A cautionary tale about the way some people behave in art galleries.Things are not always as they might appear. You might break the tender heart of an artist with a thoughtless remark.You might get your nose punched in return.
Gallery Monsters - Could This Be Someone You Know?
In any population, there are always a few 'monsters' and gallery visitors are no exception. Now, I won' t talk about the obvious because sane parents do not drag toddlers into a venue so boring (to them) as an art gallery. Sensible mothers quickly wheel a crying baby off to be fed or changed. And only once have I seen someone contemplate bringing her large and boisterous dog into the gallery. To my relief, she thought better of it and left him outside.
Instead, I'll tell you some true stories from my experience as a gallery owner, and let you draw your own conclusions.
The first incident happened just on closing time one evening. As I cleared my desk, a chap walked in and began inspecting all the paintings, making noises of approval over each of them. Until he came to a newly completed piece called The Indian Hawker.
This painting grew out of a mention my father had made about the itinerant traders who had travelled the Outback until the 1930s, with their wares in a horse-drawn cart. I was startled when the visitor turned to me with a look of disgust and loudly remarked, 'This is really offensive. I would not have this in my house.'
Of course, I had to ask why and he was upfront with his answer: 'Well, it is a wog!' (Wog is an old Aussie colloquialism for any migrant who is not of Anglo-Celtic background.) While I told him the historical basis of the painting, I showed this man the book of photographs which documents the progress of each work.
It includes a photo of the finished drawing, some shots of the painting in-progress, and the completed piece. By the time we reached the latest pages, the visitor was enthralled. So, I was able to tease him by swiftly closing the book on the newest work with the remark, 'Oh, you would not want to see this one.
Naturally, he had to see it and I let him turn the page himself. Confronting him was my painting called Bush Tucker. It honours the skills of the tribal Aborigines of ancient times. The focal point is the head of a Songman, keeper of the oral history. My visitor had the grace to smile shame-facedly as he took in the point I was making. Maybe it made some difference to his mind-set.
That same painting got quite the opposite reaction from Aboriginal passers-by. They gathered in numbers to view Bush Tucker and express appreciation of it. Then late one morning, the gallery manager phoned me in distress. One part-Aborigine visitor was loudly demanding that she get rid of 'all this European rubbish' - pointing at my other paintings on display - and show more work by 'the Brother, here, he knows how to paint' - pointing to Bush Tucker. Prejudice comes in all colours, it seems.
Another day, I watched a visitor leaf through my illustrated books then prowl the gallery with an ever-deepening frown. He told me he had a question and his tone was so belligerent that I said I would answer if he allowed me a question first.
I said that I was unable to place the slight accent in his speech, though he had obviously grown up in America. Where was he from? He replied he was an Israeli but had spent his childhood in the USA and how did I ever guess that?
'You have American teeth,' I said, looking at his beautifully even, white teeth, evidence of expensive orthodontal attention in youth. He had to laugh then, but the frown soon returned.
'Tell me,' he demanded, 'about this young woman,' pointing to the photo of me inside one of the books, a younger version with very short hair. 'Why does she copy the paintings of the Master?' And here he tapped the photo of A.B. Paterson, the Bush poet, whose words have inspired 60 of the 400-plus paintings I have made since turning professional. How was I to tell him the facts without making him feel like a fool?
Well, I took him over to a large scrapbook that holds photos of the models posing for my paintings. My hope was that the penny would drop more gently that way. The models are real, regular folk persuaded to play a character I describe to them. The unobtrusive camera relaxes them more than posing for tedious hours while being sketched. And a bit of costume helps them to get into the part.
'Here's my husband playing the part of a cop in the Paterson poem about The Man From Ironbark. He is wearing an old hat of mine that is near the shape they wore in those days and looking as stern as he can manage.' The visitor was intrigued.
'Here you see my son playing the apprentice barber. I invented that character, he is not in the poem. His friend is posing as the barber, fainted on the floor. Luckily for him, my studio has a carpeted floor.' By now, the visitor was puzzled.
'And here's a photo of the finished painting. You can see that in the end, I decided not to include the policeman.' As he put two and two together at last, the visitor turned a most peculiar colour. Stammering an apology, he tried to flee. I could not let him go, feeling so bad. So I actually caught his arm and persuaded him to stay and have a coffee. We ended up by having a great talk, swapping travel tales.
Another time, I was bailed-up by a large lady who wanted to know about 'this female artist.' On learning it was me, she accused: 'You only paint men, I see. Why is that?'
Now, like most people, male or female, with more than two brain cells to rub together, I'm a committed feminist. So the implication was irritating. But I gave the question careful consideration.
Several answers sprang to mind. I might state the obvious: My special interest is the Australia of the 1890s and in the literature of that time, women are virtually invisible. So I have to draw a long bow to include a female subject in that body of work. I could tell her that many of my paintings feature women but as all were sold, they were not on display.
But as I watched her fists settle on her boiler-suited hips, the Devil got the best of me. So I looked her in the eye and said: 'I guess that, as a red-blooded woman, I paint men for the same reason all the male painters paint women.' I will give her this - she did return my grin before leaving.
Then came the day a fellow strode about the gallery, snorting in derision as he glared at the paintings. I went to see what was wrong and he floored me with this: I don't like to see this conveyor-belt stuff in a proper art gallery!'
I managed a mumbled 'Conveyor-belt?'
'Yes. You ought to know better than to bring this stuff in. I must admit these are not bad but they make it in those Asian places. When I started to try putting him right, he cut me off.
'You cannot fool me. I have heard how they do it. A bunch of guys sit at a long table. One does the scenery, one does the figures and another does the buildings, machinery and so on.'
By now, my jaw was dragging on the floor. Speechless for once, I stared as he came to a triumphant finish. 'See, it is common knowledge, he proclaimed, 'that no one artist can do it all.'
Somehow, I felt too disgusted to even try with him. Much later, I realized that he'd unwittingly paid me a hefty compliment. If only I had woken up to it, in time to thank him!
A common thread amongst these anecdotes is the perception that artists do not own galleries.(After all, everyone knows that artists hardly possess the nous to tie their own shoelaces, much less run a business.) Yet increasingly, we see creative people take control of their own careers. Successful movie stars become directors and producers, successful writers become their own self-publishers.
And it's nothing new for painters to establish their own galleries. While still in his teens, Rembrandt set up his own first studio/gallery with a friend from his home town.
So I guess the moral of this article is: Tell your friends to beware of making assumptions. That gallery staffer they're talking to may well be the artist. Their critical comment may break his/her tender heart. If he/she is bigger than me, they might even get a well-deserved punch on the nose!
© Dorothy Gauvin