The swagman artist

pavement-artist

Ernest Reynolds was a street showman, a colourful character who made a living as a pavement artist for over 30 years. His home town was Adelaide in South Australia and he claimed to have travelled the world as a seaman and artist. On the tramp around country towns in Australia, he drew such crowds that he often rated a mention in local newspapers as ‘the swagman artist’. His career as a ‘pioneer in chalks’ began in Sydney around 1900 and by the 1930s he was setting up his pitch in places like Adelaide, Mount Gambier (SA), Broken Hill (NSW) and Kalgoorlie (WA).

Described by reporters as a ‘picturesque personality’, Mr Reynolds called himself ‘a travelling artist and scientist’ and made pronouncements about scientific matters including, for instance, the geological origins of the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier. In Sydney, he said, he had been decreed the world’s champion pavement artist in 1930, and he liked to be referred to as the King of Pavement Artists.

He also told reporters that he was a descendent of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous 18th century English painter. But his most famous pavement art work was a rendition of William Holman Hunt’s 1851 religious painting, ‘The Light of the World’, which he could do in 6 hours 18 minutes. Once, after this picture had been on the pavement for several days in Broken Hill, the Barrier Miner newspaper reported that ‘ one devout woman … to prevent its desecration by the feet of the multitude, visited the spot with scrubbing brush and soap and washed the pavement clean’.

The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door.

The Light of the World (1853–54) is an allegorical painting by William Holman Hunt representing the figure of Jesus preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door.

Reynolds made amusing comparisons about the generosity of various towns. In Sydney, he said, the people hurry past and ‘let you starve on!’ And in Mount Gambier he told a reporter that the public did not seem to be aware of the fact that he was doing this work for a living. The journalist duly wrote that ‘he would like them to realise that a silver coin would be acceptable’.

The drawing at the top of this blog post is copied from another blog Cipher Mysteries. Blogger Nick Pelling found Ernest Reynolds while hunting down another person named Reynolds (it’s complicated) but does not mention where he found the picture.

But I first encountered Ernest Reynolds in yet another blog, All my own work! – a history of pavement art by Philip Battle. I have since found out more by searching for newspaper articles about Reynolds in the National Library of Australia’s marvellous resource, Trove.

Philip Battle’s stories about screeving – mostly in Britain – are based on meticulous research and his posts feature wonderful archival illustrations. Philip is now turning his blog into a book, and he is hoping to raise a modest sum to publish it through crowd funding. Perhaps you would like to help him.

Walking on clouds

The public artwork by Jason Wing in Chinatown is so appealing that night-time shots of it – like images of the Opera House – are frequently used in promotional material to illustrate just how artistic/ vibrant/ innovative/ cultural/ multicultural Sydney really is. Commissioned by the City of Sydney in 2011, Between Two Worlds incorporates ‘themes of heaven and earth, the elements, and respect for ancestors past and present ‘.

'Between Two Worlds' by Jason Wing in Kimber Lane, Sydney (photographs by meganix 2014)

‘Between Two Worlds’ by Jason Wing in Kimber Lane, Sydney (photographs by meganix 2014)

At night the glowing blue spirit figures suspended over the dingy service lane are visually dominant, but in the daytime it is the ‘auspicious clouds’ on the roadway and walls that first catch the eye.

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Naturally I am interested in an installation that includes ‘floor murals’ (as the City of Sydney calls them), and last week I paid a visit to see how these were faring after three years of wear and tear. After all, the vulnerability of artistic mediums (whether paint, plumbing or electronics) means that public artworks do not always survive interaction with the public.

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It turns out that the pavement clouds are going well. The etchings on the granite pavers at the corners of the laneway are proving resilient and most of the paint on the concrete roadway has lasted. It must be a blue version of the kind of tough paint used for traffic marks. It’s all looking very grubby, and in places there are gaps in the clouds where the concrete has been patched or worn away by leaking water, but to me this is fitting for the element of an artwork that seems to be reflecting (or asking us to reflect on) the tribulations of our earthly existence. Life wasn’t meant to be easy.

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The walls are still looking good too and I could only find one place where the clouds have been overprinted with graffiti. But again, this seems appropriate, especially given Jason Wing’s background as a graffiti artist.

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But it is the host of airborne spirits that appears to have suffered the most. A building next to Kimber Lane has been demolished and with it a wall that supported several of these ‘little dudes’ (as comedian and art commentator Hannah Gadsby calls them). Four of them have vanished. Perhaps they are waiting in some kind of limbo until a shiny new apartment block is built. And then they will be reinstated to their watchful heavenly posting above the clouds. But that might take a while, because at the moment it looks as though the empty site is being made into a parking lot.

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Drift

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

It’s not many people who receive a commissioned artwork as a graduation present, especially one that is based on the topic of their thesis. How privileged am I!

beneath the pavement, the beach is the title of the work made for me by artist Kate Riley.

'beneath the pavement, the beach' by Kate Riley

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’ by Kate Riley

I had already admired Kate’s luminously detailed series of prints on paper that she called flotilla. Here are blue bottles (Portuguese men o’ war) stranded on the beach by a receding tide, their long tentacles drawing inky loops across the wet sand. So when Kate was approached by family members to create a work especially for me, she found inspiration at the intersection of our interests – the eyes-down scavenging for traces of life (and death) as we stroll along deserted beaches or busy streets.

Kate, it transpires, had enjoyed reading the post on my blogsite called Flotsam and jetsam. In that post I quoted author Tim Winton on the pleasures of beachcombing, because I found in his description strong resemblances to my own practice of combing the pavement for graffiti.

This is what Kate wrote to me:

‘I decided I would like to explore the “beneath the pavement lies the beach” idea … This segued beautifully into a consideration of how to use the structure of the work I had chosen, the small wooden boxes. By using both sides of the boxes I could use beach/ bluebottle/ seadrift imagery on one face of the box and pavement imagery on the other. The boxes can then be arranged and rearranged as desired. Using the ‘back’ of the box, as well as the front, also allows a push and pull of the surface that I find rather pleasing, and is suggestive of pigeon holes and display cabinets.

‘This piece is now a record of two of my favourite places and two of my favourite walks: the beach on the south coast of NSW on which I grew up, and the streets around Newtown where I live now. To build up a store of Newtown pavement images, I used the same process I used for my beach walk drawings:

‘I set aside a set period of time for a walk where I use my i-phone to take quick images of anything that catches my eye. In the studio I can then select and regroup the images to create a satisfying arrangement that captures the spirit of my walk. I know from your blog that you use the same, or a similar, process.

‘The ‘beach’ side of the work captures a moment in time. By the next tide the objects on the beach will be completely different. Any seadrift or bluebottles left will have dried, lost their colour and vibrancy. New marks and patterns will have emerged.

 

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail)

‘In contrast, the ‘pavement’ side is a glimpse of the layering of signs and markings that build up over time. Marks both intentional and meaningful (survey marks, messages official and unofficial …) and marks serendipitous and accidental (rust, cracks, wear and tear …) lie next to and over each other. Objects found there may be fleeting, but others can be (almost) permanent fixtures.

'beneath the pavement, the beach', Kate Riley (detail)

‘beneath the pavement, the beach’, Kate Riley (detail). All photographs by Kate Riley

‘Both sides were collected as virtual beachcombing to make a gift for you.’

Thank you Kate, and thank you to the family members who commissioned this most beautiful surprise. Thanks also to other family and friends for your gifts, both lovely and silly, your good wishes, and your company on what was the best graduation day I have ever had.

 

(beneath the pavement, the beach: charcoal pencil, pastel pencil, powdered graphite, ink, gesso and acrylic paint on seven wood panels, two of which are 15 x 15 cm, three 10 x 10 cm, and two 10 x 5 cm)

Body outlines

The 1950-60s television courtroom drama, Perry Mason, is said to have been the first detective show to feature either a tape or a chalk outline to mark the spot where a murder victim’s body had been found. The body outline made its first appearance in the episode ‘The case of the perjured parrot’. The writer of the show, Erle Stanley Gardner, had actually used this idea much earlier in the book, ‘Double or quits, which he wrote in 1941 under the pen name A.A.Fair (see Perry Mason TV series).

Ever since then the body outline has not only been used regularly in murder stories and television shows, but it is very often adaptively reused in illustrations alluding to all sorts of crime and fatality. It is a symbol — based on a fiction —  that is continually modified, re-invented and re-purposed. We recognise it in newspaper cartoons, TV commercials and political protests and we understand what is meant.

In New York I came across two instances of the symbolic body outline, both associated with the New York Public Library. The first was in an exhibition, Why we fight: remembering AIDS activism, which recently opened at  the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. One of the exhibits was this poster from the library’s archives. It was produced in 1988 by ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a deliberately confrontational organisation that was formed to challenge government inaction over AIDS.

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The other body outline was on one of the plaques along the section of 41st Street known as Library Way. These sidewalk plaques carry inspirational quotes about reading, writing, and literature. The one I photographed reads:

… a great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. William Styron (1935 –  ), Writers at Work.

To me, the embossed illustration on the plaque seems very odd. The reader of the book looks, not exhausted, but dead (presumably in a hiatus between two of those ‘several lives’).

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Tunnel crossing

Tunnels are favourite locations for graffiti, not only tags and ‘writing’ but also creative — though unofficial —  public artworks. The ephemeral nature of these makes them more interesting than the durable commissioned murals that are sometimes painted or tiled on tunnel walls. However charming or sophisticated the official works might be, they can become boring for people who pass that way day after day.

In Antwerp there is a pedestrian tunnel underneath the railway line between Centraal Station and Berchem. It has several artworks painted, pasted or projected on the walls, floor and even the ceiling.

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Naturally I like the zebra crossing, given my interest in the symbolism of crosswalks. Perhaps, given the amount of bicycle and even motorcycle traffic in the tunnel, the artist had in mind that pedestrians needed assistance to cross safely from one side to the other, should they wish to do so. Or perhaps the artist wanted to encourage people to go against the flow, although going against the flow in this case would only bring you up against a brick wall.

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My thanks to Duncan, a fellow participant at the Visual Methods Seminar at the University of Antwerp, for finding this pedestrian crossing for me. Thanks also to Alan for demonstrating the use of the crossing for the photo.

Chunky body

I am writing this blog post from Antwerp in Belgium, where I am attending a Summer School in Visualising Urban Culture. Before I left Sydney I did a quick scout around some local streets, to catch up on any pavement graffiti I might have missed.

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I found this body outline in a back street of Camperdown. A number of graffiti artists have utilized the walls of this closed-down factory building (now being renovated, presumably into desirable inner-city apartments). I don’t know why one of them turned their attention to the asphalt, but I like this chunky body on the road. It exemplifies my arrival in Antwerp. I hit the ground running and have been flat out ever since.

Imitations of Eternity

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Will Coles (aka Numb) is a guerrilla street artist who knows a thing or two about aphorisms. His casts of consumerism’s cast-offs often bear one-word invitations to think deeply about the shallowness of present-day culture. So perhaps it was inevitable that he would eventually appropriate Arthur Stace’s single-word sermon, ‘Eternity’.

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Thanks to my loyal band of spotters, I was able to find and photograph several of Will’s ‘Eternity’ drink cans this weekend. They were stuck to the stanchions of Sydney’s now defunct monorail, a train that went from nowhere to nowhere and connected to nothing. The monorail closed down at the end of June after uglifying the streets of Sydney for 25 years. Most people would say good riddance but Will had apparently found it a great space for his mini-installations. As a farewell gesture he hit it hard with his works last week, and by the time I got down to Pitt Street many of them had been souvenired while others had been damaged, presumably in an attempt to remove them.

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Will Coles is an artist who straddles both the gallery and the street scene. A more dignified example of his work is currently on show at the high end of town, in a window of the Optiver Building in Hunter Street.

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(My earlier blog posts about ‘Eternity’ can be found here and here, and Will Coles’s work pops up here, here and here)

 

Vale Jeffrey Smart 26 July 1921 – 20 June 2013

'Bus terminus', Jeffrey Smart, 1973

‘Bus terminus’, Jeffrey Smart, 1973

Traffic marks occur frequently in Jeffrey Smart’s precisionist pictures of the built landscape, their sharp outlines and piercing colours marshalling into order the compositions of tarmacs, car-parks and autobahns that he was driven to paint. In his work, wrote Mark Ledbury, we see a celebration of the road marking as a painterly object.

With his depictions of hard-edged and perfect  roads signs on even and unblemished asphalt, Smart drew our attention to a property of the pavement that we might overlook if we only concentrated on the flaws in its pocked, patched and scarred surface. For the fact is that, prosaically functional though the pavement may be, it is an edifice of monumental proportions, stretching horizontally further than the eye can see and intruding on our everyday lives in ways that we barely acknowledge.

In an interview with journalist Janet Hawley, Smart once said that he was happy if the public was stimulated by his work, ‘and if they see Jeffrey Smart paintings everywhere in the urban landscape, it means I’ve helped educate their eyes, so I’ve done them a favour’.

Thank you, Jeffrey Smart.

'The rainbow', Jeffrey Smart, 1965

‘The rainbow’, Jeffrey Smart, 1965

Ledbury, Mark. 2011. Mute eloquence: the art of Jeffrey Smart. Sydney University Museum News (25): 12-14.

Hawley, Janet. 1989. Jeffrey Smart made simple. The Sydney Morning Herald (Good Weekend), 13 May 1989, 14-20.

© Megan Hicks 2013

Old Paris

Asphalt layers, Paris, 1899-1900, by Eugène Atget (From the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington).

Yesterday a friend and I visited the exhibition Eugene Atget: Old Paris at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. As the small catalogue that comes with your ticket says, Atget relentlessly tracked down the vestiges of ‘Old Paris’ with his tripod-mounted camera. Between 1898 and 1927 he photographed everyday views of shopfronts, signs and street posters, courtyards, interiors, gardens, statues, docks and bridges. Many of these were destined for demolition but some still exist today.

Naturally I was just as interested in the surfaces of the streets as I was in the buildings that lined them, especially when Atget had captured them glistening with rain. Most of those in the photographs were cobbled, the narrow streets and laneways either sloping to drains in the centre, or cambered to kerb and guttering on either side. Not all of those with kerbs had sidewalks wide enough to walk along. In those times the whole width of the street was available to everyone – horse-drawn vehicles and handcarts, peddlers, bicyclists, strollers and shoppers. It was only with the advent of the motor car that pedestrians were irrevocably pushed to the side of the street.

For most of Atget’s career as a photographer, people appeared almost incidentally in his streetscapes. But in the early years he had often made people the subject of his pictures, recording disappearing trades and occupations. One of those early photographs shows  asphalt layers, or ‘bitumiers’, working on their hands and knees with hot asphalt and playing a part in the grand scheme to modernize the streets of Paris. You can read more about this photograph at Atget: The art of documentary photography on the website of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales runs until 4 November 2012. The framed photographs in the exhibition are not enlarged but are prints that Atget made directly from his glass negatives, around 22 x 17 cm in size. My friend and I spent four hours scrutinizing and chatting about all of the images. We have compiled a suggested list of equipment that anyone contemplating a visit should take along.

Reading glasses (for close examination of the photographs)

A magnifying glass (ditto)

A map of Paris

A French dictionary (mainly to work out what kind of businesses all those signs were advertising and what the street vendors were selling)

A folding chair or, better still, a wheelchair that you and your companion can take turns in using

A stepladder (for looking at those photographs that are hung a little too high)