Two of my favorite friends/artists Reg Mombassa and Glenno Smith (who did the great illustration/s for now two editions of Highway to Hell) got together during the pandemic lockdown and produced a collaborative body of work that now with the world opening up again they have only just exhibited, at the Rogue pop-up gallery in Redfern. It was a great show and to cut to the chase, since I was delighted to contributes some notes to the catalogue, I will just copy those words here:
Because I’m a music person as well as an art person and/or vice/versa, perhaps I should start with a song: “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage.” Now of course that may not seem very rock’n’roll, in either style or sentiment, but hey, hopefully it’s thrown out a bit of a curve ball because that’s (just) one thing this show’s about… But then I always liked the theory that Frank Sinatra was the first prototype rock star, and to take the sentiment to its universal conclusion, what it’s all about is the perfect union…
And that’s what this show – CREATURES: Losing the War with Nature – is indeed mostly about, or where it starts on first-principles: a perfect union, and ‘union’ not in the singular but plural, of the artists themselves, and of art and music, and the art itself…
Of course, it’s one of the very tropes of rock history, how so many musicians started out in art school, from John Lennon, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and Ray Davies, to David Bowie, Brian Eno and Bryan Ferry, to Nick Cave, David Byrne and in fact all the members of the Talking Heads and the Clash; to our stars here, Reg Mombassa and Glenno Smith, who both have long histories as musicians as well as jobbing artist, to – daresay, me too! Reg is a couple of years older than me and so I figure that when I was just starting at Brisbane Art College in the mid-70s, he was just finishing at East Sydney tech, Paddington, at around the same time he was starting on the first stirrings of what would become Mental As Anything. I dropped out to take up writing, about music mainly, greatly inspired by the then-nascent punk movement, into which the Mentals sometimes got roped. Glenno is quite a bit younger again but got bitten by much the same bug – punk/rock and art. And if it’s not needless to add, not just all the same-old same-old canonistic highbrow fodder, nor its official alternative in the contemporary conceptual avant-garde, but all sorts of the art that’s sometimes now lumped under the label ‘lowbrow’– comics, B-movies, daytime TV, crass advertising, psychedelic poster art, album cover design, all things apparently ‘kitsch’ as the outmoded discriminatory term used to have it; same as Reg was always smitten by too, and me as well. When Glenno lit out of his native Orange to go to same Paddington circle that was Reg’s alma mater, the snooty teachers there told this boy from the bush that his ‘surfie art’ would never cut it, and that maybe, if he was lucky, like Reg (as if luck has had anything to do with Reg’s sustained success!), he might get a job at Mambo… And this as recently as the early 90s!
So, fuck that, Glenno thought, and kept on doing what he was doing, forming his first band Lawnsmell and continuing to hone his skills as an illustrator, not least in doing gig posters, record covers, T-shirts and pet-portrait commissions. It was inevitable, then, that he and Reg would cross paths…
Glenno is not only an artist and musician but also something of an entrepreneur, if that tag’s not too lofty for someone to whom the concept of DIY is fundamental and almost sacrosanct. After numerous exhibitions of his own and collaborations with the likes of Neil ‘Birdhat’ Tomkins, Glenno hatched the idea of a sort of mini-festival alternative to the Sydney Biennale, called Bein’Narly (geddit? many didn’t). This wasn’t with any funding underwriting it, grants doled out for applications drowning in all the requisite theory/politics, it was driven by nothing but Glenno’s sheer zeal for a lot of great art that is its own community in Sydney but which seems to be completely beneath the orthodox art world’s notice.
One of the artists Glenno approached to be in the first Bein’Narly group show at the start of 2016 was Reg, and the pair were like two peas in a pod, not only due to sharing similar roots but also an attitude that’s anti-careerist and includes a refusal to take anything too seriously; “and other preoccupations,” as Glenno says, “that were big last century.” I went to the show’s opening night, and it was great – lots of people, great art, warm beer, good vibes; not a ‘creative’ or curator in sight, no arts hub or precinct necessary… Just do it! But then of course the pandemic hit…
But as it was for so many artists, this was an opportunity to dig in on work without any distractions. And that’s how this collaboration began.
To add to his mastery of linework and cross-hatching, Glenno had started experimenting with lino-printing. He collaborated with another great Sydney musician/artist Ray Ahn, adapting drawings by Ray to this mass-production medium and getting beautiful results. And so it was during lockdown that Glenno and Reg got together – as GReg, prounounced ‘gredge’, not ‘Greg’ – and started on so many of the works included in this show.
They would shuttle piles of lino between each other, Reg would draw on them, and Glenno would interpret and carve, later adding digital colour until, as Glenno put it, “we found a happy medium. Some colours get changed and some ideas go further than expected, until we both say, Done. It's fun.”
The show is comprised of not only these new products of this perfect union, but also works by the individual artists that may or may not be related. And so it becomes, for me, like this one great big giant monster mash-up, this aesthetic, this narrative, like a form of suburban surrealism, and it’s just really unique and bold and strong. And if not without its vulnerabilities, crucially with a broad iconoclastic sense of humour. I mean, to me that’s all you need to say about the work, it’s just this seamless union, of good and good. It’s fun.
Of course, Glenno did end up working with Mambo, like it was a reverse graveyard for the actually imaginative/talented, and if the next best union of he and Reg might be a double-header tour by their respective, current bands – Dog Trumpet and the Hellebores – then that’s just something we’ve still got to look forward to.