Tim Richards discovers art in new places on a walking tour through the city's alleyways and galleries.
'Hal's Wigs, Merrylight Wigs, Di'Napoli Men's Hair Pieces," I murmur, reading the labels on a column of cardboard boxes that reaches from floor to ceiling. Each title is stencilled in an old-fashioned font that suggests a commercial enterprise of the 1950s or '60s.
I catch myself reaching up to check the status of my own hairline, as the artist might have expected me to do. For this tower is an untitled work by Melbourne artist Lane Cormick on exhibition at Neon Parc, a Melbourne city-centre art gallery that only the lucky or well-researched could stumble across.
It's on the upper floor of a nondescript brick building above a newsagent, next to a multistorey car park. The exterior is bland but the interior is fascinating: a compact gallery space with plenty of natural light and a diverse range of art across different media.
"We exhibit innovative artists from all backgrounds," director Geoff Newton says.
It's a great example of Melbourne's cool but sometimes elusive art scene and a key stop on the twice-weekly Inside the Labyrinth walking tour led by freelance curator Jane O'Neill. Starting from the iconic Pellegrini's - whose coffee might also be reckoned a work of art - O'Neill leads small groups to the more interesting of the city's downtown galleries.
"It's about the promotion of contemporary art to a broader audience, that's my key motivation," O'Neill says. "The geographical layout of Melbourne is very exciting for a tour, as it means exploring lots of laneways and unusual places."
In fact it's laneway venues all the way as we start at the jewellery gallery Funaki in Crossley Street, currently showcasing the intriguing work of Laura Deakin, whose chunky resin brooches resemble stylised parrots.
Then it's along the street and upstairs to a light-filled room that was once the residence of 19th-century landscape painter Eugene von Guerard. It seems curious that the nature-loving artist could have thrived in such an urban environment but he no doubt would have approved of his room's current use by the Sarah Scout gallery.
It's a big white space providing an area for challenging work that might not fit in elsewhere, co-owner Vikki McInnes says. Around its walls today are "found photographs" of unrelated people, recovered by artist Susan Fereday and arranged in sets that suggest family narratives.
After visiting Neon Parc, with its diverse works composed of canvas, cardboard, fabric and paper, we step into a beautiful art deco Exhibition Street building that I later realise is Liberal Party headquarters. Above the political machinations, however, is Tolarno, a vast white exhibition space that today is hung with five large framed photographs by Rosemary Laing, depicting a house-sized timber frame embedded into a hill surrounded by gum trees. O'Neill and I debate whether the frame really existed or is clever photographic trickery; either way, they're fascinating pieces.
The tour isn't just about galleries, it transpires; back out on the street, O'Neill leads me into the Reserve Bank building to discover a 20-metre-long Sidney Nolan work in the foyer. It depicts the events of the Eureka Stockade and is a striking example of jewellery enamel on copper, which my guide tells me was shipped out in pieces from Nolan's London studio.
Then we're off again, this time to the Murray White Room, another gallery entered from an alleyway. It's a lofty, raw, industrial space with exposed concrete floors and ceilings and exhibiting the work of several artists. My eye is drawn to the work of Melbourne artist Alex Pittendrigh, a series of dark visions on black paper with a repeating image of peacock feathers.
Proceeding along Flinders Lane, O'Neill draws me aside into an undistinguished foyer to show me a row of old-fashioned wooden mailboxes with glass panes, now a miniature exhibition space. Within, I can see a series of finely rendered ink drawings on the theme of Birds, Bison and Big Houses.
There are two more venues to see: the prestigious Anna Schwartz Gallery, hung with huge pieces involving abstract flowing colours by Dale Frank; followed by the artier-than-anything Nicholas Building, where we chat with a lift attendant before viewing an interesting video-art exhibition at the Blindside gallery.
Leaving the building, O'Neill points out the space where a piece of street art by the renowned Banksy once existed before being wiped amid the endless Melbourne debate about the virtues of unauthorised public art. It is a fitting conclusion to the insight into the city's art scene I've been granted in the course of a few hours.
Sitting at a table in the Hell's Kitchen cafe-bar above nearby Centre Place, I ask O'Neill what she takes away from her role as tour guide.
"I'm almost evangelical about art," she says. "I get a huge reward from people getting pleasure and learning about art. I have a deep-seated belief that everybody is creative, actually. I show people that art isn't an intimidating, confounding thing; it's something that anybody can hook on to."
Inside the Labyrinth departs 2pm Fridays and Saturdays from outside Pellegrini's Espresso Bar, 66 Bourke St, city, $60, phone 0412 169391 or see artaficionadotours.com.
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Just Around the Corner
Art Aficionado Tours also conducts a tour of the burgeoning gallery scene of Prahran and South Yarra. The Just Around the Corner tour departs 2pm Wednesdays from The Cullen Hotel (itself named after an Archibald Prize-winning artist), 164 Commercial Rd, Prahran. Cost $50, phone 0412 169391 or see artaficionadotours.com, artserieshotels.com.au.
House Tours of the Johnston Collection
This fine collection of antiques is housed within the former East Melbourne residence of the late William Johnston. To preserve the peace and quiet of his neighbours, visitors can only enter the house after having been shuttled from the Hilton on the Park hotel. Tours are at 10am, noon and 2.15pm on weekdays and also at 10am on the second Saturday of each month and at 7pm on the third Thursday of each month. It costs $22 adult, $18.50 concession, phone 9416 2515.
Melbourne Street Art Tours
Immerse yourself in the intricacies of street art on this tour. It's run by creators of edgy public art, who can give you the lowdown on artistic life outside the white walls of a gallery. The tour departs from Federation Square on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 1.30pm. Cost $69 including refreshments, phone 9328 5556 or see melbournestreettours.com.
Walk to Art
Former restaurateur and art consultant Bernadette Alibrando believes that great art matches neatly with great food and wine, so combines the lot on her regular Melbourne art gallery walking tour. Each tour finishes with conversation over wine and the presentation of a "starter pack" to help continue your artistic explorations. The Express Friday tour covers the CBD, departing 2pm and costing $78. Phone 8415 0449 or see walktoart.com.au.
Art and Design Walk
Hidden Secrets Tours conducts a weekly Art and Design Walk with emphasis on public art in the city. Each tour ends with a drink and chat. Departs 2pm Saturdays from Federation Square, cost $70. Phone 9663 3358 or see hiddensecretstours.com.