Off-site art exhibitions have seen something of a resurgence in Melbourne over the past few years. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least being the rapidly rising cost of rent in the city, which seems to force a commercialise or perish imperative on artists exhibiting work early in their career. Mediating the reappearance of ‘recession art’, as Peter Cripps termed a similar turn in the 1980s East Coast art scene, White Cuberd is a gallery on wheels, literally a cupboard that has been renovated to resemble the three walls of the conventional white cube. Once delivered and installed to a planned and pre-arranged site, the cupboard doors are thrown open. A battery powering the interior lighting for the space makes it an autonomous, stand-alone monument to contemporary art at a particularly low point.
But is this really the case? Lucina Lane’s show Range saw White Cuberd’s third exhibition open in the carpark of a 1970s brutalist building that is the architectural offices of March Studio at North Melbourne’s Abbotsford Street. The show was open for just two hours on Sunday the 15th of January, between 8pm and 10pm. The online-only announcement of the event came via social media and email a few days before it took place. Off-site shows such as this are usually organised by artists, sometimes in collaboration with other, similarly locationless initiatives such as Info-Punkt, and catalogued online at http://melbourneoffsiteindex.org/. Often tailored to accommodate the documentation of the artwork (and artist) before opening, most importantly it seems that the main reason for the initiative is to bypass the inconveniences of rent and over-regulated gallery conditions.
Of course, anyone is welcome to attend, and most of the time people are standing around on the sidewalk, drinking from the generous bar provided by Lane and White Cuberd’s gallerist, the artist Zac Segbedzi. This opening was apparently designed to straddle each side of the sunset, and the light changed as planned from ambient natural to electric over the course of the evening. There was no music.
As well as a large sculptural object that was conventionally hung inside the cupboard, Lane had installed three works on the wood-grained, off-formed concrete of the carpark’s interior. A strip of LED lighting illuminated the works along the back wall of the open double garage. The cupboard’s design mimicked the surrounding architecture, measuring just high enough to fit under the low roof of the space. One work, Crossfire (2017), a xerographed photographic collage on paper, was installed on the back of the cupboard, requiring an extra light to be haphazardly mounted above. The gallery-like illumination of the multi-media abstractions shrewdly presented the work, like the three others it faced—Angle, Background, and Range, all new works—attached as they were to used medium-density fibreboard supports.
The conscious provincialism of Range appeared as an inner-city coda to Lane’s recently completed residency at Gippsland Centre for Art and Design between October and November last year. Aperiatur terra (2017), the found wood and steel wire sculpture in the cupboard, was the most successful work in the exhibition. Apparently appropriating its name from superstar artist Anselm Kiefer’s show at London’s White Cube in 2007, the piece centred Lane’s installation inside the double space of the exhibition, with its coiled wire pegged to a weathered timber picket, grounding the show’s pastoral aesthetic and seeking to manifest the cool ambition of the enterprise.
A recent graduate of VCA, Lane has already shown her work in both group and solo exhibitions at established Melbourne galleries such as West Space, TCB and Neon Parc. As well as participating in larger institutional shows at regional galleries such as Tarrawarra and the Gippsland Centre, Lane regularly works with a community of inner-city artists focussed more on the margins of Melbourne’s art scene, but secretly at its cutting edge. Addressing the discursive and temporary structures utilised for the exhibitions, the work is often aimed at forcing an alternative to the established modes for the presentation of art in the city.
Lane’s practice as a painter therefore pays close attention to the status of the artwork in conditions that are best described as deliberately dispersed and related to what New York critic David Joselit has called the ‘epistemology of the search’. Placing an emphasis on the contextualisation of objects arranged in referential gestures to the history of art, while still seeking to traverse distinctions that keep the old opposed to the new, Joselit’s formulation suggests the way exhibitions like this can be framed as an integrated presentation of artworks that are often only minimally nominated as such. But as Lane’s communication on the digital poster for the show explained, a back-up location could have been gallerist Anna Schwartz’ more recently designed concrete carpark in Carlton, a calculated intervention into the artworld indicating the agit-prop intentions of the exhibit.
