Syncopated image of Sydney. Credit: Louise Beck

Caption: Syncopated images of the city.

Artist Louise Beck loves being in the thick of things

The bus stops outside, the park across the way is a green solace and with its swimming pool, home to a steady flow of people. Cafes of all design vintages and styles, foods and specialist coffees, dot the urban landscape, and the Factory Theatre is down the road.

When long-time artist Louise Beck decided finally that she had to open her own gallery, there was the slight obstacle of where to have it. A patient, painstaking search followed until she found her spot at 371 Enmore Road; her city gallery/studio would happen here.

Beck’s November retrospective showcases work from her Gallery 371 which will also be celebrating three years. The oils feature Skyscapes which, as she writes, “focus on Sydney and its glass skyscrapers, their reflections, their distortions and their refraction of light, colour and image. The result is an organic and somewhat surreal view of our wonderful city.”

It was this depiction of the newest and the most historic city buildings that first attracted me to her work. I had heard about Beck via Thanh Tam Cao Tam, who had been part of students’ groups at Julian Ashton Art School and still sees her.

I visited Gallery 371 as part of an Inner West creativity trail, and it took a while to click why Beck’s name was familiar to me. Tam had praised her.

The trail brochure had a picture of what I like to think of as a syncopated, twisting, Centrepoint Tower, a ground-to-sky enticement, visual music to an eye accustomed to more touristy images, a commercial impulse taking you to the top.

Remarkably, two years later I find out that her best friend during student days and still a good mate is married to a cousin of mine, an Australian living in Europe. Such a connection and coincidence seemed perfectly natural in this milieu.

For someone raised in regional NSW, ending up on a busy street where cars and buses pass constantly and planes fly overhead, is not something she would have expected. Yet, Beck’s place is like a pop-in community centre. I sat on the chair behind the desk she usually sits in while she settled to the side on a stool, and we talked. At the end, she said, “I have never talked so much about myself as I have with you.” Which is all fine with me.

What was her upbringing like?

I was born in the city but grew up in the country. My father was a postmaster, so we moved around a lot. The longest place we lived was Finley, down by the Murray River NSW. We were there for six years and then came back to Sydney for high school. I got two scholarships in the late 60s) then did English and history teaching. Once I had taught off my bond the very first thing I did was resign from teaching and go to art school. I had always wanted to go. I got my training at Julian Ashton Art School.

Why did you choose the gallery’s location? What were you looking for and how does the space reflect the city’s influence on you?

I lived in Balmain for 16 years. It was an 1884 house and I had a studio upstairs. I used to struggle down the narrow, steep staircase – it had huge banisters – and I thought I was going to end up breaking my neck. I also painted in Addison Road for about six years. All the time I was thinking that I wanted to find my own art space. Then I got to know this area really well, and realised it was full of artists and was quite edgy, which Balmain wasn’t.

I like diversity. That’s why I got so bored in Balmain because there is no diversity. I miss some of my friends, but I tell you, I’ve probably met two times the number of people here than I did in Balmain.

Reflections of Sydney. Credit: Louise Beck
Reflections of Sydney. Credit: Louise Beck

Anyway, I kept looking for about four years, and I found this place. It had been a backpackers place and was in terrible condition but it was on the market and I thought well it’s opposite this beautiful park, has a bus stopping at that door, it’s in a nice, edgy part of the world and 10 minutes from King Street Newtown, so I thought this is it.

I had a building inspection, but they failed to find the rising damp, and then they failed to notice that upstairs was built over a box gutter, so once I had all the lighting in the gallery the ceiling then collapsed. I virtually had to rebuild this whole place. The rest of the house, mind you, was quite solid, old but solid. I had a great builder and together it took us about six months. I lived here all the time, because I was painting, getting ready for the opening exhibition.

Has the space worked out as you hoped?

To be honest when I moved here, I saw it more as a lifestyle change than as a working venture. Then I began to display my art and people came in off the street. They so obviously craved spaces like this. I opened in November (2016) and by January I had the first show of another person. It has become a business, which is lovely. I have met so many artists in this area. I was really chuffed as that was not what I set out to do. At one of the openings, I ran into a young woman who said, ‘I don’t know whether you realise this, but you have created a real artistic hub. I’ve come to a lot of your shows.”

What is particularly surprising to her?

I feel as if I am part of a community and have an open-door policy. Yet I tend to be a rather private person, so I felt at first, ‘Oh my God, I am on display here, but when the postman knows your name and you know his name, and the butcher round the corner always waves when he’s going home, that’s a lovely sense of community. I have been very fortunate.

What are you looking for in the artists that you show? Is the subject matter important?

