Donovan Christie: In Memory of the Milk Bar

Often mistaken for photographs, the meticulous nature of Donovan Christie‘s paintings firmly secures them within the highest tier of realism. Adelaide-based, Donovan is best-known for his urban landscapes, which highlight a nostalgia of times gone by within quintessential parts of Australian culture we now run the risk of losing.

Ahead of his upcoming solo exhibition that’s set to hit Melbourne at the end of May, we caught up with Donovan on the path that led to a painting career and the discussion we all should be having over Australia’s fading shopfronts.

The man behind the milk bars: Donovan Christie.

A self-taught artist, Donovan has channelled a creative urge through various forms, satisfying an ever-present love of tactile expression. “My mum would help me create hand made gift cards and bookmarks from the age of 4,” he recalls. “I would then go door to door in my neighbourhood selling them for 25c each or 5 for a dollar. This not only sparked the creative in me, but also the hustler’s ambition.

“Fast forward to my teens, where that passion for art was funnelled back into the streets in the form of graffiti. Hip hop was a big influence in this, I lived and breathed it. After a few run ins with the law, I chose to channel that passion on to the canvas. I began painting portraits of rap pioneers and the like, then went on to dabble in some pop art and finally landing on urban landscapes, which I continue to paint to this day.”

‘Corner Bouys’ was a finalist piece in last year’s Bluethumb Art Prize.

With an impressive number of accolades under his belt, Donovan has been selected as a finalist in many of the country’s major art prizes. His place as a finalist in the 2014 Waterhouse Prize kicked off a career of art and was a personal milestone for him. In 2015 he was nominated for the Channel 9 Young Achiever Arts Award and in 2016 went on to win it. Other notable awards you’ll find on his CV are the Lethbridge 10000, The Kennedy and the BSG Small Scale Prize. Needless to say, he’s secured himself a place as a Collectable artist on Bluethumb, rightly brushing shoulders with some of Australia’s most prominent artists.

‘Apesh*t’ was selected as a finalist in the 2020 Lethbridge 20000 Small Scale Art Award, Australia’s largest and most respected small scale art prize. You can find the artwork in its light-up LED frame at our gallery in Adelaide!

At the heart of Donovan’s practice is an undulating force of passion: “I’m definitely a workaholic when it comes to my art practice, that’s for sure. I don’t feel myself if I’ve been out of the studio more than a few days, it’s a form of meditation for me.” Inspired by the everyday streetscape, Donovan aims to capture a fleeting moment in time –  “a piece of history that is rapidly vanishing. These are snapshots and backdrops that we don’t take notice of in the present, but in a decade or so, we will soon realise how nostalgic this imagery really was. Therefore, this pushes me to attempt to paint and immortalise all these shopfronts and establishments that still have that touch of character and charm.”

Donovan Christie is a self-confessed purist when it comes to technique. “I think this comes from being such a perfectionist, I paint the image the way I see it. I take photographs to use as reference and majority of the time I won’t adjust anything in the picture. The only thing I might do is remove a person or car, leaving it vacant, allowing the shopfront to shine and be the hero of the painting. It also doesn’t date the work through the make and model of the car or the fashion at the time, this allows people of all ages to create their own memory and story from their day.”

‘Piggy In The Middle’ is a staple piece of Donovan’s emblematic milk bar series.

Choosing a streetscape that borders on the mundane of Australia’s suburbs allows Donovan Christie’s technique to come to the fore. There’s a tangible influence of fellow Adelaide artist, Jeffrey Smart – his urban and industrial renderings in particular – as well as Adelaide artist, friend and mentor, Richard Maurovic. “[Richard] was initially a neighbour who saw me grow up knocking about over the years,” Donovan tells us. “Each of us have a divine love and admiration for what others might find bleak, tired or weathered. Instead, we choose to romanticise these things through shape, colour and composition. The three of us are from three generations, each inspired by the former, viewing the world from a similar lens, decades apart yet, creating different distinct styles of similar subjects.

A picture of a photo or painting? Donovan Christie keeps us guessing from the first glance.

“I like anything that has character and charm, something that a lot of the new builds lack,” Donovan explains further. “The elements that appeal to me the most are the eroding vintage enamel signs, the sign-writing on the brickwork, the tacky 70’s, 80’s and 90’s advertising posters and the landscape around the shopfront. I believe the setting is a large component; this creates the whole energy of the piece and tells a story. For example, the humble Milk Bar attached to a suburban red brick home with galvo fences and greenery peering over, if these walls could talk, they would have generations of tales. For me, these are the kinds of things that evoke that nostalgia.

A paradigm of his urban landscapes, ‘Mellow Yellow’ will be featuring in Donovan Christie’s upcoming show.

“It’s such a bitter sweet position I am in, because I love these places that I paint yet it seems as soon as I paint them, within months I hear of them shutting down or being demolished to make way for yet another cookie cutter building or convenience store,” Donovan reflects as we discuss the decline of the quintessential milk bar across Australia. “It truly is a sign of the times, especially the strain small businesses have faced in recent years. Sadly, I don’t think people will appreciate what we’ve got until its gone. During my journey over the years as I’ve photographed and documented these places, I’ve found through chatting with a lot of the owners, that they themselves don’t even know what modern day relic they have. This is why you are beginning to see what ones are left, are being gentrified and spruced up, leaving them sterile and cold, erasing what once made them the cosy cornerstone of the Australian community.”

Complimenting his streetscapes of Australia’s iconic Milk Bars, Donovan Christie has developed a body of work that touches on the nostalgic 80’s and 90’s lollies and snack food you’d once find in them.

With his solo exhibition ‘The Milk Bars Are On Me’ about to launch in Melbourne, Donovan continues the dialogue around its waning community of corner shops – particularly ones in the city’s western suburbs. “The exhibition will take you on a journey from the exterior landscapes and signage, to the products found inside, in addition to the fading ghost signs which once clad the sides of the shops.” What else can we expect from the artist? “I have a few shows in the pipeline that are hush hush. But, in regards to this particular series, I plan to do other versions in each state, highlighting and showcasing what each city has to offer still, hopefully encouraging the public to take that time to see the world through a different lens and appreciate what we still have… for now.”

Donovan Christie’s exhibition ‘The Milk Bars Are on Me’ opens 6-8pm Thursday 26th May at Melbourne’s Metro Gallery and will be on display until 18th JuneDiscover 10 more of Bluethumb’s incredible Collectable Artists here.

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One Comment

  1. Just mind-blowing. EXTRAORDINARY!

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