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Notorious criminal Mark “Chopper” Read’s rare paintings on display

Words by Tehya Nicholas
Images Supplied

What remains to be explored about the Australian pop culture icon and notoriously hardened criminal Mark “Chopper” Read? His artistic side, as the new exhibition at Geelong Gaol Museum, proves.

The exhibition showcases a collection of rarely seen artworks painted by Read throughout his life, with most of the works swathed in potent primary colours in contemporary style. They inflict a certain rawness to the viewer. Vibrant? Oh yeah. Aesthetic intrigue saturates — the means, the ends, and the very heart of the style leaves one puzzled over the interior life of one of the country’s best-known figures.

Entirely self-taught, Read’s paintings were very often a social commentary and pay homage to a few particularly obvious influences; Archibald Prize winning painter Adam Cullen (with whom he shared a friendship from the 2000s onwards), as well as Vincent Van Gogh and Pablo Picasso. He termed his style “Primitive Pop” and managed to capture the essence of his subject and, like his books, recount the vividness of his underworld past.

The collection has been beautifully framed and is — rather ironically — displayed in the infamous Geelong Gaol Cell Block where Read lived during the 1980s. The artwork will be on display from July 31st to October 3rd and a limited run of prints are available for sale during the exhibition.

Read considered himself a Robin Hood figure, often preying on criminals and giving money to those in need, which may explain the recurring iconography of bushranger Ned Kelly in his paintings. His colourful life has been subject to many cultural references; from the famous 2000 film Chopper starring Eric Bana, to the TV series Underbelly, though perhaps of greatest cultural significance are his semi-autobiographical fictional crime novels, children’s books, and original stage show which he toured across Australia.

Read was born and lived in Melbourne, and between the ages of 20 and 38, lived outside of prison for only 13 months. His painting, writing, and stand-up career began after his stint at Pentridge Prison which has arguably proved more successful than his criminal career. An impressive 500,000 copies of Read’s books have been sold — making him one of Australia’s most successful authors. Geelong Gaol Museum’s exhibition provides a visually arresting counterpoint to Read’s writing works, alongside which a fuller portrait of Australia’s most popular criminal can be gleaned.

WHAT: Chopper Framed – Art Exhibition
WHERE: 202 Myers Street, Geelong VIC 3220
WHEN: July 31st – October 3rd, 2022
MORE INFO: Geelong Gaol Museum

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