Three exhibitions with very different objectives at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. Modern and contemporary art, with aesthetics ranging from realist to camp, and goals as diverse as to activate, educate and entertain. (So, watch me do the critical equivalent of a high dive with triple summersault to tie this review up.)
When the Counihan Gallery was established in 1999, it was named after the artist Noel Counihan (1913-1986). The inspiration came from the proximity of Counihan’s anti-fascist protest/performance, his ironic free speech in a cage on a busy Sydney Road, Friday evening, 19 May 1933. Remembering that Victoria Police was run by fascists in 1933 and it is doubtful that they have ever relinquished control of the force that “upholds the right.”
The Counihan Gallery has acquired a collection of Noel Counihan’s paintings, drawings, lithographs, linocuts and other prints, primarily through donations. “Counihan Collection – Noel Counihan works from the Moreland Art Collection” is the first time exhibition from this collection. This is possibly the first retrospective exhibition of his work since the one at the NGV in 1973.
Counihan’s art was intended as political consciousness-raising when it wasn’t a portrait or the head of an attractive woman. Amongst the heads, I am caught by the mad stare, the simple graphic eye that Counihan gives to both Jesus and the Collingwood supporter in The Barracker.
The next exhibition, “Leftovers of a Ghost”, is a science experiment of an exhibition by Melbourne-based artists Emme Orbach and Noah Spivak. Chemical reactions as visual arts, part of National Science Week 2022. Spectacular crystal growths of monoammonium phosphate and huge blue copper sulphate crystals (British artist Roger Hiorns used copper sulphate with stunning effect in Seizure, 2011). The chance and natural forms suggest that they could be the work of anyone, with only the elegance and formal qualities of Orbach’s and Spivak’s work saying otherwise. I only wish there was about how the images were made, but that could have made the exhibition more didactic than artistic. Spivak has a background in photography, an art that relied on chemistry until it was replaced by digital technology.
In the third gallery, there is work by Mark Smith, an Arts Project Australia artist who works in ceramics, video and soft sculpture. His exhibition “Malleability” has a camp aesthetic of inverted commas (ref. Susan Sontag “notes on camp”). Smith’s soft letters, wall-works and ceramic words have the quality of ironic inverted commas. His graffiti bubble letters had odd, naive calligraphy with letters acquiring a base rather than simply sides. Soft sculpture has been around since Oldenburg only with Smith, the material used is over-the-top. “Choice” in stripy fur with green sides, but given society (Counihan), chemistry ( Orbach and Spivak), and disability (Smith), what choice do we have?