Utopian Slumps: Utopian Visions - Art Collector

Issue 53, July - September 2010

On the hunt for the meaning of the name Utopian Slumps, Carrie Miller discovers an up-and-coming gallery that is definitely not in a slump.

The strange name Utopian Slumps was first suggested to founder Melissa Loughnan by Hell Gallery’s Jess Johnson and has more than one source of inspiration. First, it related to the experience of the original space. As Loughnan describes it: “The visitor was required to enter via a scungy alley filled with a smelly skip, discarded furniture and parked cars, up some rickety stairs to a pigeon poo encrusted landing, to arrive in a relatively pristine, or utopian white cube”. The name also evokes the life of the artist: “Its utopian ideals, and the slumps of reality”. Finally, it was the title of an Ed Ruscha painting exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2005. All in all, the name perfectly reflects Loughnan’s curatorial concerns and aesthetic.

Since its grungy beginnings the Melbourne gallery has evolved from a non-profit with very little government support to its current incarnation as a polished commercial space – a space the gallerist describes as a “curator-run dealer gallery” – fronted by the equally polished but warm and unpretentious Loughnan.

While she began as an artist herself, Loughnan soon realised her real passion and strength lay with the understanding and promotion of other people’s work. Accordingly, she pursued art history and curatorial studies, culminating in a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne. Through her professional experience, including internships at the Queensland Art Gallery, the Ian Potter Museum of Art, and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Loughnan has gained a reputation for a sharply critical eye; specifically the ability to spot authentic talent among the glut of superficially resolved, showroom-ready work.

She certainly wasn’t voted one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2009 by The Age’s Melbourne Magazine for following trends. Instead, Loughnan relies largely on gut instinct when choosing her artists. She looks for “originality, sometimes humour or satire, skill, or memorability” – qualities that are discovered through “some sort of physical reaction” to the work, rather than a purely intellectual process. In particular, she’s drawn to a craft aesthetic, meaning works that “reject the slickness and high production methods in, for example, certain types of installation, assemblage or video work,” in favour of a “handmade uniqueness”. Two of her current stable who exemplify this style are Jake Walker and Mark Rodda, artists who have recently gained critical currency.

Amber Wallis, another artist represented by Loughnan, speaks highly of her skills. “Melissa is a one-off. She has a unique, magic combo: young, cool, killer smart, has a head for business, a great eye for art and she is following her dreams,” she says. “Her focus is on the art, continuing to curate interesting shows, showing diverse artists and not just her stable which makes her interesting. Yet being part of her stable I feel very supported and like a little family is forming which includes the broader Melbourne art scene and beyond. It’s exciting to be part of.”

After taking on a range of roles in the art world, from institutional curator to arts administrator, Loughnan has come to realise she enjoys selling art, and in particular, in assisting artists “in the management of their careers and promotion of their work”. And so she has committed herself to the life of the dealer. She sees herself as continuing to primarily foster the careers of emerging and early career artists, of course keeping in mind that “as my artists, myself and the gallery continue to develop our profiles I imagine that we will grow together”.

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