With the closure of museums and galleries worldwide, we find ourselves not only estranged from one another, but also from the artworks we hold dear. Odes to the Absent forms as an expanding collection of reflections upon and tributes to artworks that we miss and long to be connected with physically and experientially at some point in a future still yet uncertain. Individually contributed by Gertrude Studio artists, exhibiting artists, staff and friends, these reflections will accrue as a compilation of acknowledgements of longing, infatuation and absence until we will one day be reconnected with the works that we cherish as important and of value, in places and in institutions that similarly hold such objects to be of aesthetic, cultural and conceptual importance. May we all be one day reunited.
Gertrude Studio Artist Jason Phu
Ode to the Guardian Spirit
Guardian spirit, 700 CE-750 CE, Henan / Shaanxi province, China, Earthenware (Sancai ware),
74.4 × 23.4 × 19.5 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
I first saw this work many years ago at the NGV. I think it is on permanent display, but it seems to disappear and reappear at will, or I probably just don’t pay enough attention when I visit. It is a guardian spirit, people think that that means it has to always be on guard, but a good guardian spirit knows when to look the other way. Probably explains why I sometimes don’t see it, or maybe it has to go pee.
It is proud, but respectful. It is loyal, but ferocious. It is green, but it is also brown. These things aren’t contradictory but simply the sum of its parts, which vessel the spirit happened to enter. It probably has a name as well, one that changes with the moons, that sheds with the suns, it is probably something like Bob right now. Sally tomorrow.
Ears to hear gossip. Horn to impale deer. Face to scare children. Hooves to make an annoying clip clop sound like a bored horse. These are its attributes. Probably not the best use of them, but it is the little things that over time make the great things. At only 74.4cm it is much shorter than me.
At the doorway in the Tang Dynasty watching the rise and fall of one of the golden eras must have felt like a retirement before the work of sitting behind a piece of thick, smudge-free glass. But that’s ok because everything breaks or melts eventually, the dynasties change, even for the guardians.
Gertrude Board Member Jon Campbell
Ode to Lower Plenty
Lower Plenty at Crazy Arms Bar, Polyester Records, Fitzroy, 26 February 2020
Photo: Simon Karis
Rock music has always sustained me and going to see live bands has always been one of life’s pleasures. My first share house was in Rathdowne Street, North Carlton, in 1981. I was 19. A ten-minute stroll down the street led me to the live music venue Martini’s, sadly long gone. I would go to art school at RMIT during the day and go to Martini’s in the evening. Often, I would go by myself. It was usually free to get in and I would sometimes go five nights a week. It didn’t really matter who was playing or what style of music. Sometimes there were 10 of us in the crowd and sometimes it was packed. It was a small room. INXS played one of their early gigs there and I couldn’t afford a ticket but managed to sneak in by following the road crew. I looked up Martini’s gig history online; it was Wednesday 4th March 1981. But mostly it was local bands that I saw. I’ve always loved seeing bands in small rooms.
I don’t go to see live music as often these days, but I still love it as much as I always have. Earlier this year, before the Covid-19 isolation, I went to see one of my favourite local bands, Lower Plenty, at the Crazy Arms bar out the back of Polyester Records in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. Also now sadly closed forever. It’s the last gig I attended. It was a night of performances organised by fellow artist Oscar Perry. Oscar performed, as did Trevelyan Clay. Lower Plenty had had a fractured previous year and I was unsure if they would in fact ever play together again. The band consists of Jensen (Tjhung), Daniel (Twomey), Al (Montfort) and Sarah (Heyward) and the sound comes from two acoustic guitars played through amps, percussion and drums. They all sing. Their songs and presence is kinda laid back but also intense. There is no pretence. They have beautiful songs and melodies. I have known Jensen and Daniel since I taught them 20 years ago in the painting department at the VCA.
I know all good things come to an end. I’ve been imagining if this was to be the last live band I’d ever see and if so, I’d be happy that it was Lower Plenty.
