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Counihan Politics and Protest

Thursday evening as I am going to the Counihan Gallery on the tram along Sydney Road. I am thinking about the theme of the exhibition: ‘people – politics – protest’ and Noel Counihan in a cage demonstrating the lack of free speech in 1933. Thinking that if I don’t see the police, or ultra-conservative demonstrators then the art isn’t great protest art… and then I saw the sandbag barricade out the front of the Brunswick town hall. Have the battle lines been drawn? Has Moreland seceded from Australia?

Rushdi Anwar

Rushdi Anwar, Art Like Morality, Consists of Drawing a Line Somewhere… is it?

Too good to hope for; the barricade were just an art installation. It wasn’t even part of the inaugural Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award. It was Kurdish Australian artist Rushdi Anwar’s Art Like Morality, Consists of Drawing a Line Somewhere… is it? and it was part of Morearts 2017, the annual temporary art exhibition. It made me consider the possibility that the best art about people, politics or protest in Moreland was possibly not in the Counihan Gallery’s Moreland Summer Show.

Perhaps, the most best protest art this year in this local came, not from artists but from the Moreland City Council. This year has been a turning point in Australia as sections of society, represented by three inner-city Melbourne councils are officially no longer celebrating Australia Day/Invasion Day. This symbolic act of removal is a clear protest that has not been ignored by the politicians Canberra or by other elements of the far right. Iconoclasm destroying the sacred and creating absence is part of a long tradition in contemporary art as in Marcel Duchamp’s rasée L.H.O.O.Q or Robert Rauschenberg’s work Erased DeKooning. So does the influence of the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys on organisation and political action as contemporary art.

Noel Counihan would not have understood that kind of post-modern art. Nor do the Moreland City Council consider that their removal of budget items for Australia Day/Invasion Day as a work of art; they weren’t even at the exhibition opening as there were holding a council meeting at the night. However, although they did not intend to be art, it maybe art, just as Noel Counihan’s famous protest locked in a cage may be the best thing he ever did, certainly it what he is most remembered for. It is not a functional thing; it is symbolic, a beautiful and culturally significant creation.

At the opening the artists, their friends and visitors drank wine and had a good time. Compared to what was happening outside the art inside the gallery was summed up with the metaphor of a silent readymade megaphone hung on a white gallery wall. Not that Kate Davis and Hannan Jones Study for the Speaker is that simply, it included an audio and text installation but I didn’t download those elements at the opening.

Looking around the exhibition at the Counihan Gallery at the work of the fifty local artists in a wide variety of media, commenting on a great variety of issues from identity politics to environmental. Amongst these the inaugural Noel Counihan Commemorative Art Award went to Carmel Louise for her work Suicidal Tendencies; a photographic, mixed media collage reflecting on how most people have been watching climate change on TV from the comfort of their lounge. Maybe the media is not the message but a distraction. The judges praised Louise for her dealing with the issue of apathy and her use of contemporary collage. Second guessing the judges is not the role of either the critic or reporter; my role as a critic is to raise larger issues and to point out that rejecting the celebration Australia Day/Invasion Day maybe the most important piece political art in Moreland this year.

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A shadow of a memory

The death of Richard Hambleton, ‘Shadowman’ reminded me that, aside from Keith Haring, Shadowman was the only other street artist that I’d heard about in the 1980s. I knew about Keith Haring because of his tour of Australia.

In the 1980s it was difficult to access information and finding it was often determined more by fortune than strategy. I heard about Shadowman by word of mouth and I don’t think that I saw an image of his work until decades later. At the time I was living in Coburg and studying at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. It was a long way from New York’s East Village where Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger et. al. were putting up ‘wall-posters’ (paste-ups) and Shadowman was splashing paint around.

In 1985 I heard of him as “Splashman”. A friend, Rod who was doing media studies at Rusden, told me that he had heard about this guy splashing paint to create silhouette figures on walls. It was from a second or third hand report that was probably based on a 1983 profile of the artist in People magazine. My friend told me that Shadowman had painted in Berlin. Given that it was in Berlin and I assumed that it must be on the Berlin Wall because, at the time, that was the best known location for artistic graffiti (the definition of ‘graffiti’ was still fluid at that time).

At the time I didn’t know that Richard Hambleton, was an NYC-based, Canadian artist with long term problems of addiction to heroin and crack. At the time he was a mysterious, unknown person painting on walls at a time when that was very unusual. His art and existence raised many questions and provided few answers. Now only the shadow of a memory remains.

For more and images of Hambleton’s work see: Daniel Maurer “Banksy Precursor Richard Hambleton Dies at 65, Days Before MoMA Show and Shadowman Film”.