I am not specifically looking for a particular subject but more at the artist. I quite like the idea, at this stage of my life, that I can be something of a mentor to the artists because a lot of them are younger. I have nurtured some classically trained artists. I also like the vibrancy of street art and I have had a number of street artists in here. I just love their attitude, that energy. It’s refreshing. I want a variety of artists. I have knocked back a couple who were not quite ready, but I don’t mind all those things that push boundaries. That’s what art is all about. I welcome them all, trying to break down that ridiculous mystique that we Australians seem to have developed about art and artists. I can see as people walk by they’re interested but they are too scared to come in because they think you are going to pounce. But I often find they come in more when I am here. It’s less intimidating for them. Europeans, the backpackers, just come in, and look at art and talk to you. They are not at all intimidated by it, but we Aussies, I don’t know.

The number of galleries is growing, in Glebe, for example, and I try to patronise them. The government doesn’t put a buck in the arts, you know (whereas) my son is in the film industry and they have work in New Zealand all the time.

Cranes in Sydney look to the future. Credit: Louise Beck
Cranes in Sydney look to the future. Credit: Louise Beck

Who is her main clientele, and do they reflect the area? I

European travellers and backpackers may not buy but they love looking. Not everyone can buy and it’s nice if they just come in and see things. I could not tell you who my average clientele is. I have neighbours who buy quite regularly, which is lovely. People come in off the street because they have seen something that they really want, but I can’t say there is a clientele as such. This is an arty area in so far as there are lot of young poor artists around. We also have the diversity of old Greeks and a lot of Aboriginals. Obviously when someone has a show, they bring their own people, and there is the gallery mailing list. There’s a bit of cross pollination going on.

The cafes round here are very supportive too. They’re great. They are always happy to take invitations for the next show.

Do you specialise in any type of paint?

Yes, oil based. I do the odd charcoal too, but have never used acrylics. I have never been interested in water colours. I like good quality oils. When you are younger you can’t necessarily afford them and I sometimes think if you really want to do something you can create it with whatever is at hand. I painted for many years with a Czech guy. We went together to the Czech Republic and painted there. We used pencil and charcoal and people treated us like royalty.

Where does the city work fit into your schedule and thought process?

I have an instinctive love of portraiture. I can whip up a portrait like that. I must do more of the portraiture, which I enjoy, but the city work intellectually stimulates me. It’s hard to say how long it takes. I tweak and do that is and that. I realise I have only touched the surface. I have been doing them for 10 years and now I know there is so much more I can do. I need more patience. Sydney can’t stand still. It is changing. This is reinforced when you paint reflections in glass. Move one inch and the reflection changes. I want to get this fluid organic quality. I want people to get that feeling of, ‘oh, what am I looking at now? Am I looking through a window or am I looking at a reflection in a window?’ I like that. I like the viewer to stop and think about it. While I did not consciously set out with that concept of chronicling, I was soon into it. I realised that was what I was doing.

Is that how art often works, taking you to places?

Absolutely. I don’t set out with a clear plan because that often hampers you, so you let the canvas speak to you a lot of the time. Nowadays, you can paint on stretch canvas and you don’t have to worry about frames, and that makes it much easier. I have always stretched my own, but for these very big canvases, it is very physical, so I now get this young guy up the road to do it for me. You have to stretch the canvas this way and then that way. I can do the small ones but the big ones, oh no. He has just started out and we celebrate our birthdays together. He carries my business cards and I carry his work. I like the community help; it is very nice.

What does the city mean to you as an artist?

It’s my life blood. I don’t understand people who want to go to the country. Three days is maximum for me. I like to be in the middle of things. I hate being able to see the horizon. It makes me feel really depressed. I always think Russell Drysdale must have been a depressed man. He has come from luscious green England and I see his paintings, and I just want to howl.

I am doing more on Newtown because it has changed but still has gorgeous facades. Paintings can show the past, present and future. I do cranes. Centrepoint Tower has a view, a skyscape (of now) but whack a crane in the background and it shows a future. I do that often in my search for new reflections,

Photographer Anke Stäcker, image from city in Poland

Caption: Stäcker’s images refashion city remnants such as this plump sofa outside a ruin that is still habited in Poland’s Władysława Hinterhof district. Photography ©Anke Stäcker

Art in the city: the joy of discovery for Anke Stäcker

I love going to galleries and thoroughly enjoy the tours of contemporary galleries that I have done with photographer and art lover, Anke Stäcker.

Going around galleries was always an important part of my travels, mixing the must-see nationals with as many smaller, independent ones that I could find.

Gallery opening hours in Sydney though often elude me – different days, different times each day, with long walks from the nearest public transport (or parking spot in the choice suburbs in which galleries are often located). At least I get to know Sydney’s backstreets, and backstreets, as I have found, are home to many an unlikely exhibition.