Gertrude Studio Artist Darcey Bella Arnold
Ode to Jean Goldberg
Jean Goldberg, Ola Cohn, 1961, oil on canvas, 90 x 74.5cm.
National Portrait Gallery Collection, Canberra
A portrait of artist Ola Cohn, seen once on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, now far out of reach during the lockdown of Covid-19. Ola was prominent in Melbourne throughout the 1930-50s, born in Bendigo in 1892, painted here by friend and female colleague Jean Goldberg in 1961, three years before Ola’s death.
Ola was 'a big flour bag of a woman, healthy as bread, strong as a millstone'  and I love this description of her. She is most well known for her works in sculpture and has carved modernist figures much like her own, large robust forms. This portrait has stayed with me as the portrait of a female artist, not dainty, but forceful and strong, with large artist's hands. The women Ola sculpted often had large hands and feet, working hands; she lived as a worker with carving dust, limestone, and sandstone all through her hair, making for a large tuft of unkempt hair to silhouette her face - or so the legend goes.
During Covid-19, stuck in the wanderings of my local area, I have discovered her house and studio, located a mere 500m from my flat. Her ashes are buried there, along with her cats Kitty, Rufus, Smokey, and Ginny…I think of Peggy Guggenheim when visiting Ola, buried in her garden surrounded by her art and cherished felines. Her garden and studio have been donated for educational purposes and is now the hub for the Melbourne Society of Women Painters and Sculptors of which Ola was president for fourteen years. The space has an idealistic feel to it, a romanticism of artmaking.
In the course of the lockdown, missing openings, social events, the art world, and its conversations, I have returned to a rudimentary drive to make art, that simple unwavering urge to make. Ola’s garden has been a symbol of this and is filled with her sculptures, women’s faces carved from stone, conceivably faces to talk to during a time of isolation.
 Barbara Blackman, Glass After Glass: Autobiographical Reflections, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Australia, 1997
Gertrude Director of Business and Operations Tracy Burgess
Ode to William Wegman
William Wegman, Rover Roller, 1987, Giclee print, 61 x 51 cm. Courtesy of the artist and
Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles; Sperone/Westwater, New York; Senior and Shopmaker,
New York; and Texas Gallery, Houston
Sometime in the late 1980s, an amusing photo, most likely a postcard, of a dog in roller skates appeared on the corkboard just next to the wall mounted phone at the breakfast bar that separated the kitchen and den of my grandmother’s Southern California home. This was a very important spot in the house – the one where you could see both what was happening in the kitchen and what was on the television.
The chair was high, covered in blue vinyl and swivelled 360 degrees. Sitting there also meant that when the phone rang you were the one who got to answer it. There was always a note pad – sourced from a hotel somewhere I’d never been like Las Vegas or Singapore or Mazatlan – and a short, golf scoring pencil. These were for important things like grocery lists and phone messages, but I was obsessed with drawing palm trees and practicing my signature.
When not waiting for the phone to ring I was in the backyard torturing lizards or in a frenzy waving to the trains running along the coastal route below - if I was lucky, the train driver would sound the horn to return my wave.
The photo was still there the last time I visited the house on La Ventana for the Christmas of 2004. Six weeks later I moved to Australia. More than 15 years on the house has been sold and demolished. I wasn’t around to help with the packing up so I’m not sure what happened to the small print but I’ve thought of it often along with a flood of other details of its context. As time passes the memories become less accurate but I’m okay with that.
Gertrude Studio Artist Lisa Radford
Ode to Grace Culley
Grace Culley, Alfred Nicholas Gardens, 2020, recycled cardboard, hardwood steaks,
steel wire, oil paint, PVA, liquid latex, pen, sharpie, 2.1 x 1.6m. Courtesy of the artist
In the week of shutdown at the School of Art where I am employed, I walked the corridors of the studios furiously documenting the material evidence that artists once lived here. I didn’t foresee that two months later I would still be yet to return. In the imaginary that is boringly based in reality, my dystopic disposition (or is it depressive?) imagines the VCA studios as I remember my visit to Pripyat (a ghost city in northern Ukraine in the vicinity of Chernobyl).
