A string quartet plays and a nude model poses as an artist paints the walls, in an ephemeral happening in Sydney inspired by the Parisian Belle Époque
Alan Jones – the artist, not the shock jock – squeezes paint out of a tube, mixes it with water, and lifts a fat, unwieldy brush to the wall. We are in Potts Point, Sydney, and Jones is making a mural inside the hallowed Yellow House.
He is not alone. Generating music that feeds his rhythm is a live quartet; watching him is a small audience; and, arched over a black plinth, long dark hair cascading down her bare back, is a naked muse.
I am at the opening night of the Sydney Art Quartet’s Butt Naked Salon II, a re-working of the same concept first launched last year, inspired by the salons in the Belle Époque period in Paris.
While 2016’s performance explored avant-garde bohemia, this time was all about native roots: an attempt, in the words of artistic director James Beck, to “get closer to the soul of Australian art, music and landscape”.
As the musicians – Beck on cello, Alina Zamfir on viola, Anna Albert on violin and Emma Jardine on guest violin – first strike a chord, Greek-Australian Yolanda Frost walks into the room. She slips her silk dressing gown to the floor, revealing olive skin, a silver nipple ring and unshaved armpits. Although she is nude, she wears moon-like silver earrings and maroon lipstick. Jones takes a moment. He looks at her carefully, assessing her form, narrows his eyes, and begins to paint.
Nakedness here is not used as a novelty or for shock value. Instead, the female body is rendered earthy, beautiful and strong, reflecting back on Australia itself. Frost – a performance artist, composer, drummer, and queer rights activist – simmers with presence, unashamed and unembarrassed, reminiscent of a young Frida Kahlo.
Important for Jones was the ability to be creative within a familiar setting. His backdrop for the mural is also his home, the Coogee headlands, which he pre-painted earlier this week. “I wanted to start here. I wanted to stand in front of an orchestra and audience and feel comfortable,” he tells me.
That matters under pressure. Watching Jones at work feels like witnessing a physical act of exertion. Under the gaze of dozens of eyes, and to quick, stirring music, Jones must try and render Frost in real time, finishing his sketches before the quartet stops playing. As he does, he sweats profusely, scarring the wall in feverish strokes. Sometimes inspiration comes to Jones easily: at other points he struggles, scrubbing over his own images, smudging lines, starting again and, later in the evening, erasing a figure entirely under a sludge of thick green paint.
Heightening the drama is the opening music, Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 11, Jabiru Dreaming (a heartbreaking piece by Gerald Finzi and, in the second half, more upbeat Schubert follow). Created by the Australian composer in 1990, Jabiru Dreaming is a heady, throbbing piece, inspired by the shrieks and pulse of the bush.
The artwork itself is unplanned, an impulsive reaction to the melody, insists Jones. “The excitement and the lights and the music … you’ve got to just go with your gut.”
The end result is less important then the process; or, in Jones’ words: “We want there to be an element of surprise. The night is a blank canvas – anything can go.”
Questions over representation – namely, how identity is both created, and warped, through art – are also raised. Frost not only stands in front of us; her figure also comes alive before our very eyes on the wall. In a third twist, reflecting her back like fairground mirrors, are a series of finished nude portraits, also of Frost, which hang around the performance.
While the mural is rough and ready, and often clumsily rendered, the paintings, prepared over the last three months and shown here for the first time, are more intricate and delicate. Thick lines of acrylic, shot out of a corking gun, form the background like thousands of multi-coloured strings: indented in this is the female form rendered in oil paint.
Despite its tongue-in-cheek title, Butt Naked Salon is deeply moving, partly because it is so fleeting. For the next two nights Frost will continue to pose; the quartet will play; and Jones will add to his mural. Erasing and painting, erasing and painting, before the entire thing is washed away and the wall is returned, as if nothing ever happened, to white.
- Butt Naked Salon II is held for a final night on Friday 1 December at Yellow House, Sydney
Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore, ‘Butt Naked Salon: art, music and nudity collide in deeply moving performance’, The Guardian, 1 December 2017.
The Sydney Art Quartet perform at Yellow House with guest artist Alan Jones
Butt Naked Salon was the Sydney Art Quartet’s must-see show of 2016 and it returns in 2017 with the highly awarded artist Alan Jones painting the walls of the historic Yellow House to the music of Schubert and Sculthorpe.
Restricted entry to 18+ due to nudity.
Franz Schubert: Quartet No. 13 in A minor – Rosamunde
Peter Sculthorpe: String Quartet
Butt Naked Salon II is a ticketed event and seats are strictly limited.
Butt Naked Salon II at the Yellow House is in association with Olsen Gallery.
Alan Jones invariably listens to music while he’s painting in his Alexandria studio.
But the artist has never painted in front of an audience to the accompaniment of a live quartet.
“If I think about it too much I break out in a cold sweat,” Jones admits.
The show, Sydney Art Quartet: Butt Naked Salon II, follows the first Butt Naked experience featuring artist Wendy Sharpe last year.
The venue is the Yellow House in Potts Point, which was cemented into Australian art mythology when it was used as a studio and gallery by Martin Sharp, George Gittoes, Brett Whiteley and many other artists in the 1960s and ‘70s avant garde.
In a similar spirit to the “happenings” that were once held at the Yellow House, Jones will paint straight on to an interior wall while life model Yolanda Frost poses for him.
“Part of the concept is it gets painted over and it remains part of the building, and I kind of liked that,” Jones says.
“It reminded me of live music. You play it and then it’s gone if you’re not recording it.”
For several months, Jones has been painting large portraits of Frost to hang at the Yellow House where they will become a backdrop for the performances.
“The whole thing will happen within a solo exhibition,” Jones says.
Jones lives in Coogee, and plans to prepare the walls by painting them with an evocation of the beachside landscape that he loves.
During the performances he will paint Frost into these landscapes.
But he doesn’t want to have too many fixed plans.
“It’s got to be such an intuitive thing,” he says.
Australian Art Quartet artistic director James Beck says the musicians will play compositions by Peter Sculthorpe, Gerald Finzi and Franz Schubert.
- Alan Jones and the Australian Art Quartet: Butt Naked Salon II, Yellow House, 57-59 Macleay St, Potts Point; November 29 and 30, and December 1, adults only, $85 adults, $75 concessions, sydneyartquartet.com
Elizabeth Fortescue, ‘Sydney Art Quartet teams up with artist Alan Jones in Butt Naked II’, The Daily Telegraph, 24 November 2017.