Suits the urban peasant

By Rhonda Dredge

There’s a great little setting up the top of Bourke St on McIlwraith Lane with a truck parked out front and the brick walls of a suburban factory, in stark contrast to the dressed-up ladies of town.

Upstairs there used to be a camera repair shop. Now you can stand in the concrete cloisters of the car park opposite and wait for the lights to go on.

You might have to step out of the way so that drivers can get to the parking payment machine.

This is the entrance to Neon Parc, a no-nonsense commercial gallery that offers a moment of stillness in the ever-changing city. It has been running for 13 years.

The city seems to fade away in the face of the quiet industry of gallery director Geoff Newton who doesn’t rely on passing trade.

Newton’s connections are with the art world and he has nurtured the careers of many local artists.

A production schedule is necessary, he says. Exhibitions are planned a year in advance. For the latest show, he’s also had to stretch the canvasses.

“If you want to sell a show to your client base and media it takes longer than a month,” he said.

Most artists prefer a shady corner on the street where they can sketch or collect materials to an upfront position on the sales desk. The world of commerce can be a mystery.

Local painter Josey Kidd-Crowe is showing currently, even though he has moved to Georgia.

“Josey’s a Renaissance man,” says Newton, “a wandering minstrel. Young artists look to historical artists for some of their mythology.”

Kidd-Crowe’s last show was three years ago and Picasso was the source for some playful rat and pornographic imagery. This time the painter is working with bed bugs and gargoyles. The canvases are torn and stitched, as if he’s had some trouble making up his mind.

Artists are under no obligation to be other than true to their own practice, Newton said. Sometimes this works. Other times the viewer is left with a longing for more punch.

Newton likes exhibitions that pose questions. Is there a kind of art suited to the CBD? In an image-saturated world in which Instagram feeds the average punter with a daily diet of lurid shots, Newton is arguing for something deeper.

If texture is more important than meaning, then Kidd-Crowe is onto something. If shades are more pleasing than Pantone primaries, then he’s also a prophet for our times.

The gritty work of a peasant artist is a plus in Newton’s book. He’s not interested in work that is about being trendy or made for financial gain. “People can see through it.”

Two good galleries have moved out of the CBD this year to Fitzroy, chasing more space. Neon Parc’s city pad is small but that’s its attraction. It has to offer something that is not available elsewhere.

“I’ve always been pragmatic about the business side of what art’s supposed to do,” Newton said. “Things need an outcome. You can’t survive or live on dreams.”

Newton began as an artist and liked organising exhibitions for his friends. He still has a feel for the personal and is not that into theorising. He’d rather talk about his sunburn than the CBD collector or contemporary tastes.

Some gallery directors fall for their own pitches. Newton’s not one of them. He has opened a larger gallery in Brunswick, which gives him a chance to give mid-career artists more space to make a show profitable.

The city space, entered through its nondescript doorway off McIlwraith Place, is suburban noir with its plain brick walls, old signage and concrete surrounds but it suits the urban peasant.

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