Warren Taylor, a Visual Communications lecturer at Monash University, altered the Melbourne gallery scene in 2006 with the opening of his curatorial project The Narrows - a gallery focused on the crossover of art and graphic design. After five years and achieving international acclaim, The Narrows closed its doors, but Warren hasn't finished bringing Melbourne's artists and designers, into contact with local and international uncovered talent.
I started The Narrows as an independent project in 2006 and a few friends helped design and build the space. I didn't go into it with a considered manifesto, it was more a curatorial project that evolved over time, there was the idea that exhibitions would focus on contemporary art practices and graphic work - print media, print designs, archives, collections - essentially it was working outside of the conventional application based, artist run model. I wanted to instigate and curate shows from within the gallery, yet having a small budget meant most of the shows came from private collections, museums or were sourced on Ebay. It was artist-run, but the ambitions were equal to that of a small museum or gallery. Because the program evolved over time, some exhibitions worked and some didn't - but the crossover was really interesting.
I felt that graphic design was not represented in galleries and museums in Australia and was always envious of activities in Europe. There were exhibitions being staged in Switzerland, Amsterdam or London that made me think - why isn't there a platform here? Occasionally you would see a Polish poster exhibition or a furniture design show - exhibitions with established public interest.
That annoyed me as that was really just a platform for local designer objects and was called the "National Design Centre". There were some shows but they didn't really have the curatorial edge that you would get at the Design Museum in London or the Max Museo in Italy, where they're identifying these key figures in the world of graphic art...
With the rise in DIY art and street art, things like illustration and design were being represented in a way that didn't really interest me. One of our first design shows was an exhibition on Ronald Clyne for Folkways Records, curated by John Nixon and Stephen Bram - this was the first real exposure for the gallery and subsequent versions of this exhibition were held at Art Space in Auckland and Gallery 5610 in Tokyo. The collection keeps growing and is now 120. Clyne designed around 700 covers for the label.
After that show we approached Experimental Jetset to do a show on their posters. That was probably the time we crossed over into blog culture. We became interesting to a certain sector of Melbourne cultural community and we were blogged about through certain sites. From there it was about having conversations with people and being approached... I didn't really have the ambition to create a gallery that would be a centre for graphic art, but by the time we left that space 5 years later it had gained a sort of worldwide notoriety, a profile as one of the few places that exhibited graphic art, outside of the big institutions like the Design Museum, but without the budget!
That was purely coming from my own interest, there wasn't an agenda not to include architecture or product design and certainly in the next stage or evolution of the gallery I can imagine that introduction of multidisciplinary practice. Our shows would include posters, books or record covers, flyers, printed ephemera and quite often that material is easy to display, easy to transport and accessible - you could approach another museum, design studio or artist and ask to loan or buy a collection printed material.
We did a show in a Swedish graphic designer, John Melin, who I discovered in a an issue of Grafik and became quite curious about the posters he was doing for the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Poster design in the 60s had a stronger relationship with contemporary art and more scope for experimentation and play.
With larger institutions in Australia, which are comparable to the Moderna Museet like the NGV and MCA, their promotional material is quite safe.
Yes, it's very typical to have the exhibiting artist's key piece as the main focus. Poster design has been led by cinema poster design - where in the 1950s and 60s you had very experimental, illustrative, graphic based posters for films, nowadays the 'poster' has the 'star' or key image upfront - and the same model is used for most commercial advertising. If the name of the gallery or logo or key artwork isn't featured then it's not ticking the boxes from marketing point of view.
