Monday, March 31, 2008
Symptoms of Now.
Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim
Courbet at the Met
It occurs to me (as probably occurred to everyone else years ago) that the best and the worst of contemporary art is, in overview (from the perspective of a circling satellite) all merely symptoms of the economies of the states and countries wherein the work is made. This is regardless of the individual cleverness, the pop wit, the degree of social consciousness, the media, the craft, or the art historical relevance of any one work.
My particular satellite vision has been inspired by the current confluence of big shows here in N.Y. (probably fueled too by the nearing end of a long winter of media coverage surrounding the race between Clinton and Obama, and the daily foregrounding of issues)
The first of these big shows is the Whitney Biennial. Here the mood transcending individual works is sober and downbeat, and the mode is grunge. There is a pervasive and familiar kind of documentary anti-glam: a this-is-it / here-we-are / deal-with-it / morning-after reality; cocaine in the 80s, party pills in the 90s.
America has fucked up now, and earnest art school grads, with fresh M.F.A.s, have rubbed their eyes and noticed. There is a peeling back of surfaces at the Whitney, an exposure of insides: a scratching around for truth? But the result is all a bit vacuous.
These days America is full of bad news, and the bad news has been building over the past couple of years. George Bush’s war with its endless list of high level insider trade offs, and public deceptions has taken its toll. The spirit of the times is dispirited. And so is the Biennial.
No-one talks about Bush any more, let alone the awful, numbing fact that he will be in the top job for another 12 months. The American eagle has taken a sucker punch. The dollar is sinking, oil is at historic highs and it hurts. The U.S. has always believed in and loved its reflection in the new chrome trim of the latest big car. Now all over the country people cannot pay their mortgages, health care is only for the rich, the U.S. scores poorly on rates for child mortality and longevity, literacy rates are low, and now the residue of popular pills is turning up in the nation’s water supply: Viagra, Aspirin, birth-control pills, party pills. urgh! And last week a survey showed that 25 % of American girls carry some kind of a sexually transmitted disease. The Republican abstinence approach to sex ed has failed. Believing and teaching the creation myth of the Christian right, as does 40% of this country, has proven to be bad for foreign policy, health and education.
The second show seen from my satellite is on at the Guggenheim. It is titled ‘I want to believe.” A solo show by Cai Guo-Qiang, it features suspended cars and neon, lots of stuffed tigers, and the singed record of fireworks on paper. At first glance that stuff didn’t wow me. I’ve worked in the display industry, I grew up in Hamilton, and I understand cheesy symbolism and the aesthetics of a mediocre window display. What is not mediocre is the spirit of the work. Cai’s mission is to create art events that galvanize myth and ritual out of recent historic moments, to make work that thrills and creates meaningful adventure stories for local people. His work with explosives does all that. As well he claims to be offering up messages to extra-terrestrials. In his spectacular events Cio channels the fantastic spiritual element of Chinese tradition (and Chinese movies), and the idealism and zeal of socialist art. He well deserves the gig to design a snazzy Vegas fireworks display for the 2008 Olympics.
Chinese art seems to be everything American art is not; it has a yabba dabba do-optimism. Party time. Post-socialist-party time. Boy, if I was twenty five I would be off to Beijing, making performances with sound and light and fashion models, and stacks of old Soviet era tanks painted with day glow pink willow patterns, and with MacDonald’s signs attached to the rocket launchers. I’d be getting sponsored by my twenty eight year old billionaire buddies, (in joint deals with Saatchis for new shows in Dubai).
Any messages; runaway capitalism; consumerism; over-whelmed nature, pale behind a new dazzling, liberating, gush of belief.
But N.Y. thankfully still has the chops of a great city, and a great art center, and it still has great depth and diversity. And it has another show, which beams up a flickering signal of life from the past. It is the Courbet show at the Met. A rare collection of rich painting... rich by any measure...by the measure of contemporary punchiness, and by yesteryear’s measures of craft and social propriety. Courbet, after 150 years is still hot.
How many contemporary shows require the building of a special wall to protect sensitive viewers? It requires a little “skirting” detour in order to be exposed to the infamous “The Origin of the World”. At chest height, in fleshy paint, close-up in true -to- life scale, bulls-eye! You get stared down by a young woman’s vulva. Her skirt is raised and her thighs parted for your delectation and challenge. In the 1990s when Jeff Koons exhibited his large, staged, explicit, photos of himself and his porn-star wife, those images elicited a similar viewer caution, (There was a notice and an R18 advisory at the gallery entrance) and that show similarly messed with conventions by mixing outer hi-brow viewer with inner lo-brow voyeur. Vanessa Beecroft’s use of staged nudity maybe confounds art consumers in a similar way.
As a work of art ‘The Origin” has had a great provenance. Looted by the Russians in WW2, bought at auction by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in 1955, banned from bookshop displays in Paris in 1994 when it appeared as a book jacket, and now closeted at the Met.
Courbet was politically motivated and at odds with the academe of the day. He wanted to “be in a position to translate the customs, ideas, the appearance of my epoch, according to my own estimation” (1) It was interesting for me to note that his most powerful and enduring images, those that address sex and death head-on; were all commissioned by a Turkish collector Kahlil-Bay. It would seem that despite Courbet’s personal mission to expose the realities of the day, it took an outsider’s taste and budget to enable him to really break from entrenched codes.