The materiality that was the bodies who inhabited these studios — laughter, thought, energy, conflict, desire, absurdity, stupidity, love — is currently disembodied from its anarchic collective.
Her's was the last work I encountered.
Part of me imagines it still there. Hanging in the corridor. Waiting for the IRL crit.
Cardboard, wire and garden stakes support a lush gestural painting reminiscent of reflections on a lake, interrupted with a fragment of text. Reading as mantra, cursively guiding us — Step by Step. In the past, my brain would’ve taken me straight to NKOTB and the video clip of a-once-was- boy band trapped in pre-Boomerang dance going up and then down stairs. Instead, the text in these works by Grace Culley ask for a kind of banal care and consideration. The quiet irony that may be in the script of the tattoo font used, collapses in this context. The title, Alfred Nicholas Gardens, gives it a locale, but not a site.
In the work that sits beside it, I wish this was parquetry, Grace’s latex lace rests on egg cartons on large corrugated cardboard. A dirty domestic reminder of the materiality and banality of the structures we inhabit, and that also inhabit us — forms and frames of painting in an assemblage ready-made, monumentally unmonumental. Dirty, sexy, tough, gentle. Femininely painted, imprinted, arranged, framed and constructed.
Looking at the JPGs, the green sharpie drawing that I see embedded in the latex has faded from memory. The JPGs also remind me of what I want to return to see and be — confronted with all things I apparently know, re-arranged in ways I didn’t know they could or could be. Forms feeling like, not looking like, the relations our bodies once shared. A different knowledge, another economy.
Dear Eva Hesse,
Your friends are here, they’re Grace’s friends, our anarchic collective. I am waiting to see them and their work again.
Long live art, in friendship.
Gertrude Studio Artist Georgia Banks
Ode to Zoë Bastin
Zoë Bastin, Redemption for the Redeemer, 2020, performed at Kings Artist Run.
Photograph by Damien Laing
There’s a lot of art that can be quite successfully reproduced in a book, or online, but we’ve never quite mastered the art of reproducing liveness.
Before the galleries of Melbourne boarded their doors, the last live work I saw was at Kings Artist Run, during their farewell party. The evening already had a different air to it - it was not an opening; there were no other works to stand in front of with one’s head cocked slightly but not too slightly to the left in order to indicate interest and/or being deeply moved. There were no objects on plinths that really could have used another coat of white paint, plinths one might covertly point out scuff marks on to a nearby friend. There was just Kings - a cavernous space without its usual partitions - a DJ, free beer (I’m assuming), and a whole bunch of folks from all over the Melbourne art scene who came to say goodbye and have a good time.
Plopped smack bang in the middle of the night were three performances, the second of which was Redemption for the Redeemer by Zoë Bastin. The performance began with Zoë emerging from behind a door (the kitchen door) with a lit candle before proceeding to the centre of the space which had been marked out as a stage purely by the absence of bodies. ‘Like a Prayer’ by Madonna is playing. As the music picks up and begins to bop, so does the artist. It’s a body dancing, it’s a body moving freely, it’s someone letting loose alone in their bedroom to a song that they love. At first the crowd is gathered and stood back at a respectful distance - as one is expected to when observing performance art. But as Madonna explodes through the speakers and Zoë explodes in all directions while looking good as hell in her flame red unitard, people from the audience also begin to move. Soon the crowd swells and rises and ripples like I imagine a crowd of fans at a football match do.
That's what I miss, and that’s what I hope to see again when the world returns — liveness, sweaty bodies, and a sea of artists not worried while dancing to Madonna in a gallery with no walls.
