The history of corner stores in Australia has become a specialist area of scholarly enquiry. It has demonstrated, times and times again, how these small local institutions are inextricably intertwined with the history of the country.
Based on an American model and imported as a concept store into Australia in the early twentieth century, milk bars gained in popularity not the least because they offered a valid alternative to the traditional pubs, with the absence of restrictions on age, gender, and race. Onsite dwellings, either at the rear or on the top of the store, made them popular as small family-run businesses, nurtured and passed down through generations, acquiring in the process individuality, conviviality, and consistency of products and services.
From the 1930s, and especially following the Second World War, the corner stores became a haven for European migrants, who took over them in turn as family-run enterprises. For a wider community of European migrants, these stores offered the Aladdin’s cave of continental delicacies not yet available from general grocers. They also became as close as Australia came at that point to the European café society, offering refreshments, gossip, foreign language newspapers, and a sense of belonging for Australia’s increasingly diverse, multi-cultural community.
The next important change occurred from the 1960s with the influx of Asian migrants, who, like their European predecessors, inventoried the stores with Asian delicacies, and provided in turn a safe environment where other migrants of similar backgrounds could buy familiar groceries, grab a newspaper, catch up on the news, or indulge in a spot of gossip in their native tongues.
An increasing competition from round-the-clock multinational convenience stores, late-night-shopping supermarkets, and, more recently, the convenience of home deliveries impacted the long-term viability of the Milk Bars. Though, thankfully, only temporarily. We are experiencing a resurgence in interest and attachment to the humble local corner store, which continues providing a point of difference to the multinationals with a greater cross-section of produce as well as more personalised services.
The ongoing attachment to milk bars and their layered significance within Australian vernacular is reflected aptly in Donovan Christie’s exhibition, The Milk Bars Are On Me. “Just think of it: with a handful of shrapnel in our pockets, we would jump on our bikes and go to the nearest corner store for hot chips and a drink, with enough left over for a handful of lollies,” says Donovan with a far-away look, and a mixture of wistfulness and nostalgia in his voice.
The memories of simpler (as well as safer and more innocent) times have inspired Donovan’s artistic investigation, which continues evolving in the present exhibition. Always conscious of his audiences, Donovan switched his focus within the context of the current exhibition from his native Adelaide to suburban Melbourne, researching meticulously corner stores and capturing them in his increasingly detailed, photorealistic, and atmospheric canvasses.
Many of his works recreate his sites of affection in great detail, capturing the essence of the ongoing appeal of milk bars. The bright primary colours stand out clearly from the suburban landscape, generally dominated by muted greys of the pavements, dark greens of backyard shrubbery, and pale blues of the floating cloudscapes. In the dusk, the stores emit a warm glow, cathedral-like, enticing visitors from far and wide as a refuge from hunger, thirst, and nature’s elements.
Donovan does not idealise milk bars but captures them ‘warts andall.’ Some are lovingly restored, preserving the purity and elegance of their original art deco facades or the later, more utilitarian, plated-glass frontages. Many bear exterior ‘embellishments’ in the form of graffiti. In a candid conversation, Donovan confesses to having had in his pockets (apart from loose change), a spray can or two, adding surreptitiously to the exterior décorof these establishments—though out of an impulse not to deface, but, rather, leave his mark in and on society. The presence of graffiti furthers the self-reflexive, autobiographical aspect of the exhibition, referencing Donovan’s erstwhile foray into the art world as a graffiti artist.
An important part of the exhibition consists of Donovan’s re-imaging of popular product lines, which, just like milk bars themselves, bear important childhood attachments and associations, and are increasingly consigned to the relics of the past. Designed as brand logos to be readable and instantly recognisable to people from a multitude of cultural backgrounds and languages, they appear somewhat faded, slightly worn, weathered by the elements, and yet still highly legible. The addition of large scale painted sculpture versions of the iconic Tazo’s, Oddbodz and The Simpsons trading cards illustrate the continuous evolution and entrance into the marketplace of the newer brands and pop culture, which, in time, acquire the iconicity and nostalgic appeal of their marketing forebears.
The Milk Bars Are On Me, as a concept, is best described as a Gesamtkunstwerk, incorporating paintings, installations, and interactive, participatory performance. The spirit of Pop Art shines forth as Donovan revels in bringing the everyday into the realm of ‘high art’ and the gallery environment. The Warholian irreverent brand fetish is tempered by Rosenquist’s bold cropping, foreshadowing the social media’s unforgiving subjugation of images to a predetermined format of uniform templates. The meticulous attention to detail and a nuanced complexity of the colour palette, resulting in an enhanced perception of three-dimensionality and illusory depth, position the young artist’s streetscapes, ‘still lifes’ of products, and faded ghost signs at the forefront of Estes’ and Cottingham’s photorealist tradition.
Though conceived in 2019, the exhibition has attained a greater relevance today, as, after the months of lockdowns and isolation, local milk bars and corner stores have regained their place as acknowledged epicentres of local cohesion and social renewal.
- Dr Eugene Barilo von Reisberg, 2022
When you look at the work on a surface level, it may appear fun, colourful and whimsical, but if you start to peel back the layers, another dimension starts to appear. A ticking clock, a reminder of mortality, a snapshot of our nostalgic childhood and the culture during simpler times. In a way it serves asa self-portrait, the backdrop to the paths we’ve walked and the landscapes that have carried our stories. There’s a mixed feeling to each image knowing that these businesses and facades are rapidly fading, the light side however, is the piece itself, the painting not only documents its history, but immortalizes it.With everything going on in this fast paced world, this exhibition is an access to happiness but also a subtle nudge to remind us to cherish the charming things we still have.
I spent most of my childhood outside, at the age of 4 I removed my own training wheels from my bike and I was off. The following decade were days full of skateboarding, rollerblading and BMX riding with the local crew. The days where a handful of shrapnel would buy the crew a kilo of hot chips wrapped in newspaper with enough money left over to head to the corner store and gorge on your favourite lollies. This series is a reminder of how brilliant and honest our childhoods truly were before the introduction of the internet. This exhibition is for all the kids that built cubby houses, climbed trees, built bike jump and skinned their knees.
When it comes to discovering the images, I approach each landscape almost like a location scout, there’s multiple elements that I look for that not only appeal to me but they tell a story; an indication of the years past and the different eras of signage and advertising. I am careful when it comes to what I include or subtract. I am definitely a purist when it comes to painting real to life,I’ll hardly even move a street sign. You will notice that I rarely include people or vehicles in my work. This is a thoughtful part of my practice; I choose to leave them out to avoid sending mixed signals when it comes to dating the work.I wish for the building and signage to be the focal point allowing their age and heritage to sing the loudest.
This exhibition is set to be one of many in the series, its own world frozen in time almost. I wanted this particular exhibition to act as the debut. Similar to a concept album, I wanted this to be a concise body of work with a solid direction. I have had this show planned for over 3 years now. I knew the number of images I wanted and in what iteration. I wanted multiple elements to the exhibition to create a well-rounded immersive experience. The first section would include the landscape and exterior of the Milk Bars including the iconic signage, as if you were outside the shop. This would then lead to a physical shopfront that hangs work in situ in a trompe l'oeil style. As you enter through the shopfront, you are engrossed by still-life’s of all the chips, lollies and soft drinks you once would have purchased in the 80’s and 90’s as well as the trading cards and Tazo’s that came along with them. Then to roll out the exhibition as you lead down the side, you will find the ghost signs that adorned external walls of these modern-day relics. All in all, giving the viewer a shared memory, even if they haven’t visited any of these particular locations, they still know the warm familiar feeling so well.
- Donovan Christie, 2022