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, September 2, 2009

Canterbury comes to Auckland

Canterbury School of Fine Arts: Obsessions Transgressions & Beliefs
Curated by Simon Ogden
Bath St
26 August - 19 September 2009

With this exhibition drawing lecturer Simon Ogden has organised a group of fifteen teaching staff and senior students from Ilam to wave the flag for their institution on foreign soil in Parnell. It is a nice idea. It gives them a chance to stuff their stuff and taunt the opposition if they are genuinely good (or maybe impress headhunters); and - because Canterbury university art school was once very influential, with many of its talented graduates migrating north - it gives the staff of other nationally competing tertiary institutions a chance to either gasp in admiration or laugh, or both. It also lets local Auckland curators have a squiz at what sort of work is currently being made there.

It doesn’t take too long for this exhibition to reveal that Auckland and Christchurch (university-based) art communities are on different planets. Unlike a lot of recent work made in Auckland tertiary institutions there is no moving image included, there is no digital photography, there is no rigorously conceptual photography, there is no installation. We can’t blame Bath St., as if such work were not saleable and they won’t display it, because Michael Lett, Sue Crockford and Starkwhite have proven that it is. If it were important, Ogden as curator could have insisted on its inclusion.

This independence, this lack of correlation is not a bad thing if what the show presents is truly remarkable, but that is not the case. It is a real mixed bag. A lot of it is twee and very ordinary. The show would have been better with half the number of artists. Just the artists I’m about to discuss here.

What little painting there is in this show is outstanding. Tjalling de Vries has a large gridded self portrait in blocks of blue-tinged grey, with the occasional Baconesque (but tasteful) smear and ambiguous organ thrown in. It is a stunning image that dominates the exhibition, and exasperating because it is de Vries’ only work. It needs more examples for context, to give his contribution weight.

Film-maker Ed Lust uses one of those large woven plastic sheets designed for billboard advertising. On it is a puzzling image that could be a print, photograph or painting. Sections of mysteriously crumpled fabric (seems like cloth but could be cellophane, maybe plastic) emerge from the darkness and look like an impression as much as something rendered. On a few billowing edges have been painted twinkling highlights; over some dark abysses are scattered white granules.

Riduan Tomkins, an importantly influential painting lecturer who taught at Ilam in the eighties and early nineties, has one small but marvellous contribution. It’s a canvas with horizontal Diebenkornish lines and two delicately drawn figures: a standing Hammondesque bird-person in profile below and a tilted, wobbling fat man above, comically dancing to his own tune.

Sculpture lecturer Bronwyn Taylor has two high impact, willow charcoal, landscape drawings, analysing curved planes and subverting Albertian perspective on gessoed paper. One is a dense dark hemispherical field, the other an ethereal grid of interlocking diagonal lines and vanishing points, and though highly abstract and schematic, both refer to particular places with distinctive geographic physiognomies.

Down in the loading bay area by the front door is a row of suspended audio speakers playing recordings from Britomart train station. This work by Laura Smith has crushed fragments of willow charcoal layered over the thin speaker membranes so that the oscillations transmitting sound cause them to jump and fly about. This seems to refer to the clearing and burning off of bush in order to lay down train tracks to assist colonial invasion – though of course the burnt wood is not indigenous. The work is more an audio and sculptural drawing in real, not illusory space.

Tim Veling’s book of fifty-five photographs is a clever sequence of stark images that vary in the way each double-page layout is used: usually one image; now and then two. Pre-marital Bliss could be genuine autobiographical documentation, could be actors, or could be ‘real’ people photographed in other contexts but repositioned into a new narrative. The book format suits the illusion of intimacy more than the large individual prints on view in the gallery office.

Oscar Enberg presents a suite of five inventive drawings of a cleaved open and flayed male head, a wickedly humorous variation of Gray’s Anatomy that according to the title refers to Macbeth (who at the end of Shakespeare’s play is beheaded). During a performance the artist, dressed as Laurence Olivier, has added to (or ‘defaced’) them with urinating cocks. The linear graffiti-like drawing style makes these seem to be pissing and not ejaculating. Dotted lines are more ‘liquid’. Often aimed at the mouths of the skinless heads.

At the risk of seeming salacious, interpreting such representations of genital emission precisely is important. There is a distinction between two sorts of activity here, two varieties of submission. One seems to involve more humiliation than the other – though perhaps that is a glib assumption, for both provide pleasure.

Pleasure too in the looking. This is clever work, though the performative theatrical component is not necessary and the concept overlayered. A drawing is a drawing. Contrasting marks and styles don’t need to be laboriously explained to the viewer. Positioned in a corner of the gallery as far away from the front door as possible, these five variations on a theme are the best works in the building, a wonderful contemplation of the neural and muscular mechanics of living and dead bodies.

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