Cimabue (Bencivieni di Pepo)
I visited Assisi in November of 2018. Cimabue's 13th-century frescoes are found in the transept of the upper church of the Basilica of St Francis. They are extremely damaged. Aside from the paint that has completely flaked off, the lead pigment of the tinted-white areas has blackened such that the frescoes have inverted into a negative of themselves. The enormous scale of the work combined with the noisy effacement made it nearly impossible for me to look at them. I felt like my brain was registering a static-corrupted signal. I did not encounter them as a merely patinated surface. They were still images but they resisted intelligibility. In some areas it seemed as though the damage had actually made new figural impressions, spawning unauthored compositions with the original figuration. I have no recollection of the frescoes except as an absence, and it resides in my mind as the imagined experience of a retinal scar.
The deterioration of these paintings is not a regression into a more primitive stage in their own coming-to-be. Rather, the images are positively moving from pictorial legibility into a new future as an undecipherable visual event. I think of this encounter as witnessing some virtual force corrosively irradiating through the membrane of the visible; destroying the flesh of its own realisation as it passes through.
I try to imagine the impossible 'beyond' of sight. Magnification extends visibility into the miniscule. An unmanned spacecraft strikes towards the edge of our solar system and beams images back to earth. A cliff face shears off into the sea, freshly exposing rock strata. Directly in front of me as I look out over a landscape, I perceive the horizon and an apparently vertical field of sky that my eye can neither pass over nor puncture, but can only move into. The visible is an edgeless continuum. I futilely pick at this scab of surface trying to find some fundament sustaining it, but the dermis of the visible extends under, around and inside every thing.
I walked up the mountain at Assisi to visit the cold stone grotto where St Francis prayed in solitude. Over the centuries ascetics and monks have built or found their own bare shelters around the hermitage to retreat in imitation of St Francis. Standing near such a hut I saw a beehive encrusted into the fork of a tree. I had never seen a beehive in 'nature' and in fact it seemed like the most unnatural and alien thing. I thought of the biblical story of Samson, who walked in a vineyard in a foreign land. Samson came across a lion in the vineyard and was compelled by God to rent it in half with his bare hands. Later, Samson returned to the same vineyard and found the carcass of the lion now harboured a beehive. He ate the honey and gave it also to his parents to eat. I like images best when they are like this: saturated with significance and nearly emptied out of any means of translating that significance.
Gertrude Studio Artist Matthew Harris
Ode to Kaylene Whiskey
Kaylene Whiskey, I Love the Flag, 2019, Acrylic on linen, 91 x 122 cm.
Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
Life is better without most art and art-related activities. Openings are boring. Fake smiling hurts. Rich people aren’t very interesting. Nobody likes speeches. Panel talks are a waste of time. Admin. Sincerely, kind regards, warm wishes, cheers, thanks again, hope you’re well, best. Some art is good in reproduction and terrible in real life, some art is better in real life than in reproduction. Agnes Martin paintings are dead in photos and radiant in person, even with almost nothing there. Agnes tested a child by holding up a rose and asking if it was beautiful, the child said yes. Agnes hid the rose, asked again and the child said yes. So beauty is really an idea in our minds. Some things seem better in our minds than they actually are and some memories never do the real thing justice. I miss Kaylene Whiskey’s work because all the details she gives us are impossibly beautiful. In my mind, out of my mind, in photos, in real life, everything. I saw her show Wonder Women at Roslyn Oxley on a road trip with friends, we accidentally parked in Roslyn’s spot but she wasn’t mad. As much as I love those friends, I wish I was road tripping with Kaylene. Sun smiling, zooming by all the flowers and wombats in our batman car, coats of many colours flying in the wind, water snakes dancing, Tina chugging coke, Dolly bloated from too many hot chips and Whoopi feeding some to the cockies. Kaylene is the best DJ. Non-stop hits and heartbreakers. It’s about time she programmed Rage. I wonder what she thinks of Cher’s ABBA cover album? Does humanity deserve so much perfection? No. And we don’t deserve Kaylene Whiskey. You’re simply the best, better than all the rest.
Incoming Gertrude Studio Artist Justin Balmain
Ode to Rineke Dijkstra
Rineke Dijkstra, I See A Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), 2009, 3 channel HD video, 12 minutes.
