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Tag Archives: Noel Counihan

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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In the Public Interest

“Benway’s first act was to abolish concentration camps, mass arrest and, except under limited and special circumstances, the use of torture. ‘I deplore brutality,’ he said. “It’s not efficient. On the other hand, prolonged mistreatment, short of physical violence gives rise, when skilfully applied, to anxiety and a feeling of special guilt.” (Wm. Burroughs, Naked Lunch p. 31).

The Counihan Gallery had some excellent exhibitions this year with pertinent political themes like the intervention in the Northern Territory (see my review) and the people smuggling (see my review) but “In the Public Interest” is not one of them. “In the Public Interest” is too vague and stupid; in “celebrating activism, public protest and free speech” the exhibition is pandering to political delusions that Australia is a liberal democracy with free speech and that the government tolerates political dissent and protest.

At the entrance to the Counihan Gallery there is a banner stating that the Moreland City Council welcomes “refugees and asylum seekers”. What is the word for people who want to distract attention from the malefactions through rhetoric and tokenism rather than disassociate themselves from the criminal organization abusing the human rights of refugees? Hypocrites, charlatans and frauds are too weak a collection of words to describe such despicable behaviour.

Simon Perry, 1994, Brunswick

Simon Perry, 1994, Brunswick

Across the road from the Counihan Gallery outside of the Mechanics Institute on the corner of Sydney Road and Glenlyon is a 1994 sculpture by Simon Perry. A plaque provides a strange explanation for the sculpture that appears to be a cage being veiled by a dove. The plaque reads (in part): “…to commemorate the free speech campaign of the 1930s…” Consider the definition of the verb commemorate:

1.            to honor the memory of somebody or something in a ceremony

2.            to serve as a memorial to something

Noel Counihan’s free speech campaign did not accomplished or changed anything – he didn’t have free speech, he was in a fucking cage! The sculpture honours the memory of his failed campaign for the fundamental human right of free speech. For the pedants out there who might point to a High Court decision recognizing freedom of political speech in Australia, I would reply: how has this protected the speech of Albert Langer, the editors of Rabelais (La Trobe student newspaper), Bill Henson, Paul Yore or anyone else? For freedom of speech to be effective in Australia it would have to protect the rights of people other than those in the major political parties who form government.

I want to make it clear that I regard the so-called Australian government as a criminal organization without any moral, political or legal legitimacy what so ever.

Australia is full of bigots with no regard for the human rights of the indigenous population, refugees…. basically any minority that these popularist politicians want to attack. When confronted with these facts Australian bigots will scream that others have committed more crimes than they have. They will point to China, Russia, France and the Spanish Inquisition and say: “look at them, don’t accuse us”; as if someone else committing crimes makes these shit-heads less guilty of the horrendous crimes that they are committing. In this exhibition, this exceedingly stupid attitude is represented in works by Wendy Black, Penny Byrne, Nick Devilin and William Kelly (and the curators Leon Van De Graaff and Victor Griss who choose to include those works).

The worst work in the exhibition goes to George Matoulas who has created a shallow and unpoetic painting, the visually vacuous equivalent of a poem by Rick from the Young Ones – BOMB.

There is some good art in this exhibition, both aesthetically and conceptually but given the confused and stupid politics of the exhibition’s theme I preferred seeing that art when it was in other exhibitions.


Reframed @ Counihan Gallery

“Reframed” is an exhibition of art from the Moreland Art Collection on exhibition at the Counihan Gallery. It is post-modern collection because of its post-colonial view and its inclusion of naïve artists. Although much of the work is in traditional media – the one installation in the exhibition by Kirsten McFarlane is a charming reminder of Sydney Rd’s vaudeville history – this is itself a feature of post-modernism.

The collection is based on the work of Noel Counihan who “never received the recognition afforded their rival Angry Penguin Associates.” (Trudi Allen, Cross Currents in Contemporary Australian Art, 2001, p.53) Counihan was more interested in socialist realism than the Angry Penguins’ expressionist Australian modernism. The Counihan Gallery received a substantial donation of works by Noel Counihan from art historian, Robert Smith. The exhibition has prints from the “Noel Counihan Tribute Folio” on the back wall of the gallery, like a base to the structure of the exhibition. Not that the exhibition (or even the tribute folio) is full of socialist realism but it is alternative starting point in art history for the collection. The collection shows that art and the understanding of political issues have developed from socialist realism to include wider issues, like the environment, and a variety of cultural vocabularies.

