Helen Gory Galerie: The Gory Brand - Art Collector

Issue 30 October-December 2004

The Gory brand is a work of art an accessory to a lifestyle, like fashion or furniture, or a more important item of cultural capital? Melbourne Gallerist Helen Gory’s refreshing approach to the work of her artists echoes current debates in art criticism and theory writes Edward Colless.

Stylish but downbeat. Casual but intense. You could be talking equally about Helen Gory the person as well as the vibe of her gallery. They’re both into serious fun, and wear their uncompromising commitment to contemporary art with easy-going elegance.

Tucked away bashfully at the back of a warehouse car park just off Melbourne’s groovy Greville Street in Prahran, Helen Gory’s gallery gives the impression of a working studio more than a sleek commercial showroom. In fact she shares the building – a former sewing factory – in an almost open-plan arrangement with the drawing desks and computers of an architectural firm. You walk into the exhibition space passing by their conference room, a freestanding gazebo ingeniously built out of cardboard mailing tubes. There always seems to be creative action going on somewhere, just as there is always music playing, from behind a partition or in one of the rooms that must have been the former factory managers’ offices. And the factory ambience is still in the air: the renovations have been minimal, but with a stylishly ad hoc discretion. You can’t get much further from the exhibition idiom of the cool – at times constrained – white cube.

“I wanted a place,” says Gory, “where people can come in and comfortably look at the art,and talk to me or my staff, without feeling scared.” That doesn’t mean low impact. A degree of confrontation and even confusion goes with contemporary art. We like it like that. It’s the edge we not only expect but demand from good contemporary art, whether we’re new-comers to it or seasoned gallery goers. Gory’s success has been to keep the sense of challenge for her clients without the mystification or arrogance that can so often seem to be the aura around new or unfamiliar art.

That takes confidence both in the artists you show and in your own way of showing them. Gory has a background of study in interior and furniture design at RMIT – “I love furniture as much as I love art,” she exclaims – and the industrial urban texture of her gallery space seems more than just a result of circumstance. The walls look used, as if they have the patina of the street. “I should fix those walls up,” she says reflectively, “but then I’ve been in here for almost five years, so they must be that way for a good reason.” It’s not just practicality. It’s a style thing. An image thing. There’s a distinct quality about all the art she shows, no matter how different the art might be, that seems tuned into this aesthetic and mood. It may be young art, or more established. It may be colourful or sombre. But it’s almost always edgy. It’s the Gory brand.

Gory set up her first gallery in 1996 in Richmond, in partnership with a friend who was studying art history at Melbourne University. “Me, I knew almost nothing about art history. My business partner wanted to deal in established artists: Olsen, Blackman, Friend. But I wanted new, emerging artists. There was so much exciting young talent out there. Those established artists are fine of course, but why go where everyone else has gone?” Even the prominence of the Richmond location started to feel stifling to Gory. The gallery was on the
corner of Punt Road and Swan Street, one the busiest intersections in Melbourne. “I had my logo on the fence,” she recalls. “Do you realise what impact that has on two thousand cars every hour? It sounds odd, but I wanted to find an environment more like a community than an intersection. And I wanted a gallery a bit off the beaten track. A place that you had to … well… discover.”

When Gory went solo and moved into Prahran in 1999 she found just the locale she was yearning for. Not unlike New York’s East Village in the 1980s, or Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district now, Prahran has an up-beat village feel, strongly cultural and (despite the wave of warehouse conversions) still gritty. Gory’s gallery seems a perfect fit among the op shops, record stores, hip clothing and shoe stores, funky cafes and design studios. It seems a place you could easily cruise into, between drinks or while window-shopping. That’s not hyping the place up. Nor is it dressing down the experience of buying art. It’s saying instead that Gory has a distinct style of commerce with art, one that hooks her into the contemporary flows between art and design, and that gives the studio feel of the gallery a spin of adventure and risk.

This is why the gallery has earned its reputation for dealing with and supporting young or emerging artists. Many of the artists in her stable have had their first solo shows through the gallery. “In Richmond I did lots of shows of different, perhaps untested artists,” she says, “and word got out that the gallery was open to new talent. It was largely word of mouth. I’d ask
around, someone would tip me off, or artists would approach me. This carried over to the Prahran gallery. Marcel Cousins and I had a mutual friend who mentioned me to him. Rhys Lee was told about me by the owners of the fashion store down the street called Fat, he was doing some graphic work for them and they mentioned he should come to me. Christine Aerfeldt sent me her folio, and I responded straight away to that work. I really didn’t have to go out looking. The work isn’t in finding talent, but in supporting and promoting it.”

And Gory has no fear of promoting her artists through just the sorts of magazines that would be found lying around in the cafes, clothing boutiques and hairdressing salons around the corner from the gallery and across the city. Most of the publicity she has sought and enviably has found is in magazines like Vogue, Belle, Monument, Australian Style, Yen, Oyster, and Black and White. Gory recognises that art is something you not only purposefully pursue but that it can also be an encounter while browsing. Almost accidental, or at least something that is part of a wider cultural milieu. “There’s a place for the sort of art criticism that you study, and I’d never deny that. I’m equally interested, however, in the reach that design, fashion and lifestyle magazines have into markets and audiences. Magazines are certainly more and more becoming lifestyle guides, why shouldn’t art be there?”

While refreshing, Gory’s approach isn’t exactly radical. But it does pose some tricky questions. And they’re questions that are increasingly becoming debated in the loftier zones of art criticism and theory. Just how far can we equate the appreciation and value of art with the sorts of values we attach to furnishings or clothing? Is art an accessory to a lifestyle or an item of cultural capital? Is it becoming a mere feature of an environment designed for consumerism? And does criticism best serve art when it is in the mode of a consumer guide? “But if you’re buying furniture or clothing or wine or food,” Gory responds, “you make important decisions about taste and quality. These are also the sorts of decisions you make about art. A lot of people can feel intimidated about art because they feel they don’t know enough about it. But look at it this way. Do you have a house? Did you need to study architecture to
have a house? No. What did you do? You had a budget and you looked, and the more you looked the more you got a sense of how you wanted to live, and what you wanted. Well, buying art is similar. You tend to be drawn to galleries where you feel comfortable – through your budget but also and just as importantly through your taste. At a certain point, you just know that you want to buy a particular work. After that you build up your confidence.”

In the end, for Gory, it always comes down to quality. Regardless of how eclectic or erratic one’s taste might be, what matters most for someone buying art is what Gory values most in her artists: the strength of their enjoyment. “I like dancing to psychedelic trance music. But I also love Metallica. And Bob Dylan! Does that mean I have no taste because it’s all over the place. Or that someone who approaches their preferences for art in that way has no taste? Not at all. It’s like what you really rely on with clothes. Clothes have to have a good cut, good fabric. You want to love them. Forget just being fashionable.”

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