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London and Paris; and Galerie Max Hetzler, Berlin
I’ve always loved other people's description of artworks, and I miss the museum experience of eavesdropping upon people's discussions of works, often preferencing that over my own knowledge and experience of the art being looked upon.
Rineke Dijkstra’s I See A Woman Crying (Weeping Woman), 2009, which I saw at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 2017, acts as the perfect stand-in for Pablo Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Dijkstra’s video examines the 1937 painting, yet Dijkstra herself preferences the audience and their interpretation, rather than including the painting within her frame. A group of schoolchildren describe and convey what they are experiencing whilst looking at the painting through the prism of their own lives. 'I think she was at a wedding and she stole the cake' remarks one. We are left with totally unguarded descriptions, often comical, absurd and tragic ideas around why the woman in the painting is in fact crying, reinforced within the peer group through the repetition and redistribution of ideas.
Dijkstra’s video installation is a microcosm of our collective and social engagement with art, the reality of the work of art defying the artist’s intent once it enters a public sphere, and to the means that we interpret through social and cultural contexts. This work is a reminder of the broader communal inclusivity of artistic engagement. It touches upon my own excitement of experiencing art and wanting so desperately to communicate those encounters with others.
Engaging with culture in isolation through these mediated forms that now feel like an extension of myself – software as prosthesis – I See A Woman Crying (Weeping Woman) exists like an umbrella through these online encounters. It reminds that our participation with art is not solely our own; it is indebted to others, individually and socially. This work makes me want to be out there looking and hearing and experiencing the stuff, along with all the others, who are doing the same.
Gertrude Studio Artist James Nguyen
Ode to Dale Frank
Dale Frank, Stephen Hawking, 2001, Diptych, Synthetic polymer paint and varnish on canvas,
200 x 260 cm, Art Gallery of NSW Collection
As with life, art is never love at first sight.
A fleeting lust for the ooze of resin, sweat breaking through calloused skin. No thanks. How was I to know that a painting could be so wet and thirsty, saturated yet weak as a homeopathic tincture.
When I first encountered Stephen Hawking at the Art Gallery of NSW, I didn’t care for what I saw. A pair of black monochromes, larger than life, but not MASSIVE large.
So I looked at something else and moved on.
About a month later, I found myself at the same spot. I passed by.
A few months after that, I was there to see a photography show. It was on the same floor, but to my left, so I didn’t see the painting.
Fourth time lucky. Also, fourth time unlucky.
The last time I saw the painting, I had time to waste. I walked right up to it and took a sudden step back. Back and forth, forth and back, getting so close as if I could breathe moisture onto the thing. For something I had previously assumed was smooth and flat as the lid of a grand piano, the painting was all furrowed and sullen. It seemed to be suffering from a chronic rash, covered in large swathes of psoriasis. Touching the scarred cicatrix behind my knees, I felt like I was touching the painting itself.
Absorbed into its imperfect surface, folded into its reflection.
These black monochromes by Dale Frank are in and of themselves a painting of a void. Part of a long tradition of endless and cosmic dead ends. Functionally they serve as expensive material and conceptual traps that most visitors would just pass at a glance.
But this is the only painting that I have ever really loved, the only artwork I have had a relationship with.
I have not seen it since; and miss it now more than ever.