As well as the skin of girls, Courbet painted deep forest-shaded rivers and crazily breaking beach surf, powder snow and dying animals. What this show offers is that old and particular pleasure of paint, of being in the place in front of the canvas where the painter stood when he was working, breathing, engaged with his subject; looking and thinking, and risking the sacrifice of trained virtuosity in the application of paint. It is risky when you put down your brush and start slapping away with a palette knife. You sacrifice your control of blending tones and tracing edges, the surface gets messed up, but urgency and energy get trapped. This is no small thing to witness. It can be compared to the experience of seeing 12 glossy, suspended tons of steel and neon at the Guggenheim. Intimacy, energy, human touch, and risk, versus grandiose, metaphoric and costly. It is something when a painting takes you under the skin of an experience by revealing the process of its creation.
Art critic Robert Hughes talks about what he responds to in the work of Lucien Freud, it is a similar experience, an experience by which he measures other kinds of art experience and the kind of experiences offered by other media.
And the art writer Peter Schjeldahl in his lavish review for this weeks New Yorker mag, hits on the power and significance of feeling generated by Courbet’s painting and its tonic relevance for the spirit of these times.
“Vision is addressed but vicarious touch and smell take delivery. Courbet's drenching seascapes should come with towels and his steaming nudes with towelettes.
He revels in the quiddity of paint: moist dirt. His art isn’t about life; it is life precipitated, with raucous panache. Nothing could be better therapy for a bodiless society of cybernetic narcissicisms than the mad wallow of this show”.
An actual mad wallow? Who can disagree? What we all really need right now is to walk away from our laptop screens and go wallow...madly, and with raucous panache. The message comes from Courbet, via Schjeldahl, to today; We need to re-humanize.
Footnote: The day I visited the Whitney show a crane collapsed at a nearby building site in midtown Manhattan. I walked down to ogle. This 20 story high crane had come adrift from the steel stack of cards it was servicing, and toppled like a giant toy across the block, tipping cars on the street and 18 floors up, clipping a classic 50s apt building and scalping 2 or 3 corner ones so that their wallpapered inner rooms, closets, pajamas, were suddenly exposed to the sky and ground. The crane had come to rest at a casual diagonal and was being spot lit by emergency services in the mild evening air. But that brutal, thrilling, rupture of structural stuff and the revelation of private interiors is exactly the kind of thing much of the Biennial seemed to be aiming for. Especially given that this scene was being attended to and framed by troops of handsome, professional, newsmen and women (all wired up to the antiseptic sanctity of the fancy vans with the satellite dishes on top). The reality and consequences of a major structural failure gets mediated (medicated) into evening news and entertainment. I didn’t know until later that several people died in this accident. (I don’t mean to harp on about infra-structural problems in the U.S. but this crane collapse seems awfully symbolic of the moment, and in fact is just the latest in a series of recent mishaps, coming in the middle of an ongoing inquiry into building industry safety and the old payola building consent process in N.Y. The inquiry into national road safety after a big bridge collapsed in Minneapolis was last year.)
In a satellite conclusion then; Chinese art now is John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. It is disco giddy. Hip hugging polyester swagger, smooth hair and confidence to burn.
American art is aging Sylvester Stallone, in the ring, on the ropes, in Rocky 3 before his implausible, miracle, slo-mo comeback. But get this, if Rocky’s America does make a miracle comeback, maybe this time, for the first time, it won’t come back as a clan of billionaire white guys over 65, it will be back as a bright young black guy, or the voices of millions of Hispanic voters, or as a strong white woman - and these new champs may not even need to be Christians.
America is really changing. and this new year’s class of an expected 30,000 M.F.A. grads, (N.Y.Times statistics) will be challenged to dig deep, and like Courbet, to draw back some curtains around the status quo. At least they finally get away from their colleges and find themselves to be merely symptoms of an old regime...symptoms of then.
(1) Quote from Courbet taken from the exhibition wall text at the Met.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Andrew McLeod: New Works
Ivan Anthony, Auckland
27 February - 29 March 2008
This show of McLeod’s is a curious mixture of several large sumptuous oil paintings, a digital print, and little, black and white, orthogonal, perspective-preoccupied, linear paintings.
Killeen is omnipresent in McLeod’s practice but he has been for a long time now.
I like the digital prints. They are pretty entertaining with their imagistic juxtapositions, densely packed fine detail, and obligations I suspect to Guillermo Kuitica. Their attraction is that you can never get it all on first hit. There is always good stuff you miss.
McLeod’s luscious oil paintings seem so nursery based I find them irritating. Children under 12 should be banned from galleries and all artists (except me) medically ‘corrected’ so they cannot breed, and so be corrupted. I favour art that is about the seriousness and challenge of adult existence, not Rupert Bear type fantasies.
The small black-lined paintings are much better, but very odd in their thick ornate, gold frames. These highly eccentric works are strangely good because they are blatantly hermetic with their perspectival experimentation, referencing with Killeen, Sol LeWitt and Josef Albers. I like the fact they are about art and its own production.
McLeod is one of those artists who even if you loathe all he does, his work nevertheless is distinctive, and worth looking at. I like it even when it gets under my skin. The big paintings I find suffocating but those prints are peculiarly liberating.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Roger Boyce: Tourette’s Hotel
4 March -29 March, 2008
If Raymond Pettibon, Paul McCarthy, Francesco Clemente, R. Crumb, Hunter S. Thompson and Graham Greene all got together for a peyote and tequila bender in Tijuana on the Day of the Dead, the result might be something similar to "Tourette's Hotel: paintings by Roger Boyce" at the Brooke/Gifford Gallery, Christchurch. What to call it: Grunge Pop? Psycho Povera? It's the misanthropic, apocalyptic stepchild of Greenwich Village hippie art, Late New York, Italian Transavangardia and German neo-expressionism; Baselitz and Grateful Dead poster blended in a cocktail shaker. Hysterical is the new Avant-Garde and no longer the exclusive realm of feminist theory.