The historical avant-garde’s enthusiasm for fleeting one-day exhibitions is an obvious reference for White Cuberd’s model. This tradition has perhaps been kept in the local artistic vernacular by Melbourne artist John Nixon, whose Art Projects space operated from 1979-1984 in the Melbourne CBD and aimed to provide a space where it was intended that artists ‘took control of their lives’, as opposed to the vicissitudes of market demand. Showing work during normal gallery hours in his apartment or outdoors, Nixon and other practitioners like Robert MacPherson deliberately referenced Dada and Constructivist precedents from before 1920.
Represented by Schwartz and teaching at Monash University, Nixon’s project for addressing modernism as the historical ground for his own elaboration of the artwork under contemporary conditions itself now serves as a model for a younger generation of artists eschewing a more conventional route through commercial galleries and dealer representation, in favour of self-management and flexibility. These are also conditions that have been enforced by the present situation on artist practices, rather than being chosen.
One detail, an oversized and plastic looking gold coin that Lane has placed on the floor of the cupboard’s gallery interior, hints at the slyly commercial aspirations of the show. Emergent tropes such as these suggest a reflection upon the current post-Fordist conditions for a new kind of labour. It is one where agency is supposedly invested with the individual, who is meant to negotiate their own deal in the market. The mobile and compact gallery—about big enough to accommodate a single human body—also allows the fleeting and transitory nature of the exhibition to be captured by the flow of images that help raise the cultural capital needed for the work’s successful exhibition. In this way, there is a sense of ambition invested in the near future, akin to building up your CV for an assault on the job market.
Calum Lockey’s text for the show further suggests this struggle for artists to be both pro-active and reticent about the staging of their work as unpaid labour. A complex mix of cynicism and refusal works alongside the drive to achieve some kind of declarative artistic status. The invitation to write on Lane’s show and the fact that he was the previous artist to exhibit at White Cuberd suggests the hermetic closeness of the community within which the gallery operates. Its links to another artist-run space, Punk Café in Brunswick, which furnished the floor of the cupboard, sets up a network for a group of highly motivated yet apparently anti-aspirational artists currently practising in Melbourne.
Another gallery to be opened by Segbedzi and Lockey in the near future also promises to continue the often passive-aggressive competition within the group, constantly sniping each other online, mostly on Instagram, all in order to negotiate an acceptable platform within the limited scope of the Melbourne art world. In a city with relatively few opportunities for artists who aren’t content simply to sell their work, these initiatives also exhibit a strange exuberance and often challenging array of modes, which Range pinpoints with effortless precision.
Ironically, painting has become a mode of practice that perhaps now mimics the demand for flexibility in the visual arts, its endless exhaustion brought to the point where it couldn’t possibly pose any threat to the status quo. But this is not quite right, for in many ways this also affords painting’s reinvestment as the most challenging artist position from which to work today. Lockey seemingly alludes to this in his text: ‘A broken maze is potent with intent, so is the work being reloaded with intent after a couple of decades of a thorough emptying?’
I can’t help but think of Kim Gordon chanting ‘You’re it’ at the beginning of Sonic Youth’s record Daydream Nation, which I realise was released years before Lane was even born. In the weary voice of middle adulthood recalling a children’s game, before the mode was adopted for celebrity culture in the 1980s, Gordon’s status as an artworld icon who found alternative fame feeds into the resurgence of aestheticised outsider posturing, where one eventually arrives at the centre of the conversation just as intended.
The practice of criticism, as many have been at pains to point out, has entered a problematic phase in recent years, whereby it cannot seem to articulate a position by which to distinguish itself from the empty re-production and proliferation of the artworld’s discursive networks. This could be a legacy of institutional critique, which at the same time established criticism as an institution within the purview of art as industry. Responses by Lane and other local and international artists so far seem to be to continue to look to the past for inspiration, to the under-examined parts of the narratives of modern art, the moments where it is the artist who survives the vicissitudes of the artwork, rendering the activity of producing work as a residue of the full-time job of performing and re-forming an artistic identity.
Giles Fielke is a writer and musician working at the University of Melbourne.
Title image: Lucina Lane Range, (2017) Photo: Christo Crocker.)