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A private walkthrough of Rone’s new exhibition ‘Empty’

The internationally acclaimed artist's first solo show in two years

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The first Saturday of November in 1911 saw to the Star Lyric’s opening in Fitzroy. As one of Melbourne’s earliest film venues, the theatre operated until 1938. Since then the space has transformed from a chocolate factory, to a furniture warehouse and most recently, a retail shop. This makeshift warehouse on the corner of Johnston and Gore Street is soon to follow the trend of being demolished and replaced by apartments. But the old Star is set to play out one final act—courtesy of one of Australia’s biggest names in streetart—Rone.

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Rone has a keen eye. Where many of us barely noticed detailing on the back wall of the old Dimmy’s warehouse, he saw potential. With the knowledge that the place was soon to be knocked down and having spotted remnants of a mural, the whole wall was stripped back to create a two-story canvas that now holds one of his iconic female muses. “You could only see parts of the old mural that were still there and I was like ‘oh, it’d be cool to see what’s under that one day’, and I guess that this exhibition is that opportunity—it’s like, alright, lets see.”

Versed in picking out places that could become home to his colossal paintings, he says it’s easier to find a location first and then plan the art. Yet commissions often call for him to work with the space he’s given. Now, his exhibition Empty is as personal as his work gets. Suspended along the walls of the theater is a row of canvases on the right and a row of photographs on the left. Where the canvases show a range of portraits, the photographs show his art adorning the walls of abandoned houses.

This is his first exhibition in two years but shots of the art have barely made it to social media. “When you stumble upon something you doesn’t expect to see, that’s when it’s most exciting. When you’ve seen a photo of a painting, and then you see it in the flesh … It’s almost like you’ve already seen it and you’re not surprised. I want the surprise.”

Terrible with a spray can and never having attended art school, Rone’s technique came from his own exploration of different methods. “I started stenciling and just thought it was a really simple style. Evolving from that, it got to a point where I couldn’t paint any bigger because it’s kind of stupid to cut out a two-story stencil. So I started hand painting in the same kind of stencil style.” The paintings he spends the longest on are the ones he loves the least, as Rone tries to complete each piece in one day. It’s through the vigor that such a speed brings that his paintings come to life. “You almost just throw the paint at the canvas really fast and it works and it’s got so much energy to it. It’s not going to last and I think that kind of helps bring a juxtaposition between that hard concrete wall and this beautiful image.”

The exhibition as a whole challenges the idea of artists creating work to surpass their own mortality. “It’s emotional. They’re all going to go and the only way I can save them in any way is the photographs and I know for sure some of them are already falling over. But that’s what kind of makes it exciting—you have to come see it now. Once this show closes they start demolishing this place.” He envisions capturing a final shot with the Star’s roof removed and the walls crumbled, as the mural stands alone.

Rone is proud to say it’s his best work, even though it is fleetingly so. This inspires hope that people who come will experience art in a temporary form that breeds a sense of immortality within memories. “Nothing lasts forever and I think it gives people more of an emotional attachment to it. It’s that emotional response to art, and if I can do that with someone, that’s fantastic.”

Previously labeled as ‘Jane Does’, the portraits of women have become something much more than that. “They’re characters or actors in a movie for me. It’s not like portrait painting—this is painting as self-expression. It’s not happy or sad, it’s fragile but raw and I guess that’s more me—personal expression rather than painting a portrait.”

“I don’t want to exploit women or sexualize them either,” he said. “It’s beauty alone, and that’s enough.” For Rone, his paintings in the abandoned houses are “as authentic as it gets.” Their impending abolishment combine with the remnants of life around them creates a story within a story and the effect is hallowing. “It’s something you can’t hold and it’s just there for whoever finds it. It’s these settings where people have walked away and left it empty—as the show is titled. You can piece together the stories by what is left behind and it’s this instant mystery.”

This exhibition marks the first time Rone is presenting photography. Often he had to re-do the shots, and every time he returned to the house he encountered the same fear. “I’d go back and be hoping someone hadn’t drawn a big dick over it.” This playful attitude is perhaps what lead to his willingness to take of risk in the virtual reality side of the exhibition. A VR camera has captured the rooms so the audience can experience the destruction of a former life in full retrospect.

Despite being globally acclaimed, Rone doesn’t see other Melbournians as competition. “I don’t want to be the best local artist. I act locally but look at an international level. There’s no reason why Melbourne isn’t better than LA.” His advice for young Melbourne artists is not to quit your day job. “Don’t put all the pressure on your artwork because that means you have to compromise it. If you don’t have to make money off your art work… you’re a bit more likely to be able to say ‘no’ when you need to.”

7 years ago, Rone thought he’d reached his careers peak when his work was acquisitioned by the National Gallery of Victoria. Now, what hung there is “embarrassing” for him. “It’s not just about selling a few canvases and prints now, it’s about working with councils or building developers. Working on things that aren’t even built … you’re building and changing a landscape before it even happens… that kind of stuff is incredible.” Where his artistic journey will take him next, he is unsure. In the meantime, he encourages as many people as he can to see the art before it’s all gone. Oh, and “bring your mum,” of course.

Rone’s exhbition ‘Empty’ runs October 14–23, 12pm to 5pm at 247 Johnston St, Fitzroy.

  • Photography: Supplied

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