The paint is layered up into hard scabs similar to the sculptures of Rohan Wealleans, or weathered and distressed. This combined with the highly-keyed pallete suggests they were painted by an itinerant prodigy Mexican signwriter - Tacoburger Aztec. There is, I suppose, a point where the US West Coast and The Village meet - the rebellion against the titans of New York Abstract Expressionism, and it has a decidedly Californian feel, lighter and more deliberately immediate compared to the perceived profundities of the Pollock drip, harvesting the 'real' everyday experiences of comic book, graffiti and signboard. This brooding hen finally came home to roost in Paul Schimmel's Helter/Skelter exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in El Lay in 1992, and was also apparent in the work of New York artists Sean Landers, Keith Haring, Frank Moore and David Wojnarowicz in the '80s.
Indeed, Boyce studied at the University of California, Santa Barbara when the state still largely consisted of suburban sprawl Neanderthals with power mowers and Goldwater bumperstickers. And whereas New Zealand artists had to imagine the New York art scene like the Goncourt brothers recreated eighteenth century court life in the comfort of their own home, Boyce lived it and knew the players. What we get is a tongue-in-cheek articulation of the experience (and frustration) of a highly developed visual intelligence dropped into territorial waters that only superficially resemble home. The paintings are a war memorial to culture clash - and thank God because it's often all too easy to wonder whether in fact Jean-Michel Basquiat, Philip Guston and Joseph Beuys didn't die and instead moved to New Zealand to father a movement of dull-but-earnest x-gen conceptualist bohos in the ferny gullies of Elam and Ilam circa 1992, who all seem to now gravitate to Freeman's Bay and for whom Giovanni Intra is obsessively both Chatterton and Adonias.
As with many of the canvasses of Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Boyce's new works are allegories for painting, and in the postmodern context, the often superficial art world that surrounds it. Praxis has the artist as a sub-Pollock/Picasso demigod (cousin of the vaguely homerotic wrestlers in Pool of Sodom - itself a James Joyce reference - that originally arose early on in Boyce's work before evolving into abstract lozenges in the 1980s), representing 'practice' wrestling the sacred bull of theory, much as the Roman-Persian god Mithras brings new life to the world by sacrificing the celestial bull Taurus. Boyce gently mocks the wannabes and hangers-on in Artsy Twats (a commendable assimilation of Kiwi vernacular) as cartoonishly uniformed army, their heads formed by the letters of the title. The mandala-meets-TexMex restaurant leaflet Balls is fairly self-explanatory, but it helps to remember that randy old goat in impotent decline Picasso was known as El Cojones. Elsewhere the act of making and experiencing art is likened to bodily functions.
Tourette's Syndrome is famous in its extreme form for its spontaneous, uncontrolled outbursts of profanity. In this case it is deliberately adolescent. Much of the charm of these images comes from the frisson of contrast between their generic neo-Helter/Skelter suburban gothic aesthetic, and the cantankerously confessional tone of the textual component. But in that, I suspect Boyce is like the "unreliable narrator" of modernist literature. The blunt, sordid and despairing painter / Joseph Campbell hero (again, how modernist) is a persona to hide behind for one so obviously in full control of his practice. Admittedly some people are still oblivious to irony-masquerading-as-intimism and the joys of potty mouth (particularly in Christchurch where low-bred bodies remain buried) - perhaps explaining the lack of sales in this show. To these cowardly collectors I would appeal in the words of Alexander Pope:
But if in noble Minds some Dregs remain,
Not yet purg'd off, of Spleen and sour Disdain,
Discharge that Rage on more provoking Crimes -
Be victims of Ovid's habit of thought: "Video meliora proboque / Detoria sequor" (Metamorphoses VII, 20. "We scan and approve of the better, we go for the worse").
Boyce's paintings deliberately give every impression of having given in to ramshackle gawkiness, having shed the protective invisibility cloak of irony. He wants you to think he's harmless, pathetic, irrelevant, dead, perhaps even funny - a senile, sullen eunuch masturbating with paint like late Picasso and De Kooning, reliving the kinesthetic brush movements of his hey-day. This is a clever misdirection. What he really wants you to do is to identify with a dysfunctional, paranoid society in decline, the hybrid and anti-aesthetic Edward Gibbon of the empire of painting.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
University of Waikato show
Currently hanging among the large modernists canvases that belong to the James Wallace Collection at the Waikato Art Academy (University campus) is a small modest exhibition of women’s textile craft, curated by Joyce Stalker. Running 11 March - 4 April 2008
The exhibition title, Ladies’ Handiwork; Pretty Patters or Subversive Stitches? puts forward the theory that the conformist embroidery patterns and stitching on doilies, aprons, cushions etc. made during the decades of the 30’s 40’s and 50’s in New Zealand, were somehow subversive.
Examples show images of faceless young women in Dolly Varden/Sunbonnet Sue set patterns surrounded by sweet English flowers and pretty decorative frills.
What we seem to be looking at are the products of conventional female fantasies projecting back to a period one hundred years earlier, produced by women who were still locked up in a “Women’s Weekly” paradigm, aspiring to some pastoral, poodle, upper middle class Jane Austen vision of things.
The women who created these pretty winsome images of femininity, far from being subversive, were still colonized not only by an English class system but also embedded in a pre-feminist world where a woman’s place was clearly demarcated.
