Gallery: Car Wash (West Melbourne)
Exhibition: cobalt goblin - Amy Stuart, R Kai, Luyuan Zhang, Mari Matsumoto.
9 November - 2 December, 2023.
As we walk into the gallery, Kai tells me it’s Car Wash’s fifth birthday this year — a fact I find difficult to believe. Located in West Melbourne, the abandoned-car-wash-turned-gallery has been the site of countless self-organised exhibitions, gigs and parties, while somehow always evading the scrutiny of local council and building owners (if they do indeed exist). The gallery itself is a brick building flanked by derelict petrol pumps on one side, and the remnants of the actual car-washing mechanism on the other. It feels like only five seconds ago that Kai and their housemates moved next door to the eponymous building, found a way inside and lined the interior with crisp white plasterboard.
This surreptitious existence is fitting for Car Wash’s current exhibition, cobalt goblin, although I’ll only work this out later. Organised by and featuring Kai, along with artists Amy Stuart, Luyuan Zhang and Mari Matsumoto, the exhibition consists of several paintings, drawings and a video work installed throughout the space.
Kai turns the gallery lights on (powered via a series of extension cords leading back to the house), and I tell them I’m writing this review for un Extended. Given the lack of any exhibition text, I ask if they want to elaborate on the exhibition’s title. “No,” they say, before conceding: “okay — hiding and laughing, or like, hide and seek.” I decide to look at the work while googling for clues.
I immediately recognise the work of Stuart and Matsumoto, having collaborated with the former earlier this year. Incidentally, Stuart and I met through a shared interest in Matsumoto’s extensive art forging career, and co-authored an article on this in un Magazine 17.1 RESIST.
As far as we know, the Japanese-born Matsumoto disappeared around 1999 after producing countless forged oil paintings during the 1980s and 1990s, many of which still circulate on the international art market. The Australian Impressionists — artists such as Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton — were Matsumoto’s specialty, however she is known to have tried her hand at forging a vast array of painters from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While a number of Matsumoto’s McCubbin forgeries have been uncovered over the last ten years — including the untitled landscape painting exhibited here in cobalt goblin — it was reported just last month that a private collector discovered that his Giacomo Balla was, in fact, painted by Matsumoto.
I know Stuart has something to do with the Matsumoto painting at Car Wash, as she recently organised an exhibition of Matsumoto’s forgeries at KINGS Artist Run gallery, also in West Melbourne. This particular work was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997 for AUD $740, 000, and discovered to be a forgery in 2012. I realise I’d never asked Stuart how she got her hands on this work and the others exhibited at KINGS, so I send her a text to ask, inquiring at the same time about her drawing After Claire Fontaine: some instructions for the sharing of private property in cobalt goblin. She writes back,
kai’s research based thing --- cobalt pigment name is from kobald (old german goblin) - used to live in mines esp silver mines from medieval times & would trick miners bc they thought they were extracting silver but it was poisonous cobalt ore & it burnt / poisoned them and so on. Anyway it got put on periodic table & blue cobalt pigment is derived from that somehow. used for paint, porcelain glaze & make blue glass –
also see amy sillman ‘on colour’ essay re pigments & industrial colour production
Nothing mentioned about Matsumoto or Stuart’s own drawing, but a cursory google search confirms the kobald / cobalt connection. Sillman’s 2016 essay “On Color” is a wide-ranging exploration of pigment as handled by artists, and though she doesn’t mention cobalt specifically, Sillman writes, “When you think of color, think of the chemical industry, of colonialism, indigo plantations with laborers working in vats.” Much of the world’s cobalt mining takes place under such unliveable working conditions, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The main drivers of the demand for this element are the lithium-ion battery and petroleum industries, however this cannot be untangled from its use as a pigment.
Stuart, who recently graduated from Monash University’s fine art postgraduate program, usually works with found archival materials, however After Claire Fontaine is a drawing by her own hand. Rendered in what I presume is cobalt blue coloured pencil on paper, the 200 x 300mm drawing is hung opposite Zhang’s video work on the far wall of the gallery. At 1:1 scale, it depicts a diagram from the artist collective Claire Fontaine’s instructional lockpicking text, Some instructions for the sharing of private property (2011). In the book, and ostensibly in Stuart’s drawing, the diagram functions as a stencil for would-be lockpickers to trace and fashion their own tools.
After Claire Fontaine sits in direct relation to Kai’s painting (on which more shortly), and Zhang’s 2022 video, Bamboozled. Zhang is a multidisciplinary artist, and describes themselves as making work from a queer, immigrant perspective, having moved from China to Melbourne in 2014. Bamboozled initially reads as an appropriated snippet from a BBC news segment, detailing the theft of McCubbin paintings and drawings from a Melbourne gallery. On the monitor, installed up in the corner of the gallery, CCTV footage of a disguised figure mid-heist is interspersed with images of stolen works, including The Old Cock (1899) and framed sketches. These works are authentic, but while watching I realised that although the graphic design is the same, the name of the broadcaster is the mysterious “BBS”, rather than BBC, as I had initially thought — and further, I’d never heard about this supposed heist.
Hanging on the same wall as Bamboozled is Kai’s painting Whistler Plate Face (2023). Like After Claire Fontaine, Matsumoto’s landscape and Zhang’s video, the work circles around ideas of mimicry and appropriation. Kai has produced (either by their own hand or someone else’s, they won’t tell me) an uncanny replica of James McNeill Whistler’s 1864 painting Purple and Rose: The Lange Leizen of the Six Marks, though their version has been heavily cropped. The Whistler is a prime example of the British-American painter’s enthusiasm for the Japonisme craze which swept the Western world at the time of its completion, and continued into the early twentieth century. Sparked by the opening-up of Japan after over two hundred years of seclusion, Japonisme was characterised by an intense interest in and appropriation of various Japanese design motifs, artmaking styles and methods and fashion.
In Whistler Face Plate, Kai has isolated the hands of Whistler’s kimono-wearing figure, which paint with (cobalt?) blue glaze directly onto a white porcelain vase. In the background sit several similar vessels and a plate, alongside a Japanese paper fan. I don’t know if this is a case of pareidolia or Whistler’s intention, but painted on the plate’s surface I can distinctly see a cute, impish face. Has Kai isolated a reference to the kobold here? Or perhaps has a kobald made itself manifest in this cobalt glaze?
cobalt goblin speaks to appropriation as it manifests in a number of ways. In Stuart and Zhang’s works we see the appropriation of property through lock-picking or artwork theft. Kai’s painting Appropriates, in the art historical sense, Whistler’s Purple and Rose, which itself could be read in a contemporary sense as a cultural misappropriaton. As exemplified in her landscape work, Matsumoto performed a wholesale appropriation of the authorship of various artists. Finally, via Sillman we are reminded of the destructive appropriative practices of cobalt extraction from the earth.
Emily Morel is a PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne. Her research focuses on twentieth-century art forgery, particularly within Australia. She has published in the journals Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials Bulletin and Studies in Conservation.
un Projects’ Editor-in-Residence Program is supported by the City of Yarra, Creative Victoria and City of Melbourne. Editor: Diego Ramírez.