Tag Archives: Counihan Gallery

From Counihan to Camp

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?


Two Exhibitions at the Counihan

Ancient mythology is full of sewing metaphors. The words ‘sutra’ and ‘suture’ share a common Sanskrit origin, a thread. Atropos, the eldest sister of the three ancient Greek fates, cuts the cord of someone’s life.

Pimpisa Tinpalit Silence #1.6.1

“Silence #1.6.1” by local artist Pimpisa Tinpalit is a meditative consideration of mortality. Tinpalit can create spectacular arte povera pieces using simple ordinary non-art materials like ropes and old pillows. The golden colour of sweat-soaked pillows glows in contrast to the black ropes. While tying up loose ends in knots, the other end of the rope is cut.

It is not all made from arte povera non-art materials. There is a video going forwards and in reverse, as the artist covers her face with gold leaf. And there are three ink paintings on large sheets of paper. I saw an earlier one of her Silence series at Yarra Sculpture Gallery in 2018

Two exhibitions at the Counihan Gallery opened on Saturday afternoon. It was the first exhibition opening that I’ve attended in years. The first time the Counihan has held a catered exhibition opening in years. The food was from Zaatars, and the wine was made by a former detainee, Farhad Bandesh. I went back for a second glass of the smooth red. 

Held over from last year was “Means Without Ends” by local documentary photographer Hoda Afshar: two series of photographs, Remain (2018) and Agonistes (2020). What these series have in common is that they depict people who have suffered at the hands of the Australian government. Cruelty is the point, amoral demonstrations of power by elected criminals desperate to feel in control. 

On one wall, Agonistes these “3D photographs” that look like images of white busts, like rough 3D printings of scans of heads of whistle-blowers. Recognisable even though the eyes are blank and there is no colour. Under each portrait, a panel explains what crimes and abuses of power the person reported and what was then done to them. Some of these whistle-blowers exposed abuses of refugees linking to Afshar’s other series of photographs.

On the other wall, Remain a series of black and white photographs staged images of refugees who were indefinitely detained in conditions equivalent to torture. Large-format inkjet prints of men who remained in detention camps on Manus Island for more than six years. The focus varies from sharp to blurred; is the image of the individual or a person? What would be the point of making them recognisable or identifiable?


Banj Banj/nawnta

Banj Banj/nawnta (meaning “sisters” in Taungurung/palawa kani) is a joyful collection of paintings with bright colours vibrating and lots of birds. Art that is the antidote for a post lockdown brain, the first exhibition that I saw after Victoria’s fifth lockdown. Eyes dulled with repetition pop. The backstory to these paintings is not so joyful.

Thelma Beeton, A Sign from Our Ancestors

Stacey (Taungurung /Boon Wurrung) and Thelma (Palawa) are close enough to be sisters. The two Indigenous women are from the same regional town and met up again when they were incarcerated at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, Victoria’s maximum-security women’s prison in Deer Park.

Their artistic origin story of these two jailbirds watching and laughing as two galahs flew down to look at them is told in an animated video narrated by the artists. Thelma Beeton records the story in one of her paintings, A Sign from Our Ancestors. She depicts the artists as a couple of emus with big brush stroke feathers behind a bluestone wall.

Beeton’s emus and bees have a cartoon simplicity with their bold outlines and colours. In contrast to Stacey’s meticulous art, a fusion of ancient and contemporary images with the traditional diamond pattern forming a background for her realistic depictions of birds, animals, and insects. There are subtle colour gradations and combinations in these backgrounds that are intensely beautiful.

The two artists works have a different mood and tone that works together in harmony. I wish that there were more collaborative works between these two artists. However, I understand that might be logistically difficult given that Stacey is still in prison.

Stacey and Thelma’s corkboards (installation view)

The two prison corkboards are displayed on a background of bee wallpaper, evoking the decoration that Thelma painted on her cell’s walls. The corkboards are similar to the ones that can be found in every cell at Deer Park. They are self-portraits of each artist, represented who they are personally, socially and culturally in a mixed media of cards, letters and drawings.

The exhibition at the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick is organised by The Torch. The Torch works with incarcerated Indigenous people in Victoria, the most incarcerated people on the planet, providing artistic training, materials, exhibitions and opportunities for sales. I would have seen their art before at the Torch’s annual Confined exhibitions. However, there are hundreds of paintings all competing for attention, so I’m not surprised that I don’t remember them. After this exhibition, I won’t forget them.