When I was studying fine art and practising as a graphic designer, I was quite aware that the crossover doesn't always work, posters aren't always relevant in a gallery space. A poster on the street doesn't need to be framed and pulled into a museum because the context works in its original form. So as a way to bring graphic design into the gallery I introduced these A3 posters for all of our exhibitions. I also wanted a platform for my own work, so I created graphic material that gave the gallery an identity through its printed material. We used them as mailers, it could accommodate an essay, it could act as a catalogue or just a promotional flyer or poster. They were pinned or pasted up around the city without the identity of the gallery being obvious. The format and the paper stock and the printing and the folding became the identity. In the beginning I remember asking a group of artists if a $500 printers fee for the posters was fair to ask as a contribution if they were exhibiting (given we didn't have rental fees). And the majority said no - they were following the trend that you didn't need a printed invite, that things happened electronically. But that general opinion changed over time...
Yes, and artists or curators would have an idea for the exhibition and poster, so it would often become a collaborative process in designing poster. The artists are not usually part of that process, and it created good relationships and collaborative projects, which evolved into publishing. We've now published 6 books with artists.
The client has evolved and is exposed to the process now, whereas the process or skill 15 years ago was similar to that of another tradesperson - manual layout, typesetting and printing. Now people have access to software and know 'someone' who tinkers on Photoshop or simply designs in Microsoft Publisher... But the idea of a crisis?
Well it doesn't have a rich history either. It's hard to comment because you speak from a certain generation as well. Graphic design is a solitary process for the most part, you're working on your own without the performative element of fine art or architecture and the idea of celebrity doesn't really exist as much. On the one hand, a graphic designer who is working as a commercial artist is working with a public outcome. Then independently or for self promotional work or if they have a special relationship with their client, they can they create something more personal. Many designers will have the two sides - commercial and independent. I was always interested in the processes of both non-commercial and commercial artists, the similarities that they share. The collection of information and research, the application of an idea.
I'm a lecturer in Visual Communication, which is effectively graphic design. I teach in Graphic Design Studio which is the core subject for the bachelor degree - basically simulating real-life briefs and experimental exercises. I've been teaching there for about 13 years now.
When The Narrows closed down I wanted to maintain a curatorial profile. I realised these shows can still exist, just shown in an alternate location. Having contacts at the university and its facilities opens up the opportunities to having artist residencies and public lectures. There's a show I'm working on with Studio Vista paperback books and a residency at Monash University with a Japanese graphic designer, Toshihiro Katayama (in October).
I would have loved to have kept going on Flinders Lane, but a break has been interesting, if anything, to look back. When you're working on 12 or 13 shows a year there's no time to critically reflect on what elements work - when one show is up you're already working on the next one. Ideally I'd like to open another space, there certainly was a place for that space in the city. I like the idea of a permanent archive of graphic art which is one display. Most of the Australian design archives are boxed up in the Power House Museum, so unless it's someone like Martin Sharpe, most of that work doesn't get shown.
Thanks. I've had more interviews since the gallery closed!
The Narrows website has a concise archive of past exhibitions, upcoming shows and a store of their publications.
Photography property of The Narrows and Double Days.
The referrals began with Leah Jackson who referred Stephanie Downey who referred Chris Hill who referred Jonathan Wallace who referred Dominic Hofstede, who referred Paul Fuog, who referred Ben Edwards and Juliet Moore, who referred Ryan Russel and Byron George, who referred Dianna Snape, who finished the stream with Jessica Brent. We also introduced Matt Hinkley who referred Warren Taylor who referred Yanni Florence, who referred Liv Barrett, who referred Fayen d'Evie, who referred Masato Takasaka, who referred Madeline Kidd, who referred Meredith Turnbull, who referred Nella Themelios.
In May 2012, we began a new Melbourne stream with Oslo Davis. He then referred Alexander Stitt, who referred Mimmo Cozzolino, who referred Fysh Rutherford, who referred Simon and Jenna Hipgrave.
In March 2012, we went to Austin for SXSW, where the daily referrals began with Sonnenzimmer who referred Landland and Hometapes who referred Zorch, who referred Brian Maclaskey, who referred Bobby Dixon, who referred Brian Phillips, who, through some auspicious coincidence, turned the SXSW referral interview project into a perfect circle, by referring us back to Sonnenzimmer. Then there was a giveaway to celebrate.