Stalker argues that simply allowing women the time to create these works and the fact that they perhaps altered some of the pre-set colours, amounts to a form of defiance.
That seems a bit of a stretch. The real revolution in this area was happening elsewhere and long before in the work of women like the feminist Dadaist, Hannah Hock and the abstract modernist, Sonia Delaunay. As well, during the Russian Revolution, a number of female embroiderers worked on pieces, in a Constructivist style, that attempted to align art and craft with the politics of the period.
Stalker does well to alert us to the historical context of embroidery work via this exhibition, although as one visitor to the show remarked in the comment book, is this research or simply stating the obvious.
A measure of how far we have really travelled in this field in this country is to note that among New Zealand guilds there still persists a strong pull that discourages too much adventure outside the conventional boundaries of the craft.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Anton Parsons: Foot – Pound – Second
Two Rooms, Auckland
13 March - 5 April 2008
Anton Parsons is chiefly known for his freestanding ‘braille’ sculptures and ‘cool store’ doorways of bright, translucent plastic strips. The metal ‘braille’ sculptures have now evolved into wall works where the protruding knobs have changed into candle-like cylinders, and the double-helix forms into horizontal beams.
Like Peter Robinson’s lambda prints of binary 0/1 combinations, which quoted excerpts of Sartre and Dante, Parsons is preoccupied with coding. He likes to make puzzles but he doesn’t care if you don’t try to decipher them. You can seek clues from his current titles, or those of his earlier works, if you wish. You might ponder if punctuation exists alongside the letters, and if you discover the text, then you might wish to find a context to ascertain the author’s viewpoint, and possibly its relevance to your own needs.
To begin to crack these bar and cylinder works you’ll want to think about which of the four sides of the beam are used, how many at each regular interval are protruding and how far are they extending. But, hey reader, there is a problem of how much energy do you really want to invest in this work? Do you really want to grapple with all this palaver or are you just happy with the way it looks?
Is there an issue here, a choice of formal, sensual pleasures versus literary content, or is there a middle ground, a third alternative? That option might be Parsons critiquing the esoteric nature of contemporary art itself (maybe it's become over academic?), noting the wall of incomprehension that many potential art lovers sometimes find themselves banging their heads against.
Maybe he is on a power trip that enjoys teasing and manipulating his audience, tossing them the occasional crumb to help them speculate on something he wiil never reveal? Maybe the real Anton Parsons sculpture is not to be found in a gallery space at all, but in the mental space of his audience as they analyse his formal properties and home in on likely solutions. Perhaps the most cynical possibility is that he is just making it all up, and improvising as he goes along? Such an extreme scenario is outrageously wild but not actually a problem if visual appeal is a priority for the viewer. If it is not, then they have to look at his history, the various past works, assess what is verifiable from his artist's statements, and see if the same logic applies.
Bridget Smith: Killing Time
Two Rooms, Auckland
13 March - 5 April 2008
Killing Time is an extraordinary portrait of an un-named possum trapper who lives in the Ureweras, working in remote areas of mountainous bush. British artist Bridget Smith films him in his house in Tokomaru Bay as he talks about his livestyle and certain key personal events.
The film is rivetting as study of a ‘man alone’ type of self-reliant masculinity. The charismatic subject discusses his method of employment, his arduous lifestyle laying down lines of set traps, finding, killing, hanging and skinning the animals, as well as revealing his deterioration and eventual recovery from 245T poisoning, and misfortunes in love. He shows us his daily workout on the front-porch with 3 kg dumb-bells, talks of the satisfaction he gains from improving the lot of the bush and its birdlfe, and shows his pleasure at the companionship of his cat and from playing Christian rock music on his trusty old cassette tape player.
The warmth, sensitivity and articulate thoughtfulness of her subject is what gives Smith’s film its immense charm. The guy’s geographic isolation provides an underpinning of sadness, yet the footage of him talking in the morning light is magical. An immensely informative and surprisingly emotional experience.
Stella Brennan South Pacific
Two Rooms, Auckland
13 March - 5 April 2008
Brennan’s South Pacific is a visually enticing short film that exploits imagery made not with a camera but with sound, deftly interweaving the technologies of radar, ultra sound and sonar. Against beautiful backdrops of rippling turquoise green and murky smudges of grey she provides a written account of the forties theatre of war in the Pacific, when ships, planes and submarines began to litter the sea floor. Underneath her images her text unravels, describing the growth of radio and radar networks, and flight paths dotted with landing strips – as well as the underwater dumping of weapons and trucks by the fleeing allied armies.
Hypnotic radar beeps provide the soundtrack to this intriguing film, with Brennan’s printed text contributing a crucial element. While she is not a consummate ‘underwater’ image maker like say Joyce Campbell, Brennan is good at making compelling fields of colour that slowly reveal significant detail – albeit bleary.
The gist of the film relies on the text, yet oddly the words appear one at a time, to be read in sequence and not as cohesive phrasal clusters that can be instantly scanned. The best of this rhythmically deposited language sets up a strange counter-tempo to the sonar, but occasionally its regularity distracts, thwarting the poetry of the ambiguous underwater imagery. A peculiar occurrence in an otherwise absorbing project.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Stations of the Cross: an Easter Exhibition
Curated by Joanna Trezise and Jaenine Parkinson
Gus Fisher Gallery
14 - 24 March 2008
The Gus Fisher is trying to cover all bases at the moment, but the fact is it is not a good venue for contemporary art. The floor is a real distraction that kills sculpture, as do the venue's decorative inlaid doors and domed space two-dimensional work. The place needs a proper makeover, but as it is a historic, protected building, such a sensible and functional modification is not likely to happen.
The exhibitions now also tend to be fusty. The recent Adele Younghusband and (current) Gabrielle Hope shows for example were/are excruciatingly inconsistent affairs, and over the last year or two the programme has become more conservative.
On hearing that this Easter show of specifically contemporary work was commissioned by the Presbyterian Church, I didn’t know what to expect – especially as the Stations are a particularly Catholic concept. However the curators involved, Joanna Trezise and Jaenine Parkinson, spring a few stimulating surprises.
‘Hallelujah!’ first of all for there being no McCahon, Smither or Harris works. Their over-exposed crucifixion or ‘Station’ paintings are thankfully nowhere to be seen, and the fifteen commissioned artists selected for the fifteen stations along JC’s bodily trajectory make up a peculiarly mixed bag, but there are some treats. It would have been much better using the whole gallery and including some film or video, but never mind.
Fifteen artists with fifteen hugely varied approaches in media and attitude is quite a gamble. The fragmentation is not resolved by the thematic structure but it doesn’t seem to matter. The many contrasts and vehement oppositions bring an unexpected richness. Instead of Christian propaganda we have here a true forum, a notion that the art world often embraces in conversation but which it rarely puts into practice. Many of these artists appear to be non-believers. Others broadcast their commitment to the Christian faith. This ideological jostling makes the show refreshing in its candour.
Five works in particular I found physically and mentally engaging.
Peter Madden’s sculpture has one of his ubiquitous, gold leaf covered, plastic skulls placed on a tall plinth of shiny purple plastic. As he has also coated the Gus Fisher glass doors with gold leaf, it is not until you have opened them and entered that you are suddenly confronted by this vertical figure. It represents Jesus, clad in a sarcastically ‘royal’ robe, about to be condemned. The intense colour makes it quite a visceral experience and a superb start to the ‘Station‘ tour.
Further down the sequence at the Tenth Station, Niki Hastings-McFall has another skeletal Jesus standing on a green hill of foliage and flowers. Awaiting execution and stripped of his clothes, he is holding a vinegar soaked sponge and a straw. There is a lightbox under the plastic leaves and they glow gorgeously. The absent flesh and clothes merge into one as a metaphor about the transience of life, youth and beauty.
John Pule’s series of painted hardcover tomes, continue a number of projects where he attacks the destructive influence of Christianity in the Pacific region, using written or drawn post-colonial narratives. His set of 14 Christian guidebooks are given raw, repainted covers that are virulently scathing of missionary-induced guilt and despair. I prefer these to Pule’s paintings, though those are hard-hitting too. The books are more confrontational, and don’t bury their anger in a mass of decorative detail. Their inclusion brings some gritty intellectual credibility to this show.
Darryn George is a hard-edge abstractionist pretending to be a Christian-Maori symbolist. The reverse is stated in the catalogue, and understandably so, for he often clutters works with symbolic elements even if they detract visually. Yet if put on the spot, George would probably rather construct an elegant design than tell you a morally uplifting story. He loves form. His ‘The Women of Jerusalem Weep For Jesus’ is a seductive though deceptively simple painting, with particularly rarefied compositional control.
The placing of Jesus’ body in the tomb is the theme explored by Hamish Tocher in his wonderful projection on to the gallery ceiling via six over-head projectors. The various foreshortened actors look like they are standing on a high glass sheet and participating in a Mannerist mural. In terms of Biblical narratives these figures seem to obliquely allude to another story, that of a vision experienced by the hungry disciple Peter, where on a rooftop in a strange city God delivers out of the sky a sailcloth sheet bearing live animals to be eaten (Acts 10:11). The confusion between a food-laden sheet and Jesus’ corpse wrapped in a burial shroud makes an inadvertent pun about the Eucharist and the eating of Jesus’ body.
What believers would make of such humour I do not know. However the range of work in this show makes it worth a visit for anyone - whatever their religious inclinations. Naturally it is on over the entire Easter period, even public holidays.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Justin Morgan: Information Recorded
Lopdell House, Titirangi
14 February -13 April 2008
Justin Morgan’s installation in the bay window of Lopdell House’s large gallery examines information and how we present it, and use it – when applied to a site like a gallery building. He is interested in how the viewer engages in ‘investigation and…interaction’ with an art work.
The show operates on two levels:
Firstly you have Morgan’s own interaction with the Lopdell House building from various sides, heights and angles, using photography (over 2000 tiny images on one small wall), computer sequencing, linear drawing on carbon paper, and found ‘readymade’ fragments.
Then you have the viewer’s interaction with Morgan’s material, trying to make sense of his display, looking though an assortment of pieces, trying to put the pertinent bits together, and speculating how they might function. The show is not about pleasing the eye – it is aesthetically indifferent – but about representation and the methods of correlation we use to deduce ‘meaning.’
Yet, like other shows I’ve recently seen here, this exhibition is very early seventies, but a type of ‘conceptual art’ based on structuralist photography - and mixed with other media. Somehow it misses the point of a building like Lopdell House in that its architectural success is not due to the sum of its parts but because of its total entity. Its appeal is as a cohesive unit, but in Morgan’s show, we get disparate pieces. He is hoping the viewer will be motivated to butt the various fragments together or overlap them, and so want to closely examine the building they are standing in.
However because his style of presentation is so deliberately bland in its functionality, the viewer is unlikely to get sparked off. They are not likely to care about analysing the information before them and how they might have used it. There is no carrot to lure them into participating, to arouse their curiosity. The show is quaint and thirty–odd years past its use-by date.
What is interesting is the show's affinities to the recent projects of David Clegg, who like Morgan is from Taranaki. Clegg's archivedestruct installations though are more social in their focus, use sound and image, are closer to situationist in flavour, and with a fascinating perversity in that he deliberately 'jams the signals' by mixing in radio broadcasts. Clegg is also pro-ocular with an aesthetic, design conscious, sensibility - combined as I've hinted, with humour. Morgan is dry, almost indifferent to his audience, and more preoccupied with his own processes and obsessions.
Gavin Hipkins: Second Empire
Lopdell House, Titirangi
14 February -13 April 2008
Recently I discussed the glassed-over and framed Hipkins show at Starkwhite but these works by that artist in the Second Empire series are quite different. They are printed into canvas and presented as a sort of painting, much as Paul Hartigan has done with his H-Types of digitally tweaked Polaroids, which were originally taken in the seventies to document New Zealand street-signage.
The eight Hipkins works at Lopdell House though are historical, line engraved book illustrations reversed into negative, and inverted. The superimposed embroidered patches are brighter in hue, and to me, not as funny or as subtle as the text based works with birds and reptiles. The patches are clearly thematic. For example, for inverted river scenes we have a canoe or leaping salmon, and for a railway vista we have a St. Andrew’s cross of monkey wrenches.
These images are bigger and so, more physical in their presence. The inversion makes you work a little harder for, as negative topsy-turvy images they are very abstract and initially chaotic. But you still get drawn in, especially with no glass. You need to study the background before examining the fabric patch.
Mostly though they are enigmatic, remaining mysterious. The inversion encourages confusion and mistaken interpretations of imagery, pushing you into tangled skeins of ambiguity. Mischievous stuff.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Derrick Cherrie: Blind Glass
March 11 – April 5, 2008
Derrick Cherrie is highly regarded for the superb sculpture he created in the late eighties and early nineties, art that initially posed as household furniture, but actually was a hybrid between a gymnasium or indoor swimming pool and accoutrements found in a sex club. With a fastidiously detailed finish these fetish items were made long before Matthew Barney appeared in New York with his silicone devices and films. Cherrie used a domestic setting to conjure up imaginary bodies seeking physical exertion as a form of pleasure, even without any intimate interactive bodily contact of any description.
Blind Glass as a title might imply a thwarting of the voyeuristic gaze, but the mirrored discs on the floor can be straddled (or squatted over) by visitors' partners at will, as can the horizontal line of small reflective mirrors on the seemingly skin-covered box be used to furtively observe other Starkwhite ‘club’ members. One very large mirror – like those for observing oncoming traffic on winding mountain roads – is attached to a fragile massage table/bondage horse with spindly turned legs and mysterious tubes projecting out at inexplicable angles. The whole installation, with its Dali-like surrealism, seems to allude to the past history of the Starkwhite premises when they were used as a strip joint and massage parlour.
Interestingly, compared to Cherrie’s earlier projects the new work is particularly austere, lacking physically enticing padding or fabric, and with pre-constructed elements. It is oddly agricultural in its design references. Using lots of wood it is akin to a suburban swimming pool mixed with stock-sorting gates, drenching pens and foot-rot troughs. Ceramic vases on collapsible Formica tables ineptly signal ‘homeliness’ amidst the bland pre-assembled units. For the happy family, small vertical columns of golf balls on wires connote sex aids such as ben wah balls, maybe with animal partners in mind.
While Cherrie’s work is rich in subtle and not-so-subtle humour, that mirth is mostly icy and cerebral, not bodily. These minimalist works don’t beckon to you to clamber on board like the early sculptures used to - you keep your distance. You don’t want to get inside the enclosures. They may be sexual or recreational – as in swimming - but they might also be places of torture or compelled restraint. They are also scary.
Cherrie in his artist’s statement talks about these works as having a semantic absence, but despite being more ambiguous emotionally than previously these sculptures are semantically just as loaded as his work has always been. And although the artist states he is avoiding an articulated rationale, the sculpture is still deeply imbedded in discursive structures, and its responses socially constructed. As Cherrie projects go Blind Glass is quite dry and understated. There is no hint of theatricality yet it gives out a lot. It has many palpable layers that, despite his intentions of working within ‘another order’, encourage articulated thought.
11 March -5 April 2008
While the big Laurence Aberhart exhibition is up in the New Gallery, Sue Crockford is doing the smart thing and showing some of the same (for sale) and more. Thirty-nine photographs total.
None are framed or behind glass though. Here you can look directly at the paper the image is on, see the delicate nuances of hue and tone, and the textures or stipples of the material on which the light sensitive chemicals are placed. Each image peeks through a window cut – with bevelled edge – into a white cardboard mount. All the same size, and unlike the New Gallery show, in a row around the walls.
Without wooden frames or glass the photos look exposed (no corny pun intended). They are not completely naked though, the cardboard mounts hide their edges so you don’t get a sense of sheet as object. You look through the window and through the photograph, not at it. And wonder at how utterly different the three methods (frame, mount, photo alone) turn out to be.
Sarah Graham Read: decoration.jpg
March 11 – April 5 2008
One finds Read's decoration.jpg upstairs at the end of the corridor: in the two rooms with windows that overlook K’ Rd.
She makes hybrid paintings - mixing rabbit images with brusherly oil paint and sprayed fluoro. These she gets painting reproduction factories to copy. Read is interested in the nature of communication across cultural/historical boundaries and how ambiguities of language affect image making: in particular the process of changing perceptions as the email interaction proceeds. Various gains and losses occur as expectations and obligations get clarified. The ideas mutate as suggestions from both parties either blossom or get compromised.
Read's installation presents her interaction with a Chinese firm in Xiamen. The lettering on the corridor walls says that the lefthand room shows the works made by the team of Chinese artists trying to follow the westerner’s instructions, and that the righthand one shows Read’s original paintings which she had photographed and emailed to China as jpgs. However this organisation is not strictly accurate, and some of the ‘Chinese paintings’ Read has repainted herself.
In fact the installation is not clear at all. The labelling is highly confusing – especially with an opening night performance included as well. The gist of Read’s project is in her book of received emails which are collected and arranged in chronological order. These make good reading. Not because of their quaintly poor English - which effectively communicates so it is actually ‘good’ - but because of the various discussions touching on subjects such as inspiration, improvisation, abstraction or interiority. This is philosophically speaking, Nelson Goodman territory: the nature of emotion, how it is represented in art, and its putative transmission via mark-making.
The replies to Read’s unseen questions (and the Chinese counter-questions) are the major item of substance in this show. The book is Read’s key artwork and the paintings (her originals and the Chinese variations) mere residue. The paintings of course can be seen as collaborations, but the Chinese artists are not listed by name, and Read would have had to pay more for the honour of employing such individuals. The show is definitely hers and she is experimenting with control and how far her brand can go formally and conceptually to be recognisable. Read doesn’t seem to overly care about aesthetics, and obviously enjoys ‘foreign’ participation in her decision making. That is why the book is so important to this show. The process is the product.
Monday, March 10, 2008
Paul Hartigan’s Ice Ball
Whitespace window display in Crummer Rd, Auckland
4 March - 28 March 2008
This neon work of Hartigan’s is part of Whitespace’s ‘Political World’ show, and can only be seen from the street. In fact Ice Ball is the exhibition’s highlight, and looks best at night when the gallery is closed. (It is the highlight in the daytime too; the rest of the work is, I think, forgettable).
It is worth driving past in the evening to have a close look. While not as overtly spectacular as Colony, Hartigan’s persimmon Symonds St work at the University, Ice Ball is still a treat. Small and intimate, it is like a loosely tangled knot in the middle of vertical piece of stiff cord that is positioned against a small, white, reflective disc. If you move from the centre of the window to the far right, the complex core unflattens to become more spatially imposing and quite angular. It springs out at you and looks like a jumbled assortment of crescent shapes.
The best thing though is the soft colour, especially when reflected off the pale concrete backdrop. Plastic wiring sheaths at each end of the white glass tubing contain glowing bands of violet blue, and on the last ten inches of the upper vertical section the colour is greeny blue. It sends a gorgeous ‘baby-blue’ wash across the wall.
Magical light sculptures like this are worth a squiz. A bonus for the changing of summer hours into autumn.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Chris Lipomi: Maa-Nupi Waikipi
Michael Lett, Auckland
5 March - 5 April 2008
Lipomi has about seven pieces in this show, but it is the eponymous installation in the main gallery that overshadows all else. He has done a small version of Mike Kelley’s famous ‘Craft Morphology Flow Chart’, a work Kelley made for the 1991 Carnegie International. The last of his ‘stuffed animal’ projects, it consisted of 32 folding tables displaying 114 used handmade (fabric or knitted) dolls, arranged according to size and iconography. On the walls were 60 ‘documentary’ photographs of the dolls positioned next to rulers, and one drawing.
Lipomi’s reduced version is fascinating. There is none of the initial sweetness that Kelley’s soft cuddly sculptures would have had. Lipomi’s are feral and deeply creepy, like tribal fetishes or magic images where ‘sympathetic’ (with indexical correlations) or ‘contagious’ (touched by the victim) processes are attempted.
Shortly after he created his original project Kelley became immensely interested in Freud’s notion of the Uncanny and wrote an extremely scholarly essay on the subject, but the Uncanny, as New Zealand artists like Gavin Hipkins often show, is an extremely subtle thing.
The dolls made by Lipomi though aren’t subtle. They are scrappy objects made of toys, bits of real animal fur, plastic, bark, cane and fibre that often disturb. They look tribal, raw and primal – even though they are fake (in the sense that they are not meant to be functional, only look it). What is subtle is the use of archaeological layering Lipomi has added, using texture rubbings. This sort of conceptual-sandwiching effect was once demonstrated by the French artist Daniel Spoerri famous for exhibiting food scraps he glued onto plates left by guests who had eaten meals he had cooked. Once he cooked a big banquet in France and re-served the same feast in Sydney using for tablecloths, blown up photographs of the dishevelled, soiled tablecloths left after the earlier meal.
So what does Lipomi do? He has large, categorising, ‘primitive’ texture rubbings lining the flat table-like vitrines onto which the fetish dolls are placed. Then from the framed photographs of those same dolls that he has on the walls, he also makes ink-transfer rubbings - by photocopying the photographs and soaking the photocopies with a spirit-based solvent. These he then rubs with a pencil to put the images on the wall. Each image is represented three times: sculpture, photo, drawing. Rubbings are under the object on one occasion, then upon the wall, over it, the next. A sort of club sandwich.
