10 December 1994

Heavy metal out, easy listening in

From Seattle to London to Sydney, squares and swingers alike are revolting against the rock 'n' roll ethos in the name of cocktail culture, writes Michael Hutak

TO SEE Tony Bennett become hip once more, and the Carpenters become suddenly cool, is like watching the tip of an iceberg finally appear on the horizon. What's really going on is a worldwide resurgence of interest in a much-maligned, misunderstood musical genre: easy listening.

The broad church of easy listening - also known as "lounge" - stretches from the '50s bossa nova to Brian Eno's ambient music; from the exotique sound of Martin Denny to the Ray Conniff Singers to Phillip Glass; from Lawrence Welk, to Klaus Wunderlich's Hammond Organ Sensation, to Moog Plays the Beatles.

With a radiant Audrey Hepburn on the cover, the hip London magazine The Idler devoted its latest issue to what it has dubbed lounge culture, and declared the birth of the Cocktail Nation. Says The Idler's Joshua Glenn: "Today's crop of young people are suffering from metal fatigue. We have grown up listening to nothing but primitive id noise, and we can't take it any more."

Glenn says lounge music is "merely the soundtrack to the cocktail hour, that time-out of time during which one seizes the chance to relax completely, to live for the moment". It is an existential condition grunge rockers might call nirvana, but which "citizens of the Cocktail Nation call Happy Hour".

Now Sydney's loungers will finally have a venue to call their own when a group calling themselves The Adult Contemporary Swingers launch a new nightclub next Sunday night at a rejuvenated Les Girls nightspot in Kings Cross, now under the studious management of the local impresario Ian Hartley.

"We're calling it The Tender Trap," says organiser and easy- listening devotee Sean O'Brien. "It will be a celebration of cocktail culture at its most sophisticated and savage - multisensual stimulation for the Moog generation," a straight-faced O'Brien told the Herald.

Although the playlist will feature Brazil '66, Bacharach, The Fifth Dimension and Tijuana Brass, O'Brien insists The Tender Trap is not about kitsch. "Kitsch implies a certain shallow crassness. This will be highly tasteful and very deep. The Tender Trap is about reclaiming what it means to be an adult. It's a pastiche of Australiana and Americana from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s - a bit "Rat-Packerish", some Las Vegas primitive exotica, a bit of Beat - for once the parents will understand."

Simon Holmes, the manager of Half a Cow Records in Glebe, says: "While there's always been a hard core of people hip to cocktail music, it has definitely become fashionable of late."

Holmes says three things can account for the surge of interest in Easy listening: "First you've got the release of two books in the past year called Incredibly Strange Music, by San Francisco publishers Re/Search." (Re/Search's Modern Primitives edition some years back single-handedly made body piercing popular and gave grunge an aesthetic to call its own. Its Incredibly Strange Music volumes are like bluffer's guides to the underground world of obscure, cult and exotic recordings.)

Second, Holmes points to the crossover success of American bands like The Coctails from Chicago and especially Combustible Edison, the tuxedo-clad combo led by Michael "The Millionaire" Cudahy, a former member of Urge Overkill with impeccable punk rock credentials. Combustible Edison (apparently named after a renowned '60s cocktail) have emerged from the American underground as the breakthrough "lounge" act. It is significant that they are signed to Seattle's SubPop label, the company which pioneered the Grunge aesthetic with bands such as Nirvana.

And third: "There's a feeling that there's no longer much innovation in popular music, especially in guitar rock. So there's a relief to be had in the whole easy listening thing in that it's light-hearted, and I think its popularity is a reaction to the (bombastic nature) of rock. Also a lot of acts like the Coctails only release their work on vinyl - it's pre-'60s and pre-rock, not just in style and attitude but also in technology."

Tuxedos and cocktail dresses will be de rigueur at The Tender Trap, but O'Brien insists there will be no "door policy" with one exception: "'80s power dressing is totally out |" Jeans and thongs are OK, so long as they are worn with a Beat Generation demeanour.

While it all may sound way too nostalgic for some, The Idler's Cocktail Nation Manifesto provides one cogent answer: "That a thing is original is no guarantee that it is the best ... a wig is better than unwashed hair |"

* The Tender Trap will be launched this Sunday night at 7 pm at Les Girls, 2 Roslyn Street, Kings Cross.


First published in The Sydney Morning Herald
posted by Michael Hutak @ 9.12.94

2 September 1994

Diversity bound by identity

A group exhibition of Aboriginal art steers away from familiar stereotypes, writes MICHAEL HUTAK.
SINCE its emergence as a dynamic cultural force in the 1980s, Aboriginal art has become submerged in a myriad of stereotypes.
For a fresh perspective, those seeking to forge a new connection with the culture of indigenous Australians would be wise not to miss Narratives, the latest show at Boomalli Gallery, in inner-city Chippendale.
Mounted by Boomalli's resident curator, Hetti Perkins, Narratives displays the work of four generations of Aboriginal women painters, offering insights into each artist's practice, and revealing the sheer diversity to be found in contemporary Aboriginal art.
And as the title implies, the thread that binds the generations is not just race but the will to tell of their lives. Beginning with the 24-year-old Kgamilaroi artist Peta Lonsdale, whose work has graphically portrayed her early experiences avoiding the mission system, Narratives offers not just a snapshot of contemporary Aboriginal painting but a stark image of a people who have suffered yet survived to tell the tale.
But, importantly, Perkins praises Lonsdale for "deliberately avoiding the'victim' mentality".
"Peta finds faith in the strength of Aboriginal society and culture to reinterpret our circumstances and find a positive resolution," says Perkins.
The South Australian artist Kerry Giles, in her early 30s, left her white mother at 16 to rejoin her "mob", the Ngarrindjeri people. Since then she has found a voice in her painting, prints and photographs and has few qualms about imbuing her work with striking political messages.
"This is documentary," she says. "It's graffiti." The massive canvases she is showing in Narratives depict before-and-after aerial views of the Murray River: before and after white settlement.
The first she calls her "pretty boy" painting: "It shows how the river Murray used to be before colonial people. You've got the whole ecosystem, full of bush tucker: musta, brolga, wombat, goanna, catfish, yabbie, freshwater turtle, periwinkles, mussels, stumpy-tail lizard and all the bush berries." A self-sustaining environment.
The next two paintings depict the gradual destruction of the river system culminating in Ugly Painting, Ugly Subject, a harrowing, almost nihilistic vision of the river. It is a conglomeration of quotes and newspaper clippings depicting the graphic degradation of the environment.
"It's past crisis point," says Giles. "People take pretty photos of dead trees that were killed by salt. It's a graveyard of dead trees.
"For instance, today the Ngarrindjeri people have to ask at farmyard doors to get the rushes to weave the baskets that they've been weaving for thousands and thousands of years because there are no rushes left.
"Paintings are not just pretty pictures on the wall - they are identity."
Elaine Russell, in her early 50s, is only just beginning her career in the visual arts and Narratives is her first major exhibition. "I always knew I could draw, but I've only been painting for 12 months," she told the Herald.
For Russell, painting is an expressive medium which gives her an outlet to tell of her past: "There are so many more stories I have to paint. I love it. It's so new to me. When I get a brush in my hand I just can't stop.
"And everything I've painted I've sold, so I must be doing something right|"
Russell's disarmingly straightforward paintings depict her childhood experiences on the Murrin Bridge Mission, during the era when fair-skinned children were forcibly removed from their parents' care.
"We did what we were told - if we didn't we wouldn't get our rations. It all left me very resentful of the whites in my teens, but it's OK now, I'm married to a white."
The paintings are supported by short texts, an extension of oral history traditions and reminiscent of the work of fellow Aboriginal artists Ian Abdulla and Harry Wedge. Her work reflects the "regimental and policed nature of mission life", according to Perkins.
The last of the foursome is Pantjiti Mary McLean who has been encouraged by a fellow Kalgoorlie artist, Nalda Searles, to introduce figurative elements to her practice of dot paintings. It has unleashed in Pantjiti a seemingly unending creative source.
"Mary's work is about everyday things. What you see is what you get," says Searles. "There's no dreaming here; it's all a huge story about everyday life
"She lives in a small settlement on the outskirts of Kalgoorlie where she's the only artist, so in a sense, she is working alone.
"Her work has become so popular because it's so colourful and joyful. There's never any violence in her work - there's abundance and the bush is alive and flourishing and so are the people.
"Because Mary doesn't read, her work is not linear and goes in all directions. She just turns the paper around and around."
Searles described an "enormous" painting Pantjiti has produced for the Tandanya Aboriginal Arts Centre in Adelaide. "It's four metres long by one-and-a-half metres wide and there are literally hundreds of figures on it, all coming together in a big celebration," she says.
"She's found her calling and now paints everyday. She's a wonderful inspiration to the children in the community."
Pantjiti Mary McLean also has a solo exhibition of works on paper called Homelands at the Aboriginal and South Pacific Gallery in Surry Hills, until July 16.
What drives Pantjiti, now in her 60s, to paint?
"It comes from the happiness in my heart," she says.


First published in The Sydney Morning Herald

8 February 1994

Generation without a cause: a very different commodity

I AM not a target market," declared author Douglas Coupland in his celebrated book, GenerationX, and the world of marketing still hasn't recovered.
Released in 1992 to universal controversy, Coupland's book laid claim to be the first to label the post-Baby Boomer generation. The Xer has since entered the pop culture vocabulary alongside other "people products" such as the SNAG(sensitive new age guy) and the DINKs (double income, no kids). And let's not forget the yuppie, or indeed the Boomers themselves.
Now a new survey of Sydney teenagers will launch yet another label epithet into this already crowded marketplace: make way for "Generation Why?" - the generation without a cause, the sons and daughters of the sons and daughters of the boomers.

26 January 1994

Moral Fiction (1994)

Moral Fiction, Version 1. Australia, summer 1994
Written and directed by Michael Hutak, produced by Vincent Sheehan. Featuring: Wendy Bacon, Edward Colless, Adam Cullen, Helen Demidenko, Mick Dodson, Dave Graney, Barry Jones, McKenzie Wark, and Don Watson. Porchlight Films 1994.

Moral Fiction (1994) from Michael Hutak on Vimeo.

What do you believe in? Are the nineties really different? 

Is Australia an experimental country?

2 January 1994

Young at art: the New Painters

Back in 1994, my editors demanded that painting was not dead and tasked me to go out and prove it.

IF REPORTS from the front line are to be believed, news of the death of painting is vastly exaggerated. Despite the challenge of other forms of contemporary practice within the art world itself (from conceptual art, installation, performance, photo-media, sound, video and computer-generated art), painting remains most people's idea of what art is all about.

Paintings, it would seem, are for living with, and people continue to part with their hard-earned in order to live with paintings. And while the art market was hit particularly hard by the recession, now that life's at last becoming a little more liquid, the time is ripe to seek out those emerging painters whose work might still be picked up for a song, so to speak.

So just who should we be looking at today for clues as to the art of tomorrow?

Tony Bond, curator of contemporary art at the Art Gallery of NSW, says there is a desire in the market to "recreate painting and there's always people who have a commitment to painting, per se".

"But to be honest, Brian Blanchflower, who is not a youth, is actually the person coming closest to making something new in painting.

"I think Brian is the find of the century, frankly. His work has a feeling of being a real thing that transports you and I think that is actually quite unique.

"He's somebody who's really out in front but not acknowledged as such; I mean he's not hanging in the entrance court of every museum yet he's probably better than any straight painter in Europe."

Of the younger generation, Bond says Louise Hearman "stands out a mile".

"She's actually able to paint, which is a bit unusual. With Louise, everything about the mood of the painting is conveyed through its formal qualities. It's something not many young artists are able to do, or even see the importance of doing, but it makes all the difference in the world."

Bond also nominated the Sydney abstract painter Matthew Johnson and Richard Bell of Brisbane.

"If you're looking at abstract art then I rather like Matthew Johnson's work. His paintings are very elegant, beautiful and seductive. Frankly, there's been too many pretensions about the meaning of abstract art lately. In the end, when all the semiotics has been washed through, all you're left with is this thing, and in the case of Matthew, quite a nice thing."

Bond is similarly enthusiastic about Bell: "Very direct, very up-front, absolutely clear what he's on about and very humorous. I think irony and wit coming into the Mabo issue and into contemporary Aboriginal art is a great help."

Judy Annear, curator of the Australian component at last year's Venice Biennale, is also particularly keen on Bell, whose work she describes as"challenging and politically relevant".

"Richard is one of the new contemporary Aboriginal artists, and he presents an urban experience to his overview of the Aboriginal condition through using Western painting techniques.

"He's brought a new attitude to painting but they're not the sort of stuff your average socialite would want over their sofa. He doesn't use dots and he doesn't get caught up in the sort of mysticism that makes Aboriginal art easy to sell."

Other names to look out for, Annear says, are Gail Hastings of Melbourne and Anne Ooms from Sydney. "Gail Hastings is better known for these big installations but she also does do really beautiful watercolours. Highly salable. Very beautiful and delicate ... seductive."

She notes that Ooms, a 1993 graduate of the Sydney College of the Arts who has just won the 1994 Samstagg Scholarship to work overseas, is still very much in her formative years.

"She's very entertaining and she's only been making art for the last couple of years. Her last show at Artspace included objects which she painted with face powder. So they offered not just texture but perfume. The colours and shapes relate to you on an amusing and unconscious level - they are very jokey. I'll be interested to see what she's doing after her year on the Samstagg Scholarship."

Nicholas Baume, freelance curator and public programs co-ordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, says a fortuitous mix of factors is needed to make people sit up and notice emerging talent.

"It's a mixture of luck, the prevailing mood - what curators and dealers and collectors are looking for - and finally the power of the individual artist's work."

The work of abstract painter Christopher Snee caught Baume's eye at this year's Perspecta show at the AGNSW.

"Of all the abstract painting in Perspecta - and there was quite a lot - to me Christopher's work stood out.

"It was quite beautiful and formally successful as abstract painting but it didn't seem to be repeating anything I'd seen before. Very atmospheric."

Baume is also taken by the work of Peter Atkins, who has been chosen to represent Australia at the Indian Triennale in Bombay this year.

"His work seems to grow out of very personal experiences rather than addressing the grand themes of abstract painting or art history," says Baume.

"So it has a very warm, intimate quality that's very appealing."

The director of Sydney's Artspace, Louise Pether, would only agree to comment with qualification.

"I wouldn't necessarily say that painting is the place to watch for the future artists of Australia," she says. "I think the most interesting work is happening in photo-media and painting is less lively."

That said, Pether nominates Louise Hearman (again) and the Aboriginal artist Harry Wedge as two painters to watch. Of Wedge she notes: "He's one of those artists whose work just leaps off the walls at you.

"Those are the two I've known for the longest and they've held and maintained my interest and I'm just cursing that I didn't buy their works when I first saw them. I've since realised that if one is going do that, you should always follow your instincts."

The editor of leading art journal Art + Text, Paul Foss, is also guarded in his views about painting. "In Australia right now the younger set are into scatter art and installation - though this situation will no doubt change," he says.

"If I were to name any emerging painters here, I think Kerrie Poliness and Melinda Harper from Melbourne are worth mentioning, as is Sydney's Elizabeth Pulie. But the one to watch is Louise Forthun, who shows with Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne."

To conclude on a note of controversy, haven't we been told, in the realm of art at least, that modernism was a stillborn, forlorn project which gave way to these post-modern times, where there's nothing new under the sun and appropriation and pastiche are the order of the day?

In that context what makes today's art and our younger artists any different from times gone by? Is there an even newer broom sweeping the cultural landscape or are we merely seeing the arbitrary turnover of artistic fashion?

Nicholas Baume went out on a limb to sum up the Zeitgeist.

"There's a feeling that an authentic kind of contemporary art starts from one's own experience," he says. "And most of these up-and-coming artists are using their own experience in a very direct way and I think that's what gives their work authenticity and force: they're not slavishly following international trends or getting their ideas from the latest art magazines. There's a maturation there in terms of recognising that what really gives art its power is the personal intensity that the artist brings to it."

Date: 01/01/1994
Words: 1326
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Spectrum
Page: 42