Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Flickers of comic anxiety

Peter Stichbury: The Alumni
Curated by Emma Bugden
Te Tuhi, Pakuranga
12 July - 21 September 2008

On an intuitive bodily level, there is no more immediately compelling image to the human gaze than another human being’s face. Even a belligerent misanthrope will instinctively seek out an ordered semblance of a visage’s vital components – eyes, nose, mouth – when confronted with ambiguous stimulatory images. But such subject matter for artists is ancient, so it is a substantial challenge for contemporary artists like Stichbury to make it fresh for new audiences. Yet few works here are based on real people whom the artist knows. Most of the portraits here are fictitious creations, hybrids of magazine or online images blended with shots of friends and family, with titles and identities constructed as well.

Te Tuhi, with its four connected galleries, is a perfect space for Bugden’s assembled collection of Stichbury’s work, and amenable for the orchestration of a powerful visitor experience. Stichbury’s visages are extremely precise graphic renditions with ultra-fine detail. They work well in groups where they become families or coteries. Varying between illustration and caricature, and blending the maudlin with the gut-shakingly comical, they avoid the devastatingly tragic or the truly vicious. This is wry humour, a gentle kidding.

In a show like this, with a lot to compare, you become conscious of Stichbury’s mannerisms: lots of blonde babes with huge bambi-like eyes and triangular mantis heads, with glistening irises and moistened lips. Some are frontal, other three-quarter view; some at eye-height, others slightly below.

The most realistic faces are on bowling balls. Here the artist has curtailed his impulse to distort because painting on a sphere will do that spatially. For all his images of delectable women they exude very little individuality. The most strikingly personable images are of men. Stichbury excels at male character studies, whereas women become abstractions of hetero male desire. This is magazine and movie culture where make-up and hairstyles are set strictly within glamour templates. Femmes and dudes rule the roost. There are no effeminate men or butch women.

The most recent works are the flatter more graphic images, not the plasticised sculptured heads that look so solid and super-intense. Stichbury's earlier images are more connected to digital animation whereas the latter ones seem to be out of graphic novels or comics. It is fun to study his methods of cropping and experiments with scale to see how they affect the psychological impact of each facial expression. Stichbury’s titles and Bugden’s wall labels (based on conversations with the artist) weave imaginary narratives around personalities constructed to accompany the faces, but that, though clever, overdetermines the reader’s interpretations. It is attempting to further enrich already extremely layered work. It just semantically clogs up images that are already easily sufficiently engrossing.

It is interesting to compare Stichbury with the photographer Yvonne Todd. Both construct elaborate names for the characters they create and depict, but Tood is about desperate control of emotion, whereas Stichbury renders fleeting expressions that rapidly flicker across his subjects’ faces during periods of intense anxiety. Stichbury’s Swoon (Stendhal Syndrome) (see top) on the poster is ostensibly about over-identification with an artwork in a gallery, but in reality is more about a growing realization of horror. Perhaps it is both, about the dangers of art and its power to transform (or corrupt) the mental life of its viewer.

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