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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Robinson theory of Art History

Peter Robinson: Snow Ball Blind Time
Curated by Rhana Devenport
13 September - 23 November 2008

This extremely unusual exhibition at the Govett is the first time the whole building has been handed over to one artist for an installation since the inaugural Leon Narbey Real Time show of 1970. It is a clever and ambitious project because it allows a particularly innovative and versatile individual to create something spectacular that will bodily thrill his audience, while also showcasing the very unusual spatial qualities of this adventurous, open-planned/multi-tiered New Plymouth gallery. The results are likely to attract many out of town art pilgrims to Taranaki.

Robinson has taken the linear wormlike form from ACK and blended it with the multiple chain links that feature prominently in the current work still on view in Jar in Kingsland. Seven varied sizes of joined polystyrene chain are intertwined to make an intricate but tumbling, baroque mass akin to a thickly streaming torrent, as if an ice version were possible. He has also used some of the crumbling polystyrene block presentations that he utilised in recent shows at Crockford,Brooke/Gifford, McLeavey, and Sutton (in Melbourne). The winding, lumpy but entangled, polystyrene snake weaves its way through all the exhibiting spaces, zigzagging between high balconies and low floors, squeezing through narrow corridors and out of look-outs to plummet past mezzanines only to double back upwards again. It starts in a corner of Gallery 2 by the front door and finally ends in Gallery 4, the large hangar-like room normally kept for Len Lye shows.

The worm’s direction is unpredictable as it clambers up to create spilling mountainous landscapes that can be viewed through vistas flanked by buckled chunky forms and doorway edges. These heaped rubble-like lines loop around and pile over disintegrating stratified blocks, and surprisingly sometimes, when seen from below, seem akin to Piranesi etchings. Somehow the gallery is transformed into a twisting subterranean cave with chasms and pillars, yet the venue is not smothered nor blindingly white. The amount of opaque white mass is carefully judged and not excessive. The architecture is interacted with, teased and scrutinised, but not hidden. The building is celebrated, not critiqued.

Mixed in with this is the treatment of the icelike polystyrene by the physical limitations of the connected chain links, where their design makes it almost a new substance, a material that is fluid and floppy and suggestive of fur, foliage and crystalline minerals.

Such an intensely experiential exhibition like this doesn’t need an interpretation or explanatory narrative that gives a predetermined rationale for every element, yet some aspects draw out other levels of meaning beyond spatial and optical sensation. For example Robinson has incorporated in his show a number of polystyrene stanchions holding up delicate polystyrene chains. Most of these are placed in groups within the small galleries at the bottom of the stairs near the entrance. They seem to stand for some quality like the ‘limitations or boundaries of art’, physical or conceptual. Their very literal presence helps make the giant meandering worm a metaphor for western art history, and the seven interwoven ‘threads’ within it disappearing and re-emerging themes or tendencies.

Without these ‘gallery barriers’ one could concentrate solely on a purely visceral response to Robinson’s fascinating show, but the stanchions’ unambiguous existence places other demands on the gallery visitor – pushing their capacity to speculate about what is before them and their own role, as viewers, in its creation.

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