The exhibition’s narrative starts with a substantial and diverse collection aboriginal art and moves to more art exploring themes of identity, culture and place. Curator, Edwina Bartlem has organized the exhibition into several block that highlight themes in the collection: the environment, feminism, multi-cultural Australia and Moreland’s recent history.

One of the standout works of the show, for me, is by Turkish artist Füsun Çağlayan of a Turkish-Australian wedding. This powerful realist painting with its somber colors, the patterned border top and bottom with yellow photos of Turkish-Australian life on the top border. William (Bill) Kelly’s bronze Tiananmen Square Monument using the image of the man in front of the tank had a suitably vast base. I also enjoyed seeing Nusra Latif Qureshi’s “Balancing Act II” again, this time I noticed the way that flowers permeate the borders and outlines in her paintings.

The City of Moreland’s art collection shows what can be done over 20 years with a $10,000 annual budget and some good curatorial advice. It is not the perfect collection and Cr Alice Pryor speech admitted that mistakes that had been made; she regretted passing over a painting by Sam Leach before he won the Archibald. Some of the collection has been purchased from previous exhibitions at the Counihan Gallery; regular visitors to the gallery will recognize some of the art on exhibition. Unfortunately the exhibition did not include the dates of acquisition of the works so that visitors could see how the collection developed.

On Thursday evening local city councillors launched exhibition and the 2011 program at the Counihan Gallery with catering by local business, Poplars Café. It was a beautiful evening and as I ride my bicycle home I couldn’t help but notice the local art that wasn’t represented in the exhibition – all the anarchic street art beside the bicycle path.


Some Brunswick Sculptures

Melbourne’s suburb of Brunswick did not inherit many public sculptures from previous generations. The Temperance Movement from early last century erected a few drinking fountains, a couple of war memorials were commissioned, and there is that ugly bronze lump  – now stuck outside a carpark along Sydney Rd., that commemorates the gold rush of the 19th century.

Peter Corlett “Father John Brosnan” 2004

There are now many more contemporary sculptures including some by notable Melbourne sculptors, Peter Corlett (see my entry about Peter Corlett) and Simon Perry. Peter Corlett’s 2004 statue of “Father John Brosnan, Chaplin Pentridge Prison 1945-1985” is out the front of the Brosnan Centre in Brunswick. Simon Perry, whose best-known sculpture, is the “Public Purse” is in the Bourke St. mall, has a number of sculptures around Brunswick.

Simon Perry, “Rolled Path”, 1997

Simon Perry’s “Rolled Path”, 1997, on the Merri Creek bicycle path, north of Albion St. and south of the Brunswick velodrome, is witty and fun. At the end of a short side path, the concrete rolls up into a large cylinder, like a giant classical scroll, or a carpet waiting to be unrolled were its progression not blocked by a large bluestone rock. The sculpture plays with the parkland environment of concrete paths, the boulder is the local bluestone granite found along the creek. It reminds me of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, as a work of earth art because of its form and the invitation to walk a path that ends in the contemplation of art.

“Rolled Path” exhibits many of the qualities that I think are essential to public art. Like all good public art kids can climb on it and you can sit on it. It is practically indestructible without heavy equipment or explosives and even the graffiti that was painted on it when I was there was inconsequential. It fits perfectly into the park environment of Merri Creek, creating an identity for an otherwise nondescript area beside the bicycle path.

“Rolled Path” is a rare example in Moreland of the sculpture that has been incorporated into the design of the landscape. Too often sculpture is put where space can found for it, with little consideration to the landscape or architecture. And for this reason none of these sculptures have become an image for suburb or a meeting place.

At the corner of Sydney and Glenlyon Rd. is a less successful sculpture by Simon Perry. “Monument to free speech” 1993, commemorates artist and activist Noel Counihan. It is a stone carving of a cage being unveiled or covered by a bronze dove. Only 3m high this sculpture is too small to be much of a monument and too ambiguous to be a landmark, given that Australians do not have any rights to free speech. The original commission for this sculpture is probably the source of many of its problems.


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