 


Statues Wars 2017

The statue wars of 2017 sprang to prominence in the USA although the debate had been going for some time. Around the world people have been asking what to do with these monuments to evil men, from Cecil Rhodes in South Africa to General Robert E. Lee in America to John Batman in Melbourne. The debate about these statues has often been furious, ill-informed and poorly reasoned; so more of a war than a debate. However, if I have learnt one thing from it is that the greatest educative value that a statue can have is when it is being torn down.

Stanley Hammond, John  Batman Memorial, 1978 (3)

Stanley Hammond, John Batman Memorial, 1978

I doubt that statues on pedestals are the right thing to erect but then people have been making that observation for over a century. Back then the craze was for putting up these same statues and it was called ‘statuemania’ because it was obvious that the many statues being erected were insane, not just because of the quantity but given the direction of civil society, reason and art. The only purpose in putting something on a pedestal is to worship it. The great man theory of history is not taken seriously by historians any more but some conservative groups still think that a statue will do something worthwhile.

Many people in the debate were confusing, deliberately or idiotically, the monuments with the history that they were commemorating. If tearing down statues is some kind of ‘Stalinist revisionism’ (as a reason-retarded Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed) attempting to rewrite history then what were the US troops doing with that statue to Saddam Hussain in Bagdad? In Melbourne this year the controversial statue of John Batman was taken down by a property developer to redevelop the site; I doubt that motives were revisionist or that the statue will ever be permanently installed anywhere.

Do the sculptors who made these care about the fate of their statues? Not beyond the final payment; if I have learnt one thing about the kind of people who make these statues is that they are professionals.

Should these statues be preserved for the sake of their artistry? Ha ha… you were making a joke?

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Moving on the next question is: what to do with these empty plinths that the statues leave behind? Consider London’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square or, for a local example, Plinth Projects in Edinburgh Gardens.

Outside the St Kilda Town Hall there is this ‘monument’. Just as you thought it must be meaningful with the man, the airplane and the classical temple turns into crazy snake fun. Made of cast bronze, the sculpture and its large plinth is ironic in its content, materials and form. Local artist Richard Stringer’s Monument for a public building, 1994, turn the form of the monument into self-referential postmodernism.

Richard Stringer, Monument for a Public Building,

Richard Stringer, Monument for a Public Building, 1994, St Kilda Town Hall


Friday night @ Off the Kerb

Off the Kerb is a favourite for street artists exhibiting and the exhibitions that opened last Friday night were very much about street art.

Barek

“House of Ghosts” by Barek features both paintings and sculptures of Barek’s whimsical ghosts. A large ghost house model serves as centre-piece for the exhibition, visible from the street through Off the Kerb’s shopfront window. Barek’s ghosts and other characters have a narrative sense but often they seem like the ghost of rabbits frozen in the headlights of the artists vision. Although he has long had a presence on Melbourne’s street’s with his paste-ups Barek is now based in Melbourne after moving from Brisbane.

“Hard Boiled Wonderland & The end of the World” by Akemi Ito and Drasko (who signs his work DB) is an exhibition of stencil art. Akemi Ito looks to Japan for inspiration whereas Drasko looks to America. They also have a different approach to stencil making; Akemi hand-drawn stencils emphasis the line whereas Drasko uses the blocks of colour to create his images. Drasko’s spray painted rubber floor-pieces are both effective and unusual.

“Tinkyville: Land of Folly” by Tinky packs in 30 of her Lilliputian models to one of the upstairs rooms. Her tiny HO scale figures are often oblivious of the larger scale objects that they are set in. The humorous scenes are full of action, their titles adding to the narrative and the joke, like “Sam knew this was going to be his most impressive topiary attempt yet”. Even at this scale Tinky’s work can also be found in Melbourne’s streets; I first saw her work in Presgrave Place.

Mie Nakazawa, Untitled

Mie Nakazawa, Untitled

“Same Same and Different” Mie Nakazawa monoprint line drawn heads; I hesitate to use the word ‘portraits’ because they are all untitled. They looked inspired by the Austrian Expressionist artist, Egon Schiele. Unlike all the other street artists Nakazawa is a Sydney-based contemporary printmaker who has also painted a few murals in Sydney.

Q Bank exhibition with Baby Guerrilla "The Seeker"

There were galleries with exhibitions opening all along Johnston Street on Friday night. There was a group exhibition with work by more of Melbourne’s artists associated with Melbourne’s streets. Be Free, Baby Guerilla, HaHa and Suki amongst almost twenty artists exhibiting at a pop-up exhibition at 178 Johnston Street, as part of the first birthday celebrations for Qbank gallery from Queenstown, Tasmania.


The earth art of Astral Nadir

Aside from the odd stencil or tag, that could be on a wall, Melbourne’s street art has rarely colonised the sidewalks. On the sidewalks you are more likely to encounter industrial graffiti, markings put there by council or utilities workers. That makes Astral Nadir’s paintings are an exception.