In the series of shows that used soft toys Kelley was (according to curator Mark Francis) interested in the prehistory of the objects he reused ‘so that repressed meaning are allowed to come to light.’ By the time he came to ‘Craft Morphology’ his interest had shifted. Previously he had regarded them – because of their use as gifts - to be embodied with ‘guilt hours’ or ‘emotional usury’ and objects of projection where missing details in their blobby shapes were mentally filled in by the viewer. In his 1990 series ‘Empathy Displacement: Humanoid Morphology (2nd and 3rd Remove)’ Kelley examined processes of identification, placing a painting of each doll above the actual doll hidden in a box – confusing viewer participation and encouraging empathy with the missing ‘humanoid’.
‘Craft Morphology’ avoided this empathy and focussed instead on the materiality of the craft production, categorising through formal properties and method.
Well what does Lipomi’s recent version achieve?
Firstly there is no hint of craft or ‘gift’ in these objects at all. They will repulse many people. You’d freak if you found one in your letterbox.
Secondly they are ‘tribal,’ and ‘natural’ unprocessed materials dominate.
Thirdly they focus attention on the producer and not the viewer. There is no identification or projection here. It is more death of the reader and birth of the author. It explores a slightly different kind of prehistory than what Kelley was interested in. More James Frazer than Sigmund Freud; an older form of structuralism.
This is a much layered exhibition, visually and conceptually rich, that invites a lot of speculation. One of the best ever shows presented at Michael Lett.
Friday, March 7, 2008
Boris Dornbusch & Daniel Webby: I always say the contrary to what you say. I always say the same as you.
28 February - 15 March 2008
The title of this show is one of those riddle-like exercises in paradox that searches for meaning in the face of illogical contradiction, like the famous example, a philosopher from Crete who announced ‘all Cretans are liars.’
The two rooms at rm 103 are thematically linked, but not in a manner that is overtly super-tight. Dornbusch's video is hilarious: at the centre of its bottom edge we see a basket-ball hoop, around which are repeated shots at goal, all failures.
Webby’s adjacent room shows a basket-ball on the floor surrounded by broken glass. It has come through the window, and left a large hole in its centre.
Taped to the ball is a mobile phone, which when rung – using a number provided on the wall – tells you ‘this number is not permitted to receive calls.’
Oddly, parts of the blurb on the gallery site seems more appropriate for Gambia Castle than rm103:
Two like things may be considered members of a set, thus the body which emerges is that of the set, with the constituent members lost.
Like the current Tahi Moore show at Gambia Castle, lack of success is a theme here, but encased within a riddling title. The video in particular is quite wonderful. Even funnier than Steve Carr. Well worth a visit.
Tahi Moore: Various Failures
Gambia Castle, Auckland
29 February - 22 March 2008
There are two flyers for this show that provide contradictory explanations for its title. Moore is an extremely skilled writer, and the first flyer details his lack of confidence in the work, his second thoughts and lapses of faith in the ‘mechanics’ of pairings that he has made – binary combinations, by the way, being also a dominant theme in Simon Denny’s last Gambia Castle / Michael Lett show.
Here is what Moore writes:
So I see something and it has some kind of significance, and then I stick it with something else and that makes it a mechanism. I think the problem here is that if you can work it all out, half an hour later, everything's different again. I guess you might not notice so much if you're also moving, but if you're good at being still or fixing things, you might get irritated at this intuitive reflexive dynamic that's altered by any examination of it, and seems to be easy enough to go along with if you don't think about it.
The second flyer plays on an old Jeff Koons gag from his early Artforum advertisements, showing the artist lounging around a pool surrounded by bikinied babes. This Moore has turned around into a sexual reference about physical or emotional failure. As part of a pairing itself, it is clever, self–reflexive stuff.
Actually it is more than clever, it’s brilliant. The connections between the pairings over time reveal themselves to be deeply considered. If you read the two flyers together they become a meditation on the transience of desire, the numbness and futility of attraction. The word ‘mechanism’ becomes Duchampian.
I’m going to be accused of being over-interpretative after writing this, but let’s look at the installation.
Note firstly the pair of old blue jeans discarded on the floor. Then the video of a watch advertisement on a monitor placed under a watch pinned to the wall. With these elements, could the work be about the passing of time – specifically aging – and its consequences for (male) desire?
Checking out Moore’s grouping of images: first thing you notice in the room is the image of two perky young women sitting on toilets having a chat. The image seems to be about female bonding, the nature of friendship, and the exasperation of some heterosexual men at not having close women friends (as shown in Marco Ferreri’s dramatic 1976 film 'The Last Woman’ when the over-horny, depressed and unloved male character, played by Gerard Depardieu, cuts off his John Thomas with an electric meat-cutter).
Ferreri’s film is not alluded to in this installation, but its subject matter is. Moore obviously loves movies, so what does he do with them in the loops he shows here.
Next to a static photograph of a naked woman, supine and sexually available, is Moore’s treatment on an adjacent monitor of the Sci-Fi film Ultraviolet, now sepia toned and played backwards. It shows the interaction between the attractive heroine and a young male character and indicates a pining for lost time, a mourning that this youthful (and now in hindsight, erotic) period can never be recaptured.
Then there is the other pair of videos: one shows Moore’s Gambia Castle colleague, Nick Austin, contemplatively walking through the gallery space. Next to it on another monitor are sections of Derrida nattering about being framed on drug charges by the Czech police in Prague, mathematician John Nash explaining some theorem, and Daniel Malone, another Gambia Castle artist, being mock ferocious. All men note, being active and ‘intellectual’.
So I read this show as a meditation on male/female relations as filtered through the lens of heterosexual male aging. His earlier Gambia Castle show seems connected to these themes too. I’m arguing a case that this work is very knowing and very structured. If my discussion is a load of cobblers, please drop this site a line and tell me so.