Looking at the gallery girls

By Rhonda Dredge
The critics have arrived.
There’s a buzz at Missing Persons. A tall girl with dark hair and a European face begins chatting. She’s a gallery girl and soon she’s philosophising about the moment a visitor enters an artistic space.
“When you’re sitting in a gallery you’re generally attuned to how people respond to the show. You’re watching people looking,” she says.
Another gallery girl is standing nearby greeting artists. She has two friends helping with champagne.
This is the launch of her new enterprise and she is nervous. Will the critics like the art? What will they say? She’s gone for formal work that takes time to appreciate. Within minutes the room is full.
Typically, the boys go for the text. “Blasphemy is a victimless crime” has been written in light on photographic paper and framed. “What’s blasphemy?” asks one. Perhaps she has pitched too high for the average punter but this is a step up from the street.
In the Nicholas Building where the girls have their galleries, standards are high. There are five galleries here and the CBD intelligentsia is forced to think the job through, unpacking it word by word. They’re the ones driving the art scene even though they stand back behind the work.
“Conceptual art is still about looking,” says Olivia Radonich, director of Reading Room on the third floor. “The title is the key to conceptual work.”
Olivia opened her space in January.
Louise Klerks renovated Missing Persons over the past year, subsidising the rent by running life drawing classes. Her first show includes photographic works made in the dark room without a camera and reflective screens. She curated the show. In the first week 110 people visited. She’s counting.
“I had to paint strip the windows. It’s the worst job in the world,” she said, pointing at the wire glass. “I’ve done everything here … but I’ve never had sex in this space.”
She wants the mood in her gallery to be irreverent yet serious at the same time. She draws the line at having music at an opening. “I want it to be professional. At an opening you catch up with people and see the work but you’re after a slow look. Looking is what you want more than anything.”
Olivia agrees. “It’s a bit tough for people. People look and don’t warm initially but come and ask me. It’s interesting when people are in a gallery situation. They’re feeling self-conscious and won’t absorb.”
At Tolarno Gallery in Exhibition St the work on exhibition is also austere. Tina Douglas is in the office to talk visitors through the monochromatic paintings and trends in the art world in general.
She’s been seeing more kitchen table painting around the traps, she says, a return to the hand over skill.
“Pushing the boundaries of technique is boring. You have to do it for a reason, to separate the self from the marks,” she said.
Tina is packing up files into cardboard boxes. Materials are important in the Melbourne art scene. She uses masking tape and a grid in her own abstract painting practice. “Separate and connect. It’s how we are in the world.”
Philosophy is the driving force for exhibitions around the CBD as curators pose questions and the making gives theory form.
At Sarah Scout in Collins St academic Kate Daw has curated a show called The Enigma Code that also rewards looking and thinking, “a series of codes not to be merely cracked but rather questions that may persist long after looking”.
The Friday evening opening is packed, with two dozen bottles of bubbles served up by the gallery girls in the first 45 minutes. There is the usual art chit chat. “Did you get my email?” asks one person. “I did but then I went to New York,” responds the other. You’re more inclined to get the brush-off than anything meaningful at such an event but the work is another matter.
A video screen on the floor with a first-person narrative in text at ankle level could be about love. At first the narration is an amusing take on the tendency for artists to over-interpret every word. What does the word pine mean? Is it a tree? Does it suggest needle? Or is it a verb connoting love?
The author of the text, Jeremy Eaton, says he’s looking at coded language, searching how the abstract can become social. “Codes and expectations form shapes.”
A reader of his work makes the shape. She might connect with codes and gives them visual form. Perhaps she imagines herself in a tent, reading a note and hopes to meet her lover the next morning but he isn’t receptive. He wants to show her the pages of his journal instead. She pines.
It has been a busy week in the CBD art world dealing with looking and seeing and questions of love. They are big questions. Louise Klerks is out again on Thursday evening, polishing windows, bringing light and humour to a small corner of the city in Chapter House Lane. Here, she is less serious. She sets up a trestle table with drinks. The steps are scattered with cigarette butts. Instead of sweeping them away, she leaves them to speak as prompts to the show.

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