Gertrude Artistic Director Mark Feary
Ode to Alberto Giacometti
Alberto Giacometti, Portrait de la mère de l'artiste (Portrait of the Artist's Mother), 1958, Oil on canvas,
61 x 50 cm, Kunsthaus Zürich, Alberto Giacometti-Stiftung, Geschenk Bruno und Odette Giacometti, 2005
© Succession Alberto Giacometti, 2019, ProLitteris, Zurich
Self-isolation, its wonderful, but its not for everyone, although it is for everyone. This period of isolation and confinement offers one the opportunity to reminisce, question and reprioritise what is of importance, what is longed for, and what one hopes to be connected with at some point in a future presently ill-defined. A work that I have been thinking about with great fondness over the past weeks is a 1958 painting by Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti, Portrait de la mère de l'artiste (Portrait of the Artist's Mother). I first encountered the work at the Kunsthaus Zürch while completing my final year of schooling as an exchange student in Switzerland. The work of Giacometti had been introduced to me the previous year by an art teacher whose name I no longer recall. Growing up in the South Island of New Zealand, much of my art historical education relied heavily upon reproduction slides and publications to understand the history of art from outside of Aotearoa. So to encounter Giacometti’s works in real life was a rousing experience. In a fulsome showing of his works, Portrait de la mère de l'artiste was exhibited among other paintings and the sinewy sculptural figures for which he is best known. But it is with his paintings that I have always felt most enamoured. Working within the limited palette of black, white, yellow ochre and red oxide, the complexity of the painted surface invariably tilts toward a wondrous meditation on grey. Giacometti frequently used his family members as the subject matter within his paintings, always sitting alone. Perhaps this is why his works resonate so strongly for me in this time of collective aloneness. My first encounter with Portrait de la mère de l'artiste and the other Giacometti works surrounding it was so overwhelming, it would be the first time I would shed a tear in a gallery. It would certainly not be the last time, but in reality, it remains the only time that could be regarded as a positive experience.
Gertrude Studio Artist Mia Salsjö
Ode to Anri Sala
Anri Sala, Time after Time, 2003, Video, 5 minutes 22 seconds.
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, London and Paris
© Anri Sala. Courtesy Bick Productions
In 2005, while visiting relatives in Sweden, I stumbled across Anri Sala’s video work Time after Time in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. This haunting depiction of a horse stranded on an Albanian motorway was new to me and it moved me to the core. I was immediately drawn to the imagery but for the first time I also felt in awe of video art as a medium.
Normally one expects to see horses immortalised in paintings or sculpture as animals fine and noble. But here one sees a creature cast into abject vulnerability – alone, emaciated and at risk of collision with the passing traffic. The horse fills the screen, but the scene is so dark that it is hard to make out. This changes momentarily when a passing car’s headlights illuminate the sad and lonely reality of this beast of burden. And it is that ‘glimpse’ that act of ‘glimpsing’ that transforms this work into something larger, a metaphor for all the unseen horrors that exist by the roadsides, byways and lonely laneways the world over – animals, children, women, men and even nature itself. That is why this work was transfixing, and why for me it confirmed in those glimpsing seconds the absolute power of art as a communicative tool. In another generation this might have been the stark revelation that occurred when a horse, illuminated by a single lightbulb, appeared in Pablo Picasso’s great work Guernica (1937), or in Caravaggio’s equestrian masterpiece of 1600 showing Saint Paul beneath the feet of his skittish pinto mount. In Sala’s case however, the work is a video, something that could have been shot on a cell phone, though elevated by the artist into a piece of work that transcends the transitory probability of so much digital media. And there is, of course, the being of the horse itself, that solitary actor that stars in this tale of misery and woe. I was left thinking about that horse in all its spirit being for months and years later, and reflecting, not on the brutality of animals, but rather on the transgressions of humans against the world and all its inhabitants. How could I think otherwise than to see this horse as a superior being? Throughout the piece, the camera goes in and out of focus, dissolving the scene into an entirely abstracted field of darkness and fragmentary light. The gesture appears to say, ‘Are my eyes really seeing this?’, ‘How can this be happening?’, and yet it is unfolding before our very eyes.
After, I looked to see who the artist was, and to my astonishment discovered that Sala is Albanian. For me, this was significant, having grown up in Australia with an Albanian mother and a Swedish father and feeling that such a mix was altogether strange and unusual. Artistically, Sala spoke my language. But we also share a similar heritage. This affirmation of my cultural identity went against the grain of the negative stereotypes I had so often heard about Albania and it provided an opportunity to both embrace and transcend that history.
Some years later, in 2015, while living in Havana, Cuba, I had the good fortune to meet Anri Sala.