What I think about is trying to make my work pure, and if it is pure then it can be accessible. It is quite straightforward really” spoke the late Ian Hamilton Finlay when interviewed by Nagy Rashwan in 2001. this statement, like much of Finlay’s artwork, stands cheek by jowl with the spirit of Will Coles’ work thematically and personally. Ever piquant, Coles’ pop reflections on contemporary culture have been challenging viewers for well over a decade. However, what separates Coles’ work from the throng of contemporary artists seeking to do the same is his commitment to his profession and his sophisticated multi-layered realisation of these notions.


It is certainly the latter, which marks the defining touch of a Coles’ work and it is a skill that was no doubt honed so precisely with the help of the sculptor Norman Sillman, Coles’ grandfather. Sillman’s tutorship and his professional training at the Wimbledon and Glasgow School of Art has left Coles’ work with a distinct UK flavour, despite most of his professional career being undertaken in Australia. Bleak statements that appeared on much of Coles’ early cast work: fear, numb, isolation, silence and hate are reminiscent of, and show clear roots with, the conceptual work flourishing in the UK at the start of his career in the early 1990’s.


Ian Hamilton Finlay’s concrete poetry and garden works were also and early influence in Coles’ work and traces of their discussions of contemporary culture, absence and morality can still be seen in many of Coles’ contemporary pieces. Significantly, Finlay’s use of carved lettering in his work was one of the influences that first inspired Coles to do the same and has since become a dominant trope in his pieces. the robust nature and inexpensiveness of concrete is also arguably what motivated Coles towards his first endeavours in public space installation. Coles’ concrete remote controls, mobile phones, crushed cans, teddy bears and televisions can be seen scattered like urban confetti throughout the alleys and streets of inner city Sydney and Melbourne. these seemingly essential yet disposable status objects of contemporary culture are more then the mere reflection that much pop art presents us with. The process of translation that the casting of these objects represents becomes apparent with the addition of Coles’ signature nominalism. Importantly it is the re-inserting of these translated objects into the tapestry of the city rather then into the vacuum of the gallery that gives these pieces meaning through context.


Much of the joy found in the work of Will Coles comes from the playful and light-hearted names of his subversions. Like the rising star that is Banksy, Coles’ takes on solemn societal issues of war, nationalism and violence only to reduce them ad absurdum. Not only does this work present a palatable and inclusive product to the viewer but it also challenges their [often long-held] beliefs with a poke, not a wallop. this can be seen most prominently in Coles’ Anzac busts and large-scale toy soldiers. the Anzac busts have been overwhelmingly the most controversial, with their facial features obscured by coins and notes. They wilfully poke fun at the commercialisation and money-driven hijacking that increasingly takes place on important days of remembrance. The most famous edition was installed amongst the bronze busts outside Sydney’s Central Station on Anzac day 2010. the speed at which the council removed it from the site only served to add weight to Coles’ argument.


Coles’ work ethic can be surmised as no less than tenacious. He has been featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Sun herald, the Daily Telegraph as well as a variety of other national an community publications. His disdain for the distinctly Australian attitude of career success measured by the validation of an overseas market can be seen through his ongoing local community efforts with festivals like Enmore’s Under the Blue Moon and the May Lane project in St Peters. through these endeavours Coles has gained a cult following in the Inner West and inner city of Sydney as well as that of Melbourne. Known affectionately as ‘that concrete guy’ Coles makes no effort to hide his identity the way many street artists do, as he makes no apologies for his work’s contribution to the urban landscape.


Contentious, bold and resolute – the work of Will Coles contributes a unique discourse to the contemporary art scene in Australia. With the majority of his growing practice operating around Newtown, Wilson Street Gallery provides an ideal setting for an overview of Coles’ recent undertakings.



Grace Kingston

Artist & arts writer