From The Neck Up
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From The Neck Up

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Bursting with galleries and designers, you never know what the southern end of Smith Street will throw up. The latest collaboration, between Hatter’s Smart Alec and seven artists, sees the unique canvas of the panama hat given a makeover.

Bursting with galleries and designers, you never know what the southern end of Smith Street will throw up. The latest collaboration, between Hatter’s Smart Alec and seven artists, sees the unique canvas of the panama hat given a makeover.

In the hands of artists Narelle Desmond, David Disher, Laurel Frank, Richard Morrison, Kevin Mortensen, Paul Newcombe and Mark Ogge the panama hats are transformed into works of art. Wearable works, as stipulated by curator of the exhibition, and director of Smart Alec, Albert Albert, “I had a fairly open brief; my only caveat that the hat had to be wearable at the end. You still had to be able to put it on your head. Each hat is fitted to the artist, it was up to them what they chose to do.”

Smart Alec is now three years old, and the idea for the From The Neck Up exhibition has been germinating most of that time. “It’s something we’ve been wanting to do as purveyors of panamas. It’s such a beautiful canvas, that’s the way I looked at it. We’ve got hats decorated by milliners all the time but it’s not decorated by a visual artist.”

As for the choice of headwear, Albert wouldn’t entertain the thought of using another style of hat. “It was always the panama, because the panama’s been such an icon of the hatting world. There are a few classics and it’s royalty in the hat world. It’s a fine weave often bleached white – it’s a perfect canvas.”

As the store’s name (Smart Alec) gives away, Albert’s not adverse to a bit of fun, especially as a remedy to day-to-day challenges. “It’s just a great panacea, humour, it really is,” he says. “At the shop we laugh a lot. The name kind of says it: we’re serious, but really we’re quite relaxed. We do like a joke and a laugh. I think we could do with a lot more humour; there’s my serious note.”

The results are as varied as the artists. “They all have a different discipline, like Laurel Frank is a costume designer, Paul Newcombe is an abstract painter, Mark Ogge: you can see his work on the Spiegeltent. Richard Morrison, he does these beautiful wild portraits in colour – fantastic. Kevin Mortensen, he’s fascinated with birds – he’s a fine artist and his hat’s just beautifully sublime, it’s gorgeous. Narelle Desmond: she’s a member of a group called DAMP, she’s an installation artist and she’s classically trained,” Albert explains, clearly thrilled with the opportunity to work with them.

Although Albert’s aim was to push the envelope, even he has been surprised by some of the results, some much more daring than he’d anticipated. “I love that. We were opening up the hats that arrived and I was just laughing, just chuckling. It was delightful, stuff that I wouldn’t do and you wouldn’t do.” The response from hat aficionados has been mixed. “I know one of the reactions from one of the people in the room was, ‘don’t let that man near a hat again’. I love that, that’s what I was hoping for in a way; that I’d be challenged.”

A particular challenge to the royalty of the panama was surrealist painter David Bishop’s interpretation. As Albert describes him, a “classic Aussie bloke – of course he decided to take the mickey, take the piss out of it, and I adore him for that. That’s why I wanted him in the exhibition, because of his wit his sense of humour is irreverence. So when I saw his hat and I was shocked, I don’t know why I expected any less.” You’ll have to get to the exhibition to take in Bishop’s interpretation, but let’s just say he leaves no doubt as to what might be on a man’s mind under his panama.

If you fancy yourself a bit of a collector, all of the pieces have been priced for sale by the artists. Perhaps head on down to Smith Street for a spot of Christmas shopping and a geez. You know that person who has everything? They won’t have one of these.

From The Neck Up , an exhibition of panama hats presented by Smart Alec happens at La Niche, 67 Smith St, Fitzroy, opening on December 2 from 6-8pm. The exhibition runs from December 3-16 at Smart Alec, 61 Smith St, Fitzroy, from 10am-6pm, seven days a week.