The Art of Space. The Space of Art.

Jun 1, 2009
  • Article by Gillian Serisier

Design Practitioners are increasingly cognisant of the imprimatur fine art brings to a project. It is, however, a challenge that many get wrong despite the general tenet that significant works of art increase calibre dramatically. Unfortunately the myriad elements determining significance – scale, fiscal value, street cred, academic status, notoriety and daring – are variable with no golden rule as to which is the better choice.

Navigating the pitfalls may be undertaken in a number of ways, including the engagement of an art consultant. Others choose to work with galleries directly and some prefer to work with different artists for each stage of a project, occasionally extending to an entire project, though this is rare.

Consultants are an interesting way to facilitate art into a project. They bring an expertise of art history as well as current market trends. As with all professionals there are degrees of expertise to match different projects. When Bates Smart was presented with the challenge of creating an environment that balanced profound sentiment with a visually stimulating sensibility for the Justice Precinct, Parramatta (2007) the company engaged art consultant, Virginia Wilson. Her expertise led to a 23 by seven-metre daguerreotype by Gary Carsley and a sculptural piece by Mel O’Callaghan, All in One Day, that works with shadows moving across the wall being comissioned for the Trial Courts’ foyer. Within the gardens another O’Callaghan sculpture, Landslide, depicting a sliding hut, provides a metaphor for history as a transient phenomenon determined by perceptions. With a project of this standing the selection of artists takes precedence over variables of art fashion providing the longevity the project deserves without relegating it to the past.

Galleries and good gallerists can also function as a collaborative consultant. The following three galleries represent three very different styles and, while of excellent calibre, are not the only options. Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, for example, could provide works by Dale Frank, Fiona Hall and James Angus.

These seemingly disparate styles each have an elegance of form that allows them to work exceptionally well within an architectural environment. Similarly William Mora Gallery in Melbourne would make an excellent choice for sourcing a range of Indigenous poles equal to any foyer. Stuart Purves at Australian Galleries has one of the best eyes for blue chip figurative work, with a stable to match including Jeffrey Smart and William Robinson.

Determining which gallery is most suitable for a project requires a good understanding of both the project requirements and the galleries themselves. Magazines such as Art World, Photophile and Art and Australia can be helpful as a starting point, as is the internet and books such as Current, Beyond Sacred and Art of Australia. Observing art first-hand is irreplaceable in determining physical realities including overall appeal. Most commercial galleries have a monthly exhibition opening, which serves as a vehicle for recognising the zeitgeist and locating nascent trends.

Public art galleries provide a quick overview of high quality work with groups such as the MCA’s Ambassador Program enabling social entrée into contemporary art. Each public gallery has its own version and benefits vary, but the advantage of an expanded network within the contemporary art scene is invaluable.

Deciding on an art medium will largely be determined by the physical space. Photography, while not suited to bright natural light, needs to be lit with good, even lighting. Remco Diaz of Euroluce Lighting Environments recommends: “Ceramic metal halide can be great for accent and has excellent colour rending.” And while myriad systems are available, he proposes: “Bisio as an excellent recessed solution while the new Pure range is a beautiful system for track lighting.” The type of glazing must also be considered as non-reflective glass contains a substance that cannot sit on the work surface, and becomes milky with distance. Optimum Museum Acrylic has all of the conservation elements plus 100 percent ultraviolet filter and, while there is minimal reflection, it is inordinately expensive. “A good alternative is Shinkolite Acrylic, which has excellent conservation properties filtering out 98 percent of ultraviolet light and is the standard museum glazing material,” says Michelle Holmes of FX Art and Framing. Framing trends have had a recent dalliance with timbers; however, according to Holmes, “Gesso white spray framing, matching the white photographic paper of the border, remains a popular choice for photography.”

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Video art presents an excellent solution for areas with no excessive need for light. Showing work on a screen (LCD or plasma) sets the dimension and has the advantage of being framed. The disadvantage is a tendency to look like television if not positioned as art. Projecting the work allows any sized area, including floors and ceilings to be fully engaged. Technical requirements for multi-channel video art, where multiple images are shown, demand some expertise for installation.

Sculpture as a three-dimensional work provides a visually and physically grounding element to a project that heralds place and brings gravitas, stability and directs movement. The large Carrera marble Touchstones by Kan Yasuda in Renzo Piano’s Aurora Place piazzetta performs these functions by providing a rounded counterpart to the building’s verticality and humanising the thoroughfare, while retaining a visual connectedness with the building through the shared milky-white hue of glass and marble. Engineering requirements for the sculpture were met in the planning stages. When a sculpture is brought to a project post-completion, however, weight bearing tests may be required. At four tonnes, the Marion Borgelt sculpture Time and Tide (wait for no man) – commissioned for the JP Morgan Chase Offices in Grosvenor Square, Sydney – not only required structural testing of the site, but could only be lifted into place with a pulley and gantry system utilising a sling. This project was further complicated by the building’s architect, Harry Seidler, having final say on all changes to the outward appearance of the building regardless of owner occupier.

Paintings, whether acrylic or oil, require conservation (periodical cleaning, frame tightening or minor repairs), protection from the elements, good lighting and space. Weather, pollution and dust cause damage and should be managed by placing the work appropriately or with framing. Though it sounds obvious, having the work hung by a professional is essential: many do not and wonder at the consequences. Large works suitable for a foyer are generally fixed in place from several points ensuring the entire work is flat to the wall, with diminished capacity for movement. Smaller works may be hung similarly and it is advisable for public spaces. Usual practice is to leave the work unframed. Hanging systems are a debatable choice. Most systems don’t allow the work to sit flat to the wall, do allow movement and have the disadvantage of visible supports. When lighting paintings, Liverpool Street Gallery’s manager, Sarah Hetherington, recommends “a 20V spotlight, with a floodlight to evenly spread the light”.

“We use Aureol Lighting in the gallery,” she adds. Hetherington also suggests staying away from lighting that is too cool, “as it will ‘flatten’ the painting”. Giving paintings breathing room allows the work to be viewed without interference. It also heralds the work as ‘art’ as opposed to decoration and will limit human contact. A large painting on a foyer wall will provide a sense of unity within the space while the visual aspects of the painting itself will provide emotional and intellectual interest.

Australian photography has come of age over the past few decade with artists such as Rosemary Laing, Bill Henson and Anne Zahalka all selling well on the international market. Each of these artists brings a certain gravitas to a project. Obviously, that weight is tempered by the project’s audience and its place in history. For example, the Rosemary Laing works in the UTS building are passed daily by thousands of unknowing students. The work’s cultural importance only emerges as the students grow and learn an appreciation, which then gains personal historic value as the osmotic process of education attained at UTS becomes valued.

Sourcing photographers can be in many ways easier than sourcing other artists, as internet images are fairly true. Many commercial galleries such as Tolarno, Sullivan and Strumpf Fine Art, and Sophie Gannon show a good mix of photographers amongst other artists, while Stills Gallery specialises. All are good options. Some of the more recent photographers of note include Brook Andrew (multimedia), Petrina Hicks, Selina Ou, Darren Sylvester, Anne Noble and the late Michael Riley. The price for photography varies depending on the physical size of the work, edition number, edition size and the artist’s currently perceived value.

Understanding painting requires a more comprehensive experience of the work as texture and weight are integral to the visual and physical presence. Heavily textured work such as Aida Tomescu’s is almost impossible to read in either print or electronic file. Likewise the delicate nuances of Enrique Martinez Celaya’s paintings are not apparent until viewed physically. Some of the more interesting artists working on canvasses suitable for architectural spaces include John Beard, Dale Frank and Karl Wiebke. Emergent painters of interest include Michael Zavros, Ben Quilty and Tim McMonagle. An emerging artist of particular interest is Floria Tosca Popoff, whose portraits of ornamental chickens combine the realism of 15th century oil painting with techniques of action painting, to extraordinary effect.

Sculpture provides a dominant visual counterpoint within a space. Weight, size, colour and form all go towards the equation. Choosing sculpture therefore necessitates a firmly grounded spatial awareness. More so than other mediums sculpture often means it’s not possible to view the work in situ prior to committing to purchase. When this is the case it benefits to have drawings and models made ensuring appropriateness of scale, tone and substance. Artists of note working in three-dimensional form include Hilarie Mais, Lisa Roet, James Angus, Callum Morton, John Kelly, Rick Amor, Marion Borgelt,Jonathan Jones, Sean Cordeiro and Claire Healy, Lionel Bawden, Koji Ryui, Benjamin Armstrong and Samuel Tupou.

Video art can be readily adapted into spatial design and architecture through its inherent capacity to be projected to any scale. In a fairly recently developed medium in Australia, Shaun Gladwell remains the pre-eminent practitioner; however, exciting work is being produced by artists such as Hayden Fowler, Grant Stevens, Todd McMillan, Daniel von Sturmer, Soda_Jerk, and Silvana Mangano and Gabriella Mangano.

Art has an extraordinarily variable set of criteria for quality that gets muddied as subjectivity, fashion and hype come into play. In many ways, this is as it should be – art is in the avant-garde of human response to the zeitgeist, whether that be political, environmental or academic. Understanding your client’s aspirations and the historic place they see for the project will largely determine which artist medium you steer them towards. Whether those choices retain their strength remains to be seen, but daring and risk should also be part of the process.

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