The year was 1982. Fitzroy was still scruffy, punk was reaching Australian shores and hair-dos were only ascending. At a Melbourne art school, discontentment brewed among a group of students. Not only were they uninspired by prevailing aesthetics trends - namely abstraction and conceptual art - they lamented the art system itself. Rigid, hierarchical and near impossible to scale, rather than play its game, these renegades decided to make-up their own rules.
If you can’t join em, beat em
In their teens and early twenties, artists including David Larwill, Mark Schaller, Sarah Faulkner, Mark Howson, Jill Noble, Mike Nicholls and Pasquale Giardinofounded Roar Studios. Nested in a former shoe factory on Brunswick Street, it was among Melbourne’s earliest (and fiercest) artist-run-initiatives, gaining traction for its support of Indigenous, female and untrained artists.
Not only rebellious in attitude, Roar artists also denied aesthetic conventions. Inspired by punk, jazz and graffiti, they took after Avant-Gardists the Angry Penguins as well as CoBrA - a short-lived, but ferocious mid-century European art movement. Like CoBrA, members of Roar Studios created in the key of Outsider Art. The results are grand, irreverent, brash and exhilarating. They cross the trivial and serious with slashes of humour, play and cutting critique.
The Roaring 80s
The Roar vision is bound to the street that birthed it. Rather than the chic enclave it is today, 1980s Brunswick Street was a subversive mixing ground of artists, activists, performers, Indigenous people and punks. Like the backstreets of Brooklyn, Fitzroy played to the beat of its own drum. As artists like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basqiuet broke rules there, the Roar artists jammed back.
All rebellion comes at a price. In 1986, Roar members were interviewed as suspects for the theft of Picasso's ‘Weeping Woman’ from the NGV and again in 1984, when Keith Haring’s glass mural was smashed. While they were innocent, this only cemented the Roar reputation.
“[Roar artists were] The most creative irritant that had disturbed the Melbourne art system for years.”
– Christopher Heathcote
Their rise may have been atypical, but members of Roar remain a force of Australian art. When they roared, people listened. In the 1980s, the inaugural director of the NGA James Mollison A.O. commissioned a collaborative work, recognising in them the same divisive brilliance as he did in Jackson Pollock’s ‘Blue Poles’. Today, their raw, intuitive style persists, recalling the Roar attitude.