“I REGRET nothing”, Mark “Chopper” Read said in 2013 in an uncanny echo of singer Edith Piaf’s call-cry, “Je Ne Regrette Rien”.
Now in a surprise move by the normally respectable Aarwun Gallery, its director Robert Stephens is presenting an exhibition of works and memorabilia by the late Melbourne criminal and media personality, titled, “I Regret Nothing”.
A total of 41 paintings and memorabilia, as well as a coffin turned into a coffee table, will be on display and for sale – all from a collector who was formerly in Chopper’s security team.
Although, Stephens hastens to remind us, Chopper was no van Gogh, da Vinci or Ken Done, he believes his art “can certainly tell some stories”.
The exhibition is part of Stephens’ rebranding program aimed at making the venue a centre of “art for everyone… I’m looking to the future and part of the process is bringing art from very different people, people you wouldn’t think were artists”.
For “different people”, you could hardly go past Chopper, who turned to art later in life after being released from jail.
Rarely, the pundits say, has an Australian criminal enjoyed such public adulation as the gangland figure who claimed to have spent only 13 months out of prison between the ages of 20 and 38, who studied how to read and write in jail.
In 1990, Chopper began corresponding with Melbourne journalist John Silvester, who has said that through the 1970s and 1980s he was considered to have been one of the most dangerous men in Australia.
But before his death in 2013 aged 59 of liver cancer, he had become a bestselling author and the subject of the 2000 film “Chopper”, starring Eric Bana.
His books included “Chopper, From the Inside: The Confessions of Mark Brandon Read”, crime fiction works, children’s books and a rap album, but he also appeared in public service advertisements warning against drink-driving and domestic violence, a curious move from a hardened criminal known for acts of violence and mutilation.
According to one obituarist, Chopper blended a “swaggering Australian ‘good bloke’ persona while developing the narrative of righteous violence”, though it was widely acknowledged that Chopper never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.
Stephens, who has founded the new National Capital Art Prize and a recent salon exhibition of artists from all around Australia, and installed sculptures depicting former Australian prime ministers in front of the gallery, is also a well-known philanthropist who has supported Geraldine Cox’s school in Cambodia and, with artist Mark Waller, schools on Santa Isabel in the Solomon Islands.
Aesthetically, he is struck by how reminiscent of the late artist Adam Cullen Chopper’s art is – “bold and confronting and it tells a story”.
Cullen, who painted Chopper for the 2002 Archibald and was best man at his wedding, was also known for his controversial subjects and his distinctive style, partially emulated by Chopper, who, Stephens says, was obsessed with women’s bodies.
“I’m really interested in the fact that Ned Kelly was Chopper’s hero,” Stephens adds.
“He likened himself to Ned Kelly quite frequently and saw himself as a sort of a Robin Hood.”
And is Chopper’s work any good?
“It’s better than I thought it would be,” Stephens says.
“His pictures vibrate and most of them have stories associated with them, inscribed on the backs of the paintings.”
“I Regret Nothing”, Aarwun Gallery, Gold Creek, O’Hanlon Place, shop 11, Nicholls, until Sunday, August 8.
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