Melbourne’s streets reflected in City Gallery’s latest exhibition

Town Hall’s City Gallery mirrors the streets of Melbourne; celebrating the city’s history, design and character with reverence and creativity. The latest exhibition: ‘The Jesus Trolley: 30 years of Desmond Hynes pushing art and Jesus on the streets of Melbourne‘ – examines an aspect both reviled and romantic, yet equally intertwined with fabric of our city: the religious crier.

Three shopping trolleys painted with colourful religious signs and slogans.

Three of Des Hynes’s famous trolleys

Curated by Joanna Bosse, who has worked with many outsider artists, ‘The Jesus Trolley’ will present a selection of hand painted objects from Melbourne’s most notable street preacher, Desmond Hynes. Removing the works from their original context, the exhibition aims to explore the artefacts through three critical lenses: an historical context that gives a sense of the role of the street preacher throughout history; a contemporary art context that situates the objects in relation to outsider art and contemporary art more broadly; and a design and typography context that analyses the particular textual qualities of the works.

As early as 1865, a journalist remarked that Melbourne boasted an ‘unusual proportion’ of street preachers, spruiking their beliefs on main thoroughfares such as Bourke, Russell and Spring streets. In the 1880s, the arrival of the Salvation Army prompted an increase in complaints about rowdy evangelism. By the turn of century, noise had been added to Melbourne’s traditional list of urban ills (dust, larrikins and intoxication).

The Jesus Trolley

The unique design and typography of this ‘outsider art’

But for well over a century, Melbourne’s street preachers have inadvertently stationed themselves at an intersection between pragmatic and romantic views of modern city life. Such cries were considered a picturesque counterpoint to the modernising city; they were reminders of village life and the quaint rhythms of the medieval marketplace.

As Australians are now more secular and draw the line on sin far more generously than their forebears, street preachers might even be less tolerated than in the past. Yet many people have more than a passing fascination with Des and his creative output, perhaps due to his evangelist life and the eccentricity with which we associate such a vocation today. He has been the subject of numerous local and state newspaper articles and profile pieces in ‘Marie Clare’, ‘Australian style’ and ‘HQ’ magazines attest to his broad appeal.

Jesus Trolley signage

One of the artworks featured in The Jesus Trolley exhibition

The visual power of his boldly painted signs capture people’s interest and sustain their intrigue. These objects convey an ease with text design and layout, and a sophisticated visual sensibility that reaches beyond their religious content or commonplace origins. They are compelling examples of what is described as ‘vernacular’ or ‘outsider’ art.

Over three decades of evangelising on Melbourne’s streets, Des’ visual marketing was an iconic feature of the community that was equal parts bothersome and fanciful. Passersby would often hurl insults, but they too would often stop to take photos.

The Jesus Trolley: 30 years of Desmond Hynes pushing art and Jesus on the streets of Melbourne opens 8 September and continues to 24 December.