Art Writing Now

8 December 2021, 3:00:00 am

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Session Convenors

Dr Gretchen Coombs, RMIT

Session Moderators

Dr Gretchen Coombs, RMIT

Session Speakers

Anna Kate Blair, University of Melbourne
Chloe Watfern, UNSW Art & Design / Black Dog Institute
Lucinda Strahan, RMIT
Una Rey, Artlink Australia
Dr Lydia Trethewey, Curtin University
Alec O’Halloran, Independent author

This roundtable panel will engage with the question of art writing in 2021. What kinds of narratives can be told of, through, and around, art works; and how should we tell them? In what ways does art writing encourage allegorical practice about the role of the image, and how might we develop the fictions of art history without losing track of the object? Is art writing a form of memoir? Should it be? Is the art work always a mediator of writerly events, or an emergence of its own. How is writing about art ‘work’ in its own right? When and how does art writing encroach on the gallery space? What is the ‘impact’ of art writing on how we think about art in an age where less and less of us can approach art objects directly? How can art writing do the work we need it to do in an age of cultural and environmental transformation?

PAPER #1
Ways of Fleeing: Aesthetics and Identity in Fictions of the Contemporary Art Worker

PRESENTER
Anna Kate Blair, University of Melbourne

This provocation will examine the representation of art and its institutions through protagonists in recent novels such as The Superrationals by Stephanie LaCava (2020), The Portrait of a Mirror by Natasha Joukovsky (2021) and Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives (2017). I will argue that the fictional art workers in these novels, all of which were written by authors adjacent to the art world, are used to commentate on the ways in which we, as a society, relate to and live alongside artworks. In contemporary fiction, the protagonist’s movement through the art world is always inextricably linked with class identity and family background, which operates as part of the novel’s foreground rather than background. There are a range of tensions, across such novels, between relationships with the institution and relationships with art objects themselves. I will argue that the love of particular artworks or curatorial practices is presented as an escape from – or within – the neoliberal politics of the institution itself and, in fact, as an escape from identity that operates as a form of self-effacement or self-reconfiguration.

PAPER #2
Making together: stories and art at a supported studio

PRESENTER
Chloe Watfern, UNSW Art & Design / Black Dog Institute

Over the past three years I have spent a lot of time at Studio A, an organisation that supports artists with intellectual disability, based in Crows Nest, Sydney. As part of my research process, I sat alongside artists as they worked. Sometimes, we made things together. Conversations evolved naturally in the making; they ebbed and flowed. I heard all kinds of things: little snippets of lives, whimsical tales of adventure or mystery, the steady scratch of paint brush on canvas. I learnt a lot about making, and how the artists in this tight-nit community worked – sometimes in collaboration, always in company. I see my own contribution, writing the story of what I have learnt, as something that is and has been made together. Certainly, I am trying to create an account that does justice to the artists’ and makers’ own ways of understanding what they do. What, exactly, might that mean? Like Sontag I wonder if, instead of looking for a shadow world of meanings, I might try to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking around in it.”

PAPER #3
The anthropocene as critical allegory for an expanded field of writing

PRESENTER
Lucinda Strahan, RMIT

In a recent essay in October, Ballard and Linden (2021) propose “Anthropocenic art writing” as an “allegorical mode” and critical approach. This paper will discuss this idea within the context of an “expanded field of writing” (Strahan 2018). The expanded field of writing provides a framework for art writing that performs the “multiplex epistemologies” (Phoenix and Mattynama 2006) and overlapping “stratas” of knowledge to which Ballard and Linden refer. These positions are unavoidable and necessary in the current moment. The geological metaphor raised by Ballard and Linen invokes that horizontal and planar, the dimensional and faceted, notions that we might add to other hybrid modalities in the expanded field of writing such as the affective, the biographical, the spoken, verbal and embodied.

PAPER #4
Wanted: critical readers with intent

PRESENTER
Una Rey, Artlink Australia

Across the vast ocean of contemporary art writing genres, styles and functions, and despite the fragile future of independent arts publishing, there is no lack of diversity: diversity in writers writing, in content and context, in platforms and formats, ambitions, skill and practice. But what of art writing’s imagined readers: insouciant consumers swamped by choice, critical insiders trying to keep gatekeeping, scholars connecting students to history and ideas, or art-writing peers, gleaning, contending and purloining? This provocation interrogates the fictional readers of art writing, expressly audiences for the magazine/journal’s art criticism, exhibition reviews and/or quasi-artist’s profiles, without whom such art-writing is little more than a vanity project.

PAPER #5
Problems and Possibilities in Ekphrasis

PRESENTER
Dr Lydia Trethewey, Curtin University

Considering the question of art writing in 2021, I would like to put forward the provocation that ekphrasis can be a site of resistance to traditional art canons; but, conversely, it can reinforce normative and restrictive understandings of artworks. Ekphrasis, nominally defined as creative writing (often poetry) which responds to artworks, frequently involves the construction of a narrative about, or within, a work. Through ekphrasis, the poet can potentially rupture dominant interpretations of art, re-contextualising them or layering them with personal understandings as a kind of affective memoir, to create palimpsests of meaning. Alternatively, ekphrastic poets can inadvertently reproduce problematic histories of art through an uncritical repetition of what is “well-known” or “famous” in the art world. Many contemporary theorists, such as James Heffernan, frame the ekphrastic relation as a struggle for supremacy between word and image. I would like to invite an alternative idea, that ekphrasis has an interventionist and resistant potential, as a fundamentally intertextual form of art-writing. Through this lens, the reciprocal impacts of art and ekphrasis can be uncovered.

PAPER #6
The boomerang lesson

PRESENTER
Alec O’Halloran, Independent author

My casual interest in Australian Aboriginal art led to a university doctorate, to write the biography of a senior Pintupi artist from the Western Desert, Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri. Thus, my art writing was motivated by, and fed into, historical non-fiction – a cross-cultural biography. I sought to understand what Tjapaltjarri did, how, where, why and for whom. Then, explain that to my readers. Writing about his art necessitated: looking at paintings, studying art history and anthropology, conducting numerous formal analyses, attending exhibitions, travelling into the desert, interviewing Pintupi relatives and arts workers, delving into art and history archives, and more. I surprised myself many years into my research when I did something that gave me a revealing insight into his technique: I made a boomerang. Why didn’t I do this years ago? Tjapaltjarri was a master toolmaker, a patient craftsman, a fastidious artist. What I appreciated in theory – he had excellent hand-eye coordination to make those paintings, I only really understood through practice – patiently turning a hard Acacia aneura branch into a boomerang. That lesson prompted me to revisit his brushwork, close-up. Do art writers sometimes miss what we need to do to become more accomplished observers and authors?

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Biographies

Dr Gretchen Coombs, RMIT

Gretchen Coombs is a postdoctoral research fellow in Design & Creative Practice at RMIT. She has a PhD in anthropology and a MA in visual criticism. Gretchen's recent writing navigates a spectrum where at one end she works closely with artists as part of her ethnographic research, and on the other finds a critical distance to write about their work. This journey resulted in an intimate and academic, personal and public monograph: The Lure of the Social: encounters with contemporary artists (Intellect 2021).


Anna Kate Blair, University of Melbourne

Anna Kate Blair is a writer and art historian. She completed her PhD in History of Art and Architecture at the University of Cambridge in 2018, exploring relationships between literary writing, ideas of modernity and colonial spaces in interwar Paris. Her work has been published in journals including The Slow Canoe, Archer, Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, Reckoning, Landfall, Print Quarterly and the Journal of Art Historiography and by institutions including the Australian Centre of Contemporary Art in Melbourne and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Chloe Watfern, UNSW Art & Design / Black Dog Institute

Chloe Watfern is a researcher, writer and artist, with an academic background in art history and psychology. She is currently a Scientia PhD scholar at UNSW, researching how art works at two studios that support neurodiverse artists - Studio A in Sydney and Project Art Works in Hastings, UK. She is also a research associate with the Sydney Partnership for Health Education Research and Enterprise (SPHERE) Knowledge Translation platform.


Lucinda Strahan, RMIT

Lucinda Strahan is a writer and researcher of expanded nonfiction an interdisciplinary writing practice that spans journalism and arts criticism, auto-ethnographic and personal essaying, arts editing and publishing, academic writing, and experimental literary-visual essaying. Lucinda leads Writing in the Expanded Field, writing program of the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art and is editor of its digital journal. Lucinda is currently Writer in Residence at Linden New Art, St Kilda and has previously been Writer in Residence at Grey Projects, Singapore. She teaches writing and communication in the Professional Communication program at RMIT.


Una Rey, Artlink Australia

Dr Una Rey is an independent scholar, curator and Editor of Artlink magazine. She was lecturer in art history and related fields at The University of Newcastle from 2016-2021 and has over two decades experience across the Australian contemporary art sector.


Dr Lydia Trethewey, Curtin University

Lydia Trethewey is an artist, poet and academic from Perth, WA. She received her PhD in fine art in 2018, and currently teaches art history at Curtin University. She is also undertaking a second PhD in creative writing, focusing on ekphrasis and queer frameworks. She has presented her research at numerous conferences, including the AAANZ, ACUADS, and Arts in Society. Her most recent paper, published by Impact Printmaking Journal, explored embodied practices in printmaking. Her artwork has been exhibited across Australia, Spain, France and China. Her poems have been published recently in Meniscus Journal and The Ekphrastic Review.


Alec O’Halloran, Independent author

Alec is an independent researcher and author whose abiding interest is the Pintupi artists of Australia’s Western Desert region. He wrote and published the authorised biography of award-winning artist Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri, ‘The master from Marnpi’, based on his doctoral thesis at the Australian National University, ‘The life of Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri’. Alec’s current writing focuses on Tjapaltjarri’s paintings, and exhibitions and events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Western Desert art movement and the associated art centre, Papunya Tula Artists. Alec lives in Sydney.