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Resembling ancient symbols, crop circles or Nazca lines, these patterns on the ground refer to the stars and sky. Attractive small abstract patterns of circles and curves connected with straight lines. They are a kind of tagging using images instead of an alphabet. They are also signs mapping a linear trail taken by the artist around Fitzroy and have a relationship with fire hydrants, poles and edges of the sidewalk.

Recently, I discovered that I was walking the same path as Astral Nadir when I was out looking at art galleries and street art. As I walked along Gertrude Street and up Smith Street I started to look for and photograph for the next piece but I didn’t see them all. On returning home and reviewing my photographs I noticed another one, on the pavement next to a wall with a piece by Shida that I was focused on.

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After posting some of my photos on Facebook, I was told that it was the work of Astral Nadir. (Thanks Liz Sonntag.) The rock’n’roll aspect of Astral Nadir’s name combine the high with the low in a synthesis where contradictions are resolved. I’m not sure how long ago these were done but the Instagram photos @astral_nadir are all from this year.

Although it is not great art, it is an exception to the ordinary and I do look forward to finding more.


Looking for an exhibition

First Site Gallery at RMIT “I Feel Like I Know You” by Chris Bowes, not the musician but the little known Brisbane-based artist. Except I think that the image is a portrait of Chris Bowes, the heavy-metal musician. Each of the subjects of the portraits was a ‘Chris Bowes.’ Bowes has added something more to the usual mosaic of tiles creating an image as each of the tiles is the logo of a page that the subject liked on Facebook to create a portrait of them. It was a visually and intellectually pleasing exhibition.

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Another exhibitions at First Site was also looking at our digital image but unlike Bowes, Stephanie Milsom “All of It” was visually boring and focused entirely on herself. It is always more interesting to focus on other people rather than yourself.

I have a physiological reaction to bad art; it feels sickening (in the past bad poetry has caused me to actually vomit), oppressive and there is something like mental claustrophobia. Then there is the dull boredom of another average exhibition. I try to pay attention; maybe I haven’t paid enough attention, maybe the artist will improve in time, maybe it’s just my taste or even my current mood. It is always a risk, especially with the small galleries, the rental and artist run spaces.

I wanted to get back to my routine of visiting a couple of small galleries and writing a review of some or all of the exhibitions; regular readers will be aware of a gap of several months this winter without any reviews. Yesterday this became a desperate search for some art worth writing about.

Sometimes I am looking for a gallery that I haven’t visited before but recently I have been missing all of the galleries that have closed or moved to new locations. There are only two galleries left on Gertrude Street: Seventh and This Is No Fantasy. A decade ago there were seven, which is why there is Seventh Gallery.

At Seventh in Gallery Two, Joe Gentry and Jen Mathews exhibition; “skyscraper, school, shrine, slaughterhouse” looks at the power and inherent violence in architecture. It is a good idea and it can almost be seen in Jen Mathews’s substantial mixed media assemblages and Joe Gentry’s paper warehouses and houses with graffiti on their walls.


Akio Makigawa @ NGV

Akio Makigawa’s sculptures are elegant works amid the often ludic, bombastic, and inappropriate public sculptures in Australia. Now there is an exhibition of his sculpture at the NGV. The exhibition is on the foyer of each floor of the NGV Australia at Fed Square. It is part of the NGV’s series of exhibitions about sculptors that has included Inga King, Bruce Armstrong and Lenton Parr.

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Makigawa is also a break from the list of European names in the history of Melbourne’s public sculpture. Makigawa moved to Australia in 1974; the year after the White Australia policy finally ended in 1973. The sculptures on exhibition are familiar because Makigawa’s public sculptures are all around Australia. You have probably seen his sculptures as they are out the front of buildings in most capital cities and regularly appear behind parliamentarians giving press conferences in the gardens of Parliament house.

In public spaces his sculptures influence the space around them. It is a larger space than just the negative space around the sculpture; it is a space, a pause or rest, in the movement of the city. They are not obvious and neither are they rigorous theoretical abstractions. Their rigid geometry dissolving into natural forms of a leaf or flame of marble or resin.

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Seen in an exhibition, the viewer quickly becomes familiar with the similar shapes repeated in variations of material: corten steel, stainless steel, marble… Most of the work in the exhibition was very similar to his public sculpture until the third floor where there were three early works that are very different. In these early works lighter materials: papier-mâché, wood, rope, cotton… contrasting heavy materials, like stone and lead.

Also on the third floor is a collection of his maquettes, models for his sculptures. These are interesting because where other sculptors will use any convenient material, Makigawa used exactly the same materials that he used to make the final sculpture. There is a respect for the materials in his work, in the alternating, contrasting surfaces.

For more on Makigawa’s public sculptures.


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