Scrolling through artist Donovan Christie’s Instagram page, you might have to do a double-take. Are his recent posts of milk bars photographs or painstakingly done paintings?
It’s the latter, but not obviously so. His portraits depicting suburban nostalgia are hyperreal, immortalising a fading part of Australian culture – including snack bars and video-rental shops like Blockbuster and Video Ezy – in an incredible amount of detail.
“I’m such a purist – and perfectionist – which doesn’t really let me colour outside the lines,” Christie tells Broadsheet. “I won’t even move a street sign or bin.”
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The Adelaide-based artist graduated from graffiti to pop art, then to urban landscapes, capturing scenes from his hometown in a style inspired by Jeffrey Smart – one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, also from Adelaide, known for his colourful impressions of industrial modernity.
For his most recent project Christie headed east. Over the course of four years, he travelled back and forth to Melbourne, trawling the city – from the beachside suburb of St Kilda in the south-east to the leafy Heidelberg in the north-east – for milk bars.
And even if you don’t recognise the particular shopfront, Christie’s vivid, evocative paintings will likely unlock childhood memories – of throwing a pocketful of change onto the counter to see how many lollies you can buy, or haphazardly ripping the plastic wrapper off a lemonade Icy Pole on a stinking hot summer day.
The online response to his seemingly frozen-in-time works has surprised Christie. “People bug out about it; it takes them back to a simpler time. I get a kick out of them retelling their stories.”
But, in his works, with the bright comes the bleak – graffiti-covered facades, and the eerie quietness of a scene devoid of people – to remind us that these modern-day relics are a dying breed.
Every single milk bar was still open when it became Christie’s subject, but he says a few have closed in the Covid-ravaged years since, including one in St Kilda. “It’s a curse I have, a theme in my work,” he says. “I love something, I want to document and romanticise it – its magic – then it goes under or [into liquidation] or gets bulldozed.”
This month in Melbourne you can experience 40 of Christie’s works IRL at a show cleverly titled The Milk Bars Are on Me – a play on the line “the Milkybars are on me!” from Nestle’s iconic Milkybar ads.
He’s turning Metro Gallery in Armadale into a milk bar (of sorts). The front room will serve as the “outside”, featuring oil paintings of several milk bar exteriors. Midway through will be a vinyl wallpaper of a life-size milk bar frontage, the windows occupied by three-dimensional-seeming works, trompe-l’œil-style, so it feels like you’re peering inside. In the next room you’ll find still-life oil paintings of iconic milk bar products; think Chiko Rolls, Jolt Cola, Nerds (and other quintessentially Aussie lollies), plus giant Oddbods and Tazos. The hallway at the end will focus on Christie’s interpretation of classic ghost signs – hand-painted ads that have been preserved on a building for a long period of time – for brands like Arnott’s, Rosella and Bushells. He’s also collaborated with SA brewery Pirate Life on a limited-edition beer inspired by the on-theme pine-lime Splice ice-cream, which will be at the launch on Thursday May 26.
Christie’s “Milk Bar Kid” alter ego will live on afterwards, too. Next on his agenda is an exhibition centred around the milk bars of Sydney and the delis of Adelaide.
It’s in a similar vein to Callum Preston’s immersive Milk Bar exhibition from 2017, for which the Melbourne artist and designer hand-drew classic milk bar items on plywood and used them to fill a makeshift shopfront at a local gallery.
The Milk Bars Are on Me is on at Melbourne’s Metro Gallery from May 24 to June 18.