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.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mmm....such soft, curly, fragrant hair

Matt Ellwood: Negotiations and Love Songs
Michael Lett
11 March - 7 April 2009

This new show from Matt Ellwood presents two sculptures and one large drawing. The sculptures, based on children’s toys or graphic images that have been enlarged and had anatomical details or colour fiddled with, sit on beautiful, horizontally projecting, plywood plinths. The stands are vaguely Judd-like, really enter the centre of the gallery space, and upstage the Smurf and Lego Ferrari driver they are supporting. You may be tempted to sit on them and chat to your new-found little buddies.

Because I’m not a Dad (and tend to only put up with other people’s progeny through clenched teeth) I can’t get too enthusiastic over such kiddiewinks shenanigans. I have an emotional resistance to matters Smurf or Lego - even with an added risqué component that is accentuated by the 'woody' plinths.

Ellwood’s big paper drawing near the office, on the other hand, is much more intriguing. It is the main offering of the show. Two horizontal sections tucked in a corner show off his abilities with a dark-leaded pencil: he has sought out a decade of seventies Playboy gatefolds and using the same scale, rendered from those he could acquire the hairstyles only. Nothing else whatsoever. Not even the women’s faces.

These hairstyles, decontextualised and placed in isolation within a grid, look utterly bizarre. Like dead animals perhaps. Surprisingly they don’t look like wigs, because they are represented at odd angles due to the original photographs, not frontally. With heads, ears, faces and collars removed and the subsequent negative spaces on the paper left, the tumbling, flowing tresses seem particularly abstracted, mere wavy textures.

Could these be the work of a hair fetishist, someone (like say Salvador Dali) more sexually excited by flowing curls than female genitals? Well Ellwood is working with representations here, not hair itself. And the grid dominates the page, dividing up isolated sections of drawn hair. It is not visually an immersive ‘hair’ experience – it doesn’t beckon as if alive. However the traces of wiped pencil lead left on the pages below the drawings – a method of ensuring sharp pencil tips – do add a peculiar (very humorous) dimension to their interpretation.

Of all Ellwood’s pencil drawings exhibited in Michael Lett’s gallery so far, this one is the most intriguing. In some of its images it is hard to guess where the women’s faces are located, and those ambiguous absences – as spaces to be filled or mentally penetrated – become strange sexual surrogates for the desires induced by the original publication. Because he has not all the gatefolds for the decade, and there are thus gaps in the grid, adjacent images that are oversized extend into those spaces bringing an irregular rhythm to the composition, an unexpected musicality with this most unusual of subject-matters.

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