For directionally challenged people like me, attending Discover Sydney’s Contemporary Art Galleries tours, run by the WEA for the last few years, is a huge help. No longer on my own I reach the outlets, well-known ones and others down those backstreets and laneways, meet gallery curators, artists, learn a thing or two about their history and current exhibits, and mix with other art-lovers also on the walks.

The WEA tours are taken by Anke Stäcker, a photomedia artist who also calls herself “an urban explorer”. She came to Australia from Germany in the late 1980s and has led tours since 2010. Over the several years I have visited galleries with Anke I have learnt the joy of discovery. Her eyes light up when she tells us about a new gallery that’s opened in Sydney’s hidden corners. In contrast, her face creases up in disappointment when she relays news of a closure, the last about the dearly departed Watters Galley. But there will always be another avenue, another renovated industrial warehouse, another staircase to climb within many of these character-filled outlets.

Why did you decide to run the WEA’s city gallery tours? Had you run any other similar tours before this?

Anke: It was a coincidence as a friend of mine was running tours through the WEA before me and we often talked about it. When she went back to live in Germany, she passed the contact on to me. I applied with a new course outline taking into account the newest changes in the Sydney art gallery scene.

I like to show people the variety of art galleries in different neighbourhoods. Apart from the art, they also enjoy the experience of being in parts of the city they may not have seen before.

Have there been any standouts for you and your students over the years?

Standouts are usually when a few things come together. From my experience these are:

  • Special events, like the Sydney Biennale or other bigger events at Carriageworks or the National Art School Gallery, but also the discovery of hard-to-find galleries.
  • Talks by artists, directors and gallery managers to the group.
  • When the people in the group are enthusiastic about the art and galleries, and they see and interact with each other and the tutor.

How important do you think it is for a city to have many smaller, private and/or cooperatively run galleries and not just the more establishment ones?  

Smaller privately or artist-run galleries are important, because they indicate that the city is alive, that there are people with ideas and initiative. However, some of these enterprises can’t survive, often because of high rents and low income as many of these initiatives are driven by showing cutting-edge art and not by making a profit. On the other hand, the establishment, larger scale ones are contributing enormously to the art scene in Sydney. I am personally impressed with Carriageworks, located in the old Eveleigh Rail Yards in Redfern. They bring outstanding international and Australian contemporary art to Sydney.

For a decade or more the grungy, working-class Chippendale and adjacent Darlington had been the best-kept secret to find small alternative galleries and artist-run initiatives. After the redevelopment of the old Carlton Brewery into Central Park (in 2010), a new phase began with the establishment of the Chippendale Creative Art Precinct. This not-for-profit organisation promoted Chippendale as a creative cluster and cultural hub and sponsored new galleries. One of them was the Kensington Contemporary in Kensington Street where I had a solo exhibition in 2016. Then, in 2017, the precinct folded and subsequently their sponsored galleries closed. However, a new commercial gallery opened in the same year and I am sure other initiatives will follow. And, of course, there is the amazing White Rabbit, a philanthropic enterprise with thematic exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art. It is still worth going to Chippendale.

For a long time, East Sydney only had the Watters Gallery, then two others followed. All of them were a bit too far apart to do a walk in that area. Now there are so many that you can’t include them all in the one walk. Damien Minton was the gallery manager of the former Watters Gallery. Visits were particularly interesting as he took the group to the extensive stock area and talked about the history and mission of this gallery with its legendary directors having run it for over 50 years and nurturing artists along the way. Other galleries in the area are equally welcoming. 

Watters Gallery closed at the end of 2108 because Frank Watters and Geoffrey Legge, the founders and directors, retired. While this is the end of an era, East Sydney is still one of the most vibrant art environments in this city. These developments show the fluctuations and dynamics of the art scene in a big city. Therefore, it is essential for a gallery tour guide to be alert about these changes and it is almost impossible to predict six months in advance which galleries will be visited.

What do you hope to instil in your students?

I hope to excite and inspire and make them go back to the places we’ve visited. I want them to know where the galleries are and realise that they don’t have to be intimidated to enter a gallery, and that they are also welcome to go to the openings.

Does taking the tours feed into your own work?

It does in that sense that I want to see what other artists do and I also want to be up to date about the galleries.

NB: It’s not a coincidence that other classes Stäcker takes have a city bent. I have been on a photography class where we took photos of city streets from different points of view and specific approaches such as blurring, colour contrasts, lines and circles. I also went to Forgotten Female Artists of the Weimar Republic, which included Jeanne Mammen, who observed Berlin through its streets, cafes, cabaret (including Toulouse-Lautrec like dancers), androgynous fashion, and what she called “new women”. Having survived World War II, she then thrived during periods of post-war creative expression.