petherick, who has been an active participant in and influence over many of these galleries, runs the bookshop. The store recently launched a book by the artist Nicholas Mangan, “Termite Economies”, departing from an anecdote that the CSIRO – the Australian government body responsible for scientific research – might use termites to locate natural resources for mining. The book is like an index of speculative metaphors, not least of all the art world’s role in locating and extracting cultural production on behalf of business and Government.
On the same level of the Nicholas Building is Hyacinth, a gallery run by Nicola Blumenthal, Eleanor Laver, and Savanna Szelski. Their young programme is less concerned with press releases and archiving than it is with making up its own absurd logic as it goes along. So far, Anaïs Baker has shown a series of paintings that layered textiles and line drawings to create gentle, just perceivable depth. For the group show “The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands”, Gabriella D’Costa contributed an excerpt from their beguiling, bureaucratic, system-based practice, by replicating aspects of the gallery's chairs in perspex and administering them to the wall (rendering the wall simultaneously at work and at ease?). Jasmine Pickup submitted one of a series of ever-more-bizarre and compelling drawings that stem from pharmaceutical companies clashing with hypothetical private worlds.
Asbestos is a gallery run by Josh Krum and Aden Miller in the back shed of their sharehouse in Carlton. Alongside a sense of warmth and festivity (their last opening descended into a laneway party), their programme could be characterised as an acerbic but nevertheless devoted exercise in aestheticised deferral. For one show, Kostas Pavlidis exhibited a painting of a ghostly tree made with tissues and acrylic paint, just out of view, behind a water heater – the gallery was previously a laundry.
the community of artist-run spaces wilfully embraces the contradiction of being an oddly sophisticated, self-organized world, animated by the vague promise of something that no one can really explain.
Each of these spaces deserves similar attention: Centre D’Editions opened recently and materialized a sense of spectacle with shows that included three large-scale cloud-shaped paintings made with hot pink rat poison by Luke Sands and a scale replica of Evie Poggioli’s apartment in the gallery, filled with her paintings; Savage Garden, Dungeon and Meadow, Working at Heights, Seventh, Bossy’s Gallery, and Conners Conners are down the road. Wethouse opened in January 2022, a recent addition to the scene. Shop Betrayal, on the Southside, kicked things off with a tender group show that included disarming works by Chloe Hagger, Zoe Jackson, and Gemma Pelagia. TCB is an elderly gallery by local standards, often offering emerging artists their first solo shows – most recently, Edward Dean and Britt D'Argaville’s. Dean constructed a series of bags from unprocessed pig skin and displayed them against shellacked silhouettes from the original iPod advertisements, while a cluster of cords around a large pipe stretched from wall-to-wall of D’Argville’s space, dividing the room. Both artists brought some sense of austerity to wacky situations, with coagulated glue, shellac and resin evoking the awkward, sinewy collision of bodies in cybernetic systems.
Melbourne’s capital-I-Institutions function on a spectrum of guilt, like glitzy confession boxes, timidly acknowledging the flaws of the organizations that fund them. It could be said that they largely ignore their local artists, whereas the community of artist-run spaces wilfully embraces the contradiction of being an oddly sophisticated, self-organized world, animated by the vague promise of something that no one can really explain. Backyards, strange hours, DMs, grief, arguments, modernism, a seemingly indomitable obsession with Cologne/New York, fandom (Michael E Smith), denial (Australia), sharehouses, websites, podcasts, the lingering smell of wet carpet, Instagram, interviews, awkward situations, assemblage, rubbish, gossip, public parks, walks, egos, alcohol, “writers”, casual employment, Bunnings Hardware, Op shops, books (and time to read)... within these swirling forces, some exhibitions exist like portals into something sweet and pure and inexplicable.
GEORGE EGERTON-WARBURTON is an artist based in Melbourne. His most recent exhibitions took place at Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne and Shoot the Lobster in New York in 2019.
LAND ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: The traditional name for Melbourne is "Naarm." The city exists on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung peoples of the Kulin nation.
Contact the gallery for address.
Studio 1/1 Wilkinson Street
9 Gertrude St, Fitzroy VIC 3065
201 Napier Street, Fitzroy, 3065
Dungeon and Meadow
Contact the gallery for address.
Contact the gallery for address.
16 Chetwynd St, West Melbourne, 3003
The Nicholas Building, Room 20, Level 6, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne 3000
Rear of 168 Amess St, Carlton North, entrance via alley.
215 Church Street, Richmond VIC 3121
56 Eastern Road, South Melbourne, 3205
1-5 Wilkinson St, Brunswick 3056
329 Little Collins Street, Floor 2 Room 6, Melbourne 3000
Working at Heights
107 Helen Street Northcote, Melbourne. Hosted by Artery Cooperative.
World Food Books
The Nicholas Building, Room 5, Level 6, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne 3000