Ralph’s Garage looks, sounds and smells like any mechanic’s workshop. From the cracked footpath outside, oil stains and grinding noises emit just enough kitsch and colour to remind customers they’re in West End, Brisbane’s eclectic heart.
It takes a short moment before the rubberneckers notice the man perched on the wall – bloodied and blindfolded, naked, unbowed and drawing a final breath.
The painting is a life-sized work by Dadang Christanto; Ciduk, Siska, Bunuh, Buang (Capture, Torture, Kill, Throw) IV.
This sort of piece is rarely shown outside of a white-walled gallery, handled with white gloves and watched over by security guards. The walls of Ralph’s are not white; if they were once, the paint has long since stained and peeled.
“Christanto paints about political violence,” says Jason Grant, co-founder of the Trace exhibition that has left artworks of this ilk scattered in shops and public spaces across West End.
“His father was a Chinese Filipino who got taken in the mid-1960s purges, went missing, and he paints about this political violence. And this piece is hanging in a place where people are going to get their cars serviced.
“It’s missing that reverence that a work would compel in a conventional gallery. When we hung it, I felt quite emotional. These industrial spaces were the kinds of spaces where you can imagine people were being tortured by the military.”
Grant says Trace, which he started with Marilyn Trad in 2015 and which exhibits every two years, goes beyond the well-worn concept of art in public spaces. The idea is partly to remove works by leading Australian artists from the gallery setting and into community spaces – a “democratisation” of the work.
Pop into the West End Bakery, and behind the pie warmer is a Sam Cranstoun work, Power Structures 7, which depicts North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and initially bemused some regular customers.
Above racks of old suitcases in Addwest Shoe and Luggage Repairs is Richard Bell’s painting Dornoch Philosophy, inspired by Jackson Pollock and a local piece of graffiti, scrawled into a footpath on Dornoch Terrace, “Riot Don’t Diet”.
“People have a connection to this neighbourhood,” Grant says. “It’s important to acknowledge that West End is under a lot of pressure from gentrification. There’s a lot of people who have lived here for a long time who can’t afford the rents anymore. Contemporary art is often perceived as a kind of elite culture that contributes to that process. Sometimes it is, and it does. Our active faith in this event is that the best art strengthens communities.
“You’re relating to the art differently, you’re seeing it in a different way, a different context. But you’re also seeing the community in a different way as well. You’d only usually encounter these in major national, international institutions [but] it’s a much more interesting dynamic than in a pristine white-walled gallery, with a security guard telling you to back up if you get too close.”
Curator Carrie McCarthy says the exhibition adds something unique to West End.
“The general reaction when people see the artwork is one of interest,” McCarthy says. “The beauty of West End is that it is actually not that unexpected. It’s an eclectic mix of people. Really, anything goes in West End, so people just kind of roll with it.”
The liberation of these gallery works at the same time turns business owners into sudden art critics. They spend three weeks every two years discussing the pieces with enthusiasts and the neophytes.
Simmo, who runs the garage, says he is far more comfortable talking about engine lines than the charcoal lines on Christanto’s canvas.
“[Trace founders] Jason and Marilyn are both customers, being West End residents, they approached me about being involved. And I was like heck yeah, it sounds fun,” Simmo says.
“[The work by Christanto] is definitely been a conversation starter – not the thing you expect to see when you come into a workshop. The piece is quite confrontational.”
Simmo says people seem to be drawn to the artwork, then to soaking up the environment – the mechanics under engines or some of the more interesting vintage cars that come through.
“It’s definitely a lot more an immersive experience than seeing something on a sterile gallery wall,” he says. “I know more about cars, but I can talk about art. I might not know all the technical terms.
“People get to know who your local mechanic is, who the local greengrocer is. They go in and talkto people [they] normally wouldn’t. That’s a cool part of it.”
• Trace is showing through Brisbane’s West End until 24 August