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Still alive in ‘20

03 Mar 2020

Still alive in ‘20 Image

words by Rhonda Dredge

Each generation of artists has to make its own way through the mire of prejudices confronting it and Melbourne’s young intellectuals are taking notes from the Basquait and Haring: Crossing Lines exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV).

Madeleine Border and Honor Webster-Mannison are posing in front of one of Keith Haring’s definitive illustrations.

Both are studying writing and developing their voices against the background of the past.

“There are still deep divisions between cultures – pop art cultures and contemporary art in galleries,” said Madeleine, who just graduated with a Masters in Writing from the University of Queensland.

“It’s cool to see them bridge the divide.”

Both writers admire the daring and the danger in this exhibition of work by two famous US street artists from the ‘80s.

“When both started in graffiti the bravery was not just in the message but in the act,” Honor said. “They were both willing to be arrested. They were reclaiming public spaces.”

The Melbourne thinkers make a distinction between work that is done in the moment and work that pushes a political cause because the artist has a platform.

“They began to act first and the aesthetic emerged,” Madeleine said. “When you’re well-known it’s not brave but important to make art. Your voice becomes a platform.”

Even though they could have been caught by the police, there was “no redaction of the art,” she said. They were brave enough to make an instant mark.

Madeleine, who began a Masters of Playwriting at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) last month, said the work of these two radicals was still relevant today.

“The Haring piece about Ronald Reagan could easily have been written yesterday about Trump,” she said.

One of Haring’s most moving illustrations is of a bunch of writhing bodies in a gay bathhouse with crosses on their chests to indicate their coming mortality under the heading Still Alive in ’95.

In today’s political times these works shine like beacons for their early commentaries on racism, AIDS and gay rights.

Keith Haring was illustrating from the inside of the movement, having abandoned his Christian upbringing.

Early notebooks and diaries indicate how both artists were actively engaged in their pertinent commentaries from youth.

Jean-Michel Basquait’s word experiments spread across the pages in typological poetry that shows his early obsession with spatial politics. Some words are crossed out, drawing attention to themselves.

Haring wrote short stories. One was typed in a single column in 1980.

He had come home one night at 4am to find a crashed vehicle outside his house.

Opposite was a bar. There was a flyer on the street and he stuck it under the windscreen.

The flyer was an eight-and-a-half-inch piece of yellow cardboard with the words “Gin & Tonic, Beer, Wine, Rum & Coke, Vodka and Bloody Mary” printed on it.

The next morning when he came out a woman called him over, pointed at the car and said, “See he was drinking.”

Basquait and Haring: Crossing Lines, NGV until April.

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