The Counihan Gallery is twenty years old. The Oven’s Street Studios are twenty-one years old. And, the youngest, Studio 23A is nineteen years old. Together there are two exhibitions at the Counihan to review. “Twenty One Today” celebrates the Oven’s Street Studios with an exhibition of its four founding members. And “Endangered Space” celebrates Studio 23A with an exhibition of eleven of its current members.
Before the Counihan Gallery there wasn’t much in the way of galleries, or even, exhibition spaces in Brunswick. A room at the Mechanics Institute were used for irregular exhibitions and Moreland City Council had an arts officer. Having a dedicated, purpose-built gallery was a big improvement have a good curator was the next. Starting in 2006 curator, Edwina Bartlem made the Counihan Gallery something more than just a local council gallery and, the current curator, Victor Gris has followed through on improving the quality of the exhibitions.
Over the two decades since it was established I have seen many exhibitions at the Counihan Gallery. I have also seen many of the artists currently on exhibition in the gallery and in their studios (thanks to Brunswick Studio Walk).
I hadn’t seen the work of Doug Kirwan from the Oven’s Street Studios before and was instantly struck by their beauty and intensity. Geometric and organic patterns intersect and grow across Kirwan’s acrylic paintings. I was not surprised to discover that for eight years Kirwan was the in-house designer for a wallpaper company.
Essential to the “Endangers Space” exhibition were the two tables that assembled work, materials and inspirations from all eleven of Studio’s 23A current members. The most powerful work was Kasia Fabijańska’s magnificent drawing; this huge drawing of a dead tree is almost 3 metres tall and fantastically rendered in graphite, charcoal and pencil.
A visit to the Sunshine Lane (Ann St, Brunswick) is always worthwhile to see quality street art and graffiti. There are other great locations for street art in Brunswick hidden away in the backstreets. Few laneways in Melbourne get a 5 star review on Google but this is one; Google describes it as an art gallery and in a way it is. Sunshine Lane is one of the locations in Brunswick where street art graffiti thrive because it is semi-curated by Dean Sunshine, whose family owns several of the warehouse in the area. There are some permanent works, like this one by Slicer that I videoed when he was spraying it six years ago.
In the video I wanted to convey the action painting aspects of painting with a spray can (as in the action painting of the Abstract Expressionist 10th Street School). Aspects that Slicer embodied well, but it is his footwork, the dance that is also common to all artists spray painting large walls that I was also watching. The person dances along the wall with their spray can, steps back, pause, steps to the left, or to the right, and then steps back up to the wall to once again paint across its surface.
A couple of stencils by Drasko and others around the area reminded me that a decade ago the main focus on Melbourne’s street art was stencils. It is not that stencils are making a come back, they never went away, it is just that the street art scene is so much larger that stencils no longer dominate.
No-one would have predicted what is still happening with street art; what was underground and wild is now mainstream. A decade ago I was told so often that Melbourne’s street art had peaked that I took it too mean that the person in question was getting out of the scene. However, for every person who left the scene to pursue other goals it seemed that five took their place.
Rapid urbanisation has been the fuel in this expansion in many ways. The growth of the city, not just spread, but vertically has created many more walls filled by many more people who want to paint them. The walls get larger, whole sides of multi-storey buildings and more and more get painted. There are now building sites around Sunshine Lane, small laneways have vanish or are now cut off by construction works.
I feel obliged to take a look at Moreland Summer Show 2018 at the Counihan Gallery because I live in the area, to keep up with what the local artists are doing. However, instead of trying to write about the whole exhibition I will be looking at three of the exhibitors: Wendy Black, Benjamin Sheppard and Yoshi Machida.
Wendy Black Sea Eagle over Tamar 2017-18
Wendy Black’s Sea Eagle over Tamar is painted with spray paint enamel on board, what would be called a stencil piece on the street. But it is not on the street and Black is not a street artist and it is worth point out the elements that would be unusual on the street to contrast the differing aesthetics. Firstly, it is a landscape a genre rarely used on the street, secondly there are many rough elements, blistered or bubbling paint, evidence of masking tape that would be avoided on the street but give Black’s painting warmth. For more on Wendy Black see my blog post about Courtroom Artists.