Stacey My Children Coming Home

Rendall’s Plastic Things

The last time that I saw Steven Rendall’s art was at John Buckley Gallery; I wrote a blog post about it over a decade ago. It included two large paintings about things on shelves. This time I’m looking at his Things Between Other Things on window frames of the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. The exhibition is “The Space We Live, the Air We Breathe”, curated by Jan Duffy and Matthew Perkins. And Rendall is still making art about things.

Things Between Other Things is a collection and a reference to filling in time with this project. For time makes an appearance amongst the materials listed: “scavenged plastic, time, polymer emulsion, glue, screws and various other things”. A metaphor for life, sandwiched between things, waiting for the next thing.

As Rendall’s artist statement iterates. “These are the things between other things. They are sculptures in the domestic filed. They find their place between other moments and actions, between breakfast and going to work. They are easy to store and transport.They are endless and can be made of anything. They are a subsets with the overall scheme – some are more like fantasy gaming figures; some are more like modernist found object assemblages; some are made from a unified colour range; some are painted; some aren’t; some are inspired by practical special events; some can relate to art historical references. They exist.”

Rendall’s things are evenly spaced along the gallery’s window frames. This means that they can be seen from both inside and from the outside on Sydney Road. I wonder what the people waiting for a tram will make of these beautiful and frightening Anthropocene mash-ups. Cthulhuloid monsters with scuttling claws glued together with other broken toys. The true horror is the materials sourced from the infinite amount of plastic in our time. It gets everywhere, from the depths of the oceans to placental fluid.

Many creative people are trying to use what they can of this pollution, recycling, or just up-cycling. For art is about using up the surplus materials, as well as, time. Lego Lost At Sea (@LegoLostAtSea) documents and creates photographs of carefully laid out collections of plastic found on the beach. For more plastic recycling see my post on local jewellers.

The other two exhibitions at the Counihan, Jessie Boylan’s “The Smallest Measure” and Mikaela Stafford “Proximity”, are presented in association with CLIMARTE: “Arts for a safe climate”. Boylan is about air and measuring gases in the atmosphere. And Stafford has a strange beauty, both digital and biological. However, Rendall’s Things Between Other Things really made me think about the environment, the space we live, and the air we breathe.

My view of parts of Mikaela Strafford “Proximity”

Counihan Gallery Expansion

Twenty years ago the Counihan Gallery was established by Moreland City Council in 1999. In the following decades it has become a cultural hub for Brunswick. The regular exhibition openings bringing people together in a physical space. Now it has expanded and is once again open after renovations.

There has been a small change to the large foyer with the addition of two vitrines both hung with prints by Noel Counihan from the gallery’s collection. It always seemed a shame that there wasn’t any of his art on exhibition in a gallery named after him.

Inside the gallery there is a dramatic change; it is now over a third larger. The new space merges seamlessly with the rest of the gallery. The same flooring, the same curved marine-ply ceiling panels hang in the new space. And, most of important of all, at the end of the new gallery space, there is a large window facing onto Sydney Road bringing natural light into the gallery. Curious people passing by look in, some of them now aware that there is something going on in the building.

There was a launch of this new space and the first exhibitions for a new year on Saturday 8 February with a “Welcome to Country” by a Wurundjeri Elder, a couple of speeches and a performance by Djirri Djirri, Wurundjeri Women’s Dance Group. I was there enjoying a glass of wine, a pumpkin kibbe (shout out to Zaatar’s, a great local cafe, this is a personal endorsement with no quid pro quo received or expected), meeting new people and catching up with acquaintances.

Tyler Payne, KIMSPO and #doitfortheafterselfie

The three current exhibitions:

At first I didn’t really get Histrionic by Marion Abraham, Saffron Newey and Tyler Payne. There were plenty of attractive and engaging works to look at from Payne’s installation with iPads to Newey’s large painting of a great, green, sea monster. Then Abraham’s art historical references in her two large paintings lured me in to deeper thoughts about contemporary life.

Chris Bowes, Monitor

Screen Time is an interactive installation by Chris Bowes with lots of messy black cables contrasting with the clean colour digital images. It looks like the output of high modernism: the cubist break down of the image onto seperate screens, the dots of colour of the pointillists, and the readymade an-aesthetic of the physical installation.

Nusra Latif Qureshi, Balancing Act II

And in the new space there is  f_OCUS; a selection of works by women from the galleries permanent collection. Twenty artists whose names or works should be familiar to anyone interested in Melbourne’s art; Hoda Afshar, Wendy Black, Megan Cope, Destiny Deacon, Emily Floyd, Fiona Foley, Marlene Gilson, Helga Groves, Gracia Haby & Louise Jennison, Joy Hester, Deanna Hitti, Regina Karadada, Carmel Louise, Mandy Nicholson, Rose Nolan, Jill Orr, Carol Porter, Nusra Latif Qureshi and Judy Watson. I remembered first seeing Nusra Latif Qureshi’s post-modern take on traditional miniature painting at the Counihan Gallery’s Women’s Salon.


Fantastic Worlds

Art in children’s picture books is how most of us first experienced art and the current exhibition at the Counihan Gallery could be some children’s first experience of an art gallery. “Fantastic Worlds” is an exhibition of children’s book illustrations that has been specifically curated for children (aged 2 to 10 years old).

Ann Walker, Mr Huff soft sculpture, 2015

It is not just the subject of the exhibition that is designed for children. Low plinths allows easier viewing for children. Cushions and beanbags offer a place for children to relax. There is also an interactive work, Story-go-round by Cat Rabbit and Isobel Knowles, that was commissioned especially for the exhibition. And there are story-times, workshops and other events that are part of the exhibition.

Even if you are no longer a child there is plenty of appeal in this exhibition; emphasis on the word ‘plenty’, for unlike the minimalism of many contemporary art exhibitions with ten illustrators there is plenty to look at. Shaun Tan’s paintings and sculptures have their own power as art; the rough surface of the paint and the solidity of these imaginary places. Elise Hurst fantastic pen and ink illustration from Imagine a City (2014). Graeme Base’s intensely detailed watercolour and ink illustrations from Animalia (1986), The Sign of the Seahorse (1992) and Uno’s Garden (2006) — and much more.

Shaun Tan paintings installation view

What I didn’t expect was so much collage. Alison Lester’s figures are cut out and collaged onto a background; they stand out fresh and lively in the original (although it might not be as obvious in the print version). Tai Snaith does more obvious collage mixing cut paper and stoneware clay to create very three dimensional images for Slow Down World (2017). And then there is the digital collage and gothic cyberpunk styling of Lance Balchin’s mechanical insects, from his book Mechanica: a beginner’s field guide (2016).

“Fantastic Worlds” at Counihan Gallery in Brunswick was curated by Edwina Bartlem.

detail from Tai Snaith’s A cool shady place

The Plastic Jewellers

In the foyer of the Counihan Gallery is selection of ear-rings with recycled components, recycled silver and plastic. TempContemp’s exhibition of sustainable jewellery is part of the “Art + Climate = Change 2019” arts festival.

Ann Welton, Flotsam and Simone Alesich, Gelo One

On Saturday one of the exhibiting jewellers and curator, Laila Marie Costa led walk and talk; or rather a talk with a walk to change the location. It started at the Counihan Gallery and continued, not far off, at Northcity4. The reason for this geographically extended talk was that TempContemp was also presenting “The Urban Gleaner & the Plastique Pt. II” another exhibition at Northcity4’s very small exhibition space (also part of “Art + Climate = Change 2019”).

Costa is an advocate for contemporary jewellery to have the same status as ceramics in the contemporary art world. She works with found materials and was exhibiting a pair of dramatic earrings built on inverted glow-in-the-dark crosses.

Northcity4 is a jewellery studio in Brunswick in a factory converted into studio spaces on Weston Street where seventeen jewellers work. Costa gave us a quick tour of the well-equiped studio with a forest of indoor plants. The studio tour was followed by a chat about both jewellery exhibitions and the use of plastic in contemporary jewellery.

Two more jewellers, Regina Middleton and Lauren Simeoni spoke about their work in the exhibition.

Lauren Simeoni uses fake plants as her primary material occasionally sneaking in precious materials into these compositions. In her hands the unnatural stamens, twigs and branches become necklaces and ear-rings.

Although they are using plastic as their primary material the horror of plastic covering the planet in a colourful layer of toxic chemical junk is very present in all their minds. Middleton describes an encounter with a Thai beach covered in plastic rubbish and the “tragic beauty of plastic” as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Middleton creates displays of these tiny, weathered fragments of plastic collected from beaches; elegant display boxes of poisonous, anti-magical, gems.


%d bloggers like this: