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Category Archives: Art Galleries & Exhibitions

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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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.

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“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.


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.


Fast Fashion @ RMIT Gallery

Relevant, insightful, frightening – are not words commonly associated with fashion exhibitions but “Fast Fashion: The dark side of fashion” at RMIT Gallery is an exception. It an exhibition that anyone who has ever bought clothes, worn a t-shirt or other cotton garment should see. It the exhibition that critically addresses the question: what’s the true cost of that cheap bargain hanging in your wardrobe?

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Tim Mitchell, Mutilated hosiery sorted by colour, photograph 2005

The global environmental, social and political impact of mass produced novelty t-shirts and other fashion items is enormous. You will be horrified and distressed at the effects of sandblasting to make those distressed jeans. We are talking rivers running blue or pink or whatever this year’s fashionable colour is. Below-subsistence-level wages destroying workers and societies for garments that are only worn a couple of times. It is apocalyptic. I will never look at my wardrobe in the same way again.

The design of the exhibition is magnificent; even if there is a lot of information to take in. Videos, photographs and even a couple of mannequins help ease the information overload. There are soft seats made of bundled used clothes to both demonstrate the excess and give your feet a rest. With all the horror of fast fashion it is comforting that the exhibition also offers a slow fashion solution. Slow fashion can involve recycling and upcycling but it is also about how to be a responsible consumer of clothing. It is not difficult, no more expensive and it starts with not buying that: “I’m with stupid” t-shirt.

Fast Fashion is curated by Dr Claudia Banz at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. For those who are very interested in this topic there is an extensive public program of free talks to accompany the exhibition.


The Story So Far…

Twenty works by Indigenous and Torees Strait Islander artists from the Moreland Art Collection curated by Kate Ten Buuren at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. This exhibition demonstrates not only the long commitment of Moreland City Council in collecting art Indigenous and Torees Strait Islander art since the early 1980s but also the diversity of that art.

It was good to see two colourful prints, Magpie and Echidnas 2011, by the late Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown who died in January 2017. Turbo was a Latje Latje man from Mildura and the winner of the 2012 Victorian Deadly Art Award. The exhibition is particularly strong in printing with screen-prints by Lin Onus and Trevor ‘Turbo’ Brown, etching by Regina Karadada, Judy Watson and Janic Murray, and Brian Robinson’s magnificent linocuts. Although Indigenous Australian art is better known for its dot paintings printmaking is an important media for many Indigenous artists. The first was the artist and playwright Kevin Gilbert who started making lino-prints made from old lino floor tiles in Long Bay prison in the 1960s.

Lin Onus shows great technique in screen-printing with the transparent layer of the water in his Gumbirri Garginingi (Five Tortoises) 1996. The rarrk crosshatching work on the shells of the tortoises is not traditional for Koori artists but Onus had been taught and given permission to use the rarrk work by Maningrida artists.

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On a plinth is a fantastic tiny paper sculpture only 55 x 35 x 20 mm by Archie Moore. On a Mission From God (Goulburn Island) uses a little Bible to make a big point about the Mission Days destroying Aboriginal spirituality. Best use that I’ve seen made of a Bible for a long time.

What will the Moreland City Council’s collection look like in another forty years? The story continues.


Imperfection @ Trocadero

“A small show of imperfect paintings” at Trocadero Art Space is a unique and must see exhibition.

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Juan Ford, Untitled, 2007, oil and acrylic on linen

Twenty-one failed paintings is not a great advertisement for an exhibition but twenty-one failures by notable Melbourne artists is worth seeing. Curator Chris Bond has done what must have first appeared both impossible and crazy. The fantastic negotiation and diplomatic skill involved in asking artists, including perfectionists like Juan Ford or Sam Leach for failures. There is dust breeding on the glossy resin varnish of Sam Leach’s painting as it waits “under the bed to wait for the next consignment of work to the skip.”

Twenty-one rare examples of failures, and a variety of failures from abandoned efforts and bad ideas to technical failures. Good artists try not to exhibit bad art so failures rarely survive, they are either destroyed or repainting; so these are twenty-one rare paintings.

For once the artist’s statements accompanying the exhibition contained no art speak, only honest confessions about why their paintings failed and survived. There are tragic abandoned efforts, I know that Yvette Coppersmith can paint much better than that. And the even more tragic completed effort of Michael Brennan accurately reproducing two pages of text in his painting, Entry Form and CV for the 2005 Metro 5 Art Prize, for which he list 5 failures. There are technical failures: Louise Blyton managed to cut through the middle of her canvas and Lynette Smith’s badly cracked first attempt at egg tempera. And failures of composition, like Darren Wardle’s Swampland.

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Darren Wardle, Swampland, 2017, oil and acrylic on linen

“The composition is too rigid and corresponds to the limits of the stretcher so there are no dynamics in play. The work seems flat in a boring way, which isn’t helped by the background paint application having no depth. I tried to rectify this by inserting a stick, or crutch, with a shadow in the left foreground to provide a sense of dimensionality but it looks clumsy and obvious.” Wardle explains in his statement.

Every artist, art critic and art teacher in Melbourne should go to see this exhibition because it is a learning experience. The paintings demonstrate a benchmark of quality only they all fall on the wrong side of it, sometimes just shy of it. It is rare to see examples of failure exhibited yet failure is so common in painting that it is inevitable so this exhibition serves to correct that bias.

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Michael Brennan, Entry Form and CV, 2005, oil on canvas


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