Benjamin Sheppard Sugary Teeth 2018
In Benjamin Sheppard’s Sugary Teeth the missing Steyr AUG, the infantry rifle of the ADF, leaves a blank space amidst the profuse ballpoint pen marks. This blank space illustrates the negative concept of peace, as in the absence of war and conflict. Intense biro work is typical of Sheppard’s work: I’ve been intending to write something about his art ever since his exhibition Le Coq at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick in 2012. Along with fantastically detailed illustration of cockerels in biro there were abstract passages of intense random lines in his drawings; the division between the abstract art and the illustration has simply ceased to exist in the minds of artist. In MoreArts 2014 he had an installation at Jewell Station involving both newspaper headline displays and a full billboard. For more on Benjamin Sheppard read an interview with him on The Art and The Curious.
Yoshi Machida Dialogue (First Step for Peace) 2018
The Moreland Summer Show has the usual motherhood statement theme, this year it is “Peace and the Pursuit of Happiness” and Yoshi Machida’s Dialogue (First Step for Peace) presents a kind of buddhist kōan on the theme. Notice that neither the frogs, the cat nor the monk has said anything. I assume that themonk and the cat aren’t even registered on the frog’s consciousness because they aren’t moving, that the cat wants to kill the frogs and that the monk is considering how to start a dialogue.
In “Tangled Love” Civil’s stick figure folk, a mix between Keith Haring and Matisse, form a gentle community as they sit, walk, dance and ride bicycles. They occupy a large wall in the laneway outside the gallery, Tinning Street presents but sit comfortably on the smaller supports within.
A decade ago I was interested in how street art and graffiti would be exhibited in art galleries. Moving from the street into the gallery is a matter of economics, conservation and, given the structure of the art world, inevitability. At the time stencil art dominated Melbourne’s street art scene so that meant that, aside from the gallery location, the other difference was support, outside walls or other materials.
However, sometimes that location on the street was very important to the art. I have seen many artists work fail to work in the gallery. The worst that I can remember was Urban Cake Lady’s exhibition at Rist; her art which looked enchanting on the street lost its magic inside the gallery.
Often this was because isolated in the gallery is different from being collaged onto the actual streetscape. Maybe they are missing the unexpected moment of discovery on the street, that Prof. Alison Young argues is the core of the street art experience, replaced with the totally expected experience of the exhibition. Sometimes the repetition of the artist’s single iconic image looks repetitious and boring in a gallery. Sometimes it is simply due to issues of scale. Certainly the white, anaesthetic room rarely helps the art look its best.
None of these appeared to be a problem in Tom Civil’s exhibition at Tinning Street presents. Dried botanical arrangements in old milk vats engraved by Civil decorate the gallery. His stick figures appear on a variety of supports: timbre lattice, ply, green corflute (corrugated plastic), doormats, wood and clear corrugated plastic which reminds the viewer of the variety of surfaces in the city. Aside from Civil’s familiar stick figures there are images created specifically for gallery exhibitions of animals from centipedes to chooks. Print making techniques extending from his early stencils on the street to linocut, drypoint etching, screen-prints and woodcuts. These printing techniques offer new material for the exhibition. Inside or outside of the gallery Civil’s images work.
I have been reading and collecting graffiti writer’s sign offs; that is the side comments near the outer edge of a piece of graffiti. If it is a name or a list of names it is called a ‘shout out’; as in when a DJ gives a shout out to a listener, a graff writer gives a shout out to a watcher. (Thanks Harry Nesmoht for clearing up ‘sign off’ and ‘shout out’ for me.) The names in shout-outs are often obscure but the sign offs can be an interesting read.
Written in a relatively clean and easy to read font; sign offs are a trace of pre-hip hop graffiti when words and slogans were all there was.
Often they will tell you where the writers, if they aren’t local, are from. Brunswick and Coburg must have felt like home for the German speaking graffiti writers.
Or what event, the wall was painted for, this one was for the Meeting of Styles in 2016.
Interesting taste in music and it is not hip hop; it is a line from The Magnetic Fields “Papa Was A Rodeo” (from 69 Love Songs: Volume 2, 1999).
Sometimes the writer is leaving a message for a wider public like Bailer explaining his position to a slasher. Ironically there are lots of messages to taggers to leave the wall alone.
What is it to look? To perceive clearly what is in front of you. To examine a landscape with the eye. To see the slight variations in the chaotic patterns. To notice. On average a person in an art gallery look at a work of art for only a few seconds but what if it was your job to look? In this post I will be looking at the current exhibitions the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick where there are two exhibitions about looking at landscapes.
Simon Grennan, Supplementary Search and Search Party (in day-go orange) oil on canvas
Simon Grennan’s “Almost Like A Reality: The Landscape and its Subjects” refers to the history of the Australian landscape both as art subject and as a forensic site. Twenty-six oil paintings with an Australian bush landscapes with gothic element. What are the professional emergency services personnel searching for? Someone who is lost, recovering a dead body or is it a crime scene?
There are clear references in Grennan’s paintings to the Heidelberg School, particularly Tom Roberts and Fred McCubbin’s 1886 plein-air painting in the bush that is now Melbourne’s suburbia: from McCubbin’s Lost, to The artists’ camp by Tom Roberts. Robert and McCubbin’s camp site was about a mile south of Box Hill railway station near Damper Creek (now Gardiners Creek).
Simon Grennan, Scenery, Quite Nice, Quite Nice 2, oil on canvas
Kirstin Berg, Light Years, 2018 (detail)
In her exhibition, “The Dreamers”, Kirstin Berg explores the landscape, finding bush debris, clothing, reclaimed timber and transforming them into a dreamscape. It is a landscape of extreme contrast between black and white, the shadow and the highlight. This surreal landscape is furnished; the chairs like Dali’s stilt walking elephants, a bed that is impossible to sleep on and all the solid linen soaked in plaster. For more on Kirstin Berg read an interview with her by Camilla Wagstaff in Art Collector about her 2016 exhibition at Gallery Smith.
Ash Coates, Mycolinguistics (Rubico-Sterolosis or Oneness)
Outside the Counihan, part of the gallery’s annual Winter Night Screen Project, is Ash Coates’s Mycolinguistics (Rubico-Sterolosis or Oneness) 2017. In 2017 Time Out listed Coates piece as one of “the 9 best projections at Gertrude Street Projection Festival” although this time it is not projected onto the building. Coates’s digital animation is of a colourful alien landscape like a microscopic world of fungal life. It is visible and audible (with a soundscape by Alister Mew) from outside the gallery; waiting for the tram on a cold, wet winter’s night with one eye on the screen and one eye on Sydney Road.
We live at a time of peak stuff and consequently it is also the time of peak books. What once was rare and valued is now a glut. Collecting printed matter used to be a virtue and now it is the vice of a hoarder. Perhaps, we can only understand everything about books is when there is an excess of books.
Nicolas Jones, Holman Hunt book
My own book shelves are overflowing, packed two deep with books. More books are stacked in various strategic positions. Are they simply trophies of previous reads? How many of them will I ever read again or repeatedly consult?
Now, e-books might be an alternative to having physical books. I have read only one e-book, Medieval Graffiti, but I no longer have a dictionary or thesaurus or an encyclopaedia takin up space on my shelves. I no longer keep newspaper clipping or photocopy of articles as they are available online or in PDF files.
Peak books is a disturbing concept to bibliophiles and bookshop workers especially second-hand bookshops because peak books means more free libraries. I have been taking some of my excess books to the free libraries. There are free libraries at Coburg and Moreland stations, more around the streets and even one at Barkley Square shopping centre. I first noticed a free library in my neighbourhood in 2014 but the recent growth in them is a sure indicator of peak books.
Peak books means that there will be art made from the excess books, as art is made from excesses in a society. Art from books has been happening since before I started this blog and is on the increase. There are Melbourne based artists who used books as their primary media, for example Nicolas Jones. In Collected Odysseys, 2018, by Malcolm Angelucci, Chris Caines and Majella Thomas, a two metre cairn of books blackened with ink in the middle of the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick.