Trust Melbourne to turn grotty lanes into must-see galleries, writes Richard Jinman.
The words are written in black marker pen on the wall of Pushka, a tiny cafe in a laneway near Little Collins Street. "The important things in life are the things we don't notice."
The author has a point. Melbourne's smallest art gallery - a glass-fronted box called Twentybythirty - is built into the wall just a few metres away. I hadn't noticed it until Bernadette Alibrando pointed it out.
Alibrando is the founder of Walk-to-Art, a company that organises walking tours of Melbourne's art scene. She leads me to the tiny gallery and we peer at its contents: a herd of small plastic animals grazing in front of a computer screen. I've no idea what it means but it's certainly, um, intriguing.
Over coffee in Pushka, Alibrando tells me what to expect from the four-hour tour besides sore feet. It isn't an introduction to big institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria or smart commercial spaces where the work costs $30,000 a pop. Rather, it's a walk on the wild side; an insider's view of artists' studios, artist-run spaces and Melbourne's graffiti and stencil art-smothered laneways.
Alibrando, the daughter of Sicilian migrants who talks fast and smiles often, is an insider. She graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts 11 years ago and found her calling setting up shows, running artists' studios and working as an art consultant.
Walk-To-Art is an opportunity to "take people out of their comfort zone," she says. "To go to places they wouldn't find on their own or might not feel cool enough to visit on their own."
We leave Pushka and set off down Presgrave Place, one of the many Dickensian laneways that criss-cross Melbourne's central business district. Alibrando is describing the city's art scene as she walks. It's more low-key than in Sydney and prices are less inflated, she says. But there's a plethora of emerging artists; a new generation is jostling for attention.
Our first stop is another unusual gallery, Platform. We walk down a flight of steps on Degraves Street and enter an underground throughfare called Campbell Parade.
It looks nondescript at first. Then you notice the art - images and words by Richard Hout - mounted in glass-fronted cabinets set in the pink-tiled walls.
It's seen (and ignored, presumably) by the thousands of people who stream in and out of the entrance to Flinders Street Station at the other end of the parade.
"It was a derelict throughfare that was used as a toilet," Alibrando says. "Two guys from Monash [University] cleaned it up 12 years ago and it's become the oldest artist-run space in Melbourne."
Quirky galleries are everywhere in the Victorian capital, it seems. At 141-143 Flinders Lane, two enterprising artists have turned a wooden box containing the building's mail slots into a tiny gallery called Mailbox 141. In the 15 spaces once occupied by letters and bills, artist Daniel Dorrall has installed a miniature show called Lemmings which incorporates toy soldiers and manages to be funny and macabre.
Much of the art in downtown Melbourne isn't in a gallery at all, of course. It's sprayed, glued, painted and bolted to the walls of the laneways. Anyone can admire it but it helps to have a guide who can lead you straight to works such as Heather B. Swann's Gates of Hell, a collection of 49 dogs' heads made from black resin that protrude menacingly from a wall in Degraves Place.
Next up, Alibrando takes us to Centre Place and Hosier Lane, two holy sites for fans of Melbourne's street art scene. Every available inch is covered in graffiti ranging from crude "tags" to sophisticated paintings and intricate printed designs pasted directly onto the wall. It's so garish you could easily miss the light boxes - installed by an organisation called Citylights - that are a curated display of cutting-edge street art.
The man behind Citylights is Andy Mac. An artist and champion of Melbourne's street art scene, he operates his own gallery - Until Never - on the third floor of a building near Hosier Lane. Today, it's showing a collection of stencil art by Regan Tamanui, an artist better known in graffiti circles as Ha-Ha.
Mac, a wiry man dressed in a camouflage jacket, explains that Tamanui used up to 30 stencils to create these works portraying Melbourne identities ranging from Kylie Minogue to Mark Philippoussis. They cost from $550 to $2000 each. That seems quite reasonable for an artist whose work has recently been bought by Canberra's National Gallery.
We've been walking and gawking for several hours now but Alibrando's enthusiasm is undiminished. "We're catching a tram," she says handing me a ticket and indicating the stop on Flinders Street.
Twenty minutes later we arrive in Docklands, where Melbourne's film studios and a collection of smart, utterly generic residential towers are replacing the abandoned infrastructure of an earlier industrial age. Alibrando leads me to a giant building on the wharf with rusted roller doors.
Inside is glass artist Miles Johnson, looking like a fishmonger in a beanie, plastic apron and boots. The building is vast - easily the size of several football fields - and Johnson occupies a corner of it, moulding simple, sensuous forms in a kiln heated to 1100 degrees. His gas bill is $1000 a week.
"Just keep an eye on that because it can explode," he says indicating a translucent glass globule cooling in a bucket.
Johnson's work, which is displayed in a haphazard way on several tables, is for sale but there's no pressure. He seems just as happy to chat about his work, his passion. "My dad's a painter and I've been around art all my life," he says. "It suits my personality. [Glassblowing] is a real skill, a lifelong endeavour."
It's a feeling Alibrando understands. As we leave the wharf and head for the wine and cheese that marks the end of every tour, she tells me she is exhibiting her own work for the first time this year.
"A good piece of work will move you every time you look at it," she says. "It will trigger something."
Walk-To-Art tours take place on Wednes-days and Saturdays at 2pm. The groups have a minimum of two people and a maximum of eight. Cost is $98 a head. For more information, see http://www.walktoart.com.au or phone 0412 005 901.
Five of the best
1. Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Housed in an uber-cool rust-coloured building, the centre presents work by major local and international artists. 111 Sturt Street, Southbank.See http://www.accaonline.org.au.
2. Neon Parc. Hidden away near the entrance to a car park, this small upstairs space is so cutting-edge it's dangerous. 1/53 Bourke Street, Melbourne. See http://www.neonparc.com.au
3. Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces. Emerging artists exhibit at this complex of galleries and studios. 200 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. See http://www.gertrude.org.au.
4. Uplands. A cool commercial space named after a skate park. Studio 2 & 3, 249-251 Chapel Street, Prahran. See http://www.uplandsgallery.com.
5. West Space. A little hard to find but worth it. Small gallery, big ideas. Level 1, 15-19 Anthony Street, Melbourne. See www.westspace.org.au.http://www.smh.com.au/articles/