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, January 13, 2010

New Gallery summer holiday show

Taste: Food and Feasting In Art
Curated by Ngahiraka Mason
Auckland Art Gallery
21 November 2009 - 14 February 2010

Christmas holiday exhibitions are usually seen by municipal institutions as opportunities to notch up their door numbers while visitors to the city are looking for things to do with their families. It’s a shrewd way of placating councils worried about getting value for ratepayers’ money. Such projects do not have to involve a dumbing down, but with regular monotony they do - even though it is possible to have exciting and informative summer exhibitions, as Christchurch Art Gallery’s current The Naked and The Nude, or the present array of shows at Te Tuhi, prove. However Taste at Auckland Art Gallery, is almost everything an exhibition should not be.

This collection show of approximately 94 artworks by 74 artists is more about anthropology and social studies than art. Anthropology and social studies are of course part of art, for any analysis of human behaviour patterns will play a crucial role in its interpretation and appreciation - particularly within the loci of the communities it springs from - but in shows like Taste art plays a secondary role, that of providing illustrations for another discipline’s more dominant journalistically treated theme.

The fact that the objects on display are carefully constructed visual artifacts seems to be inconsequential. Their methods of production and formal properties are never analysed in any depth – in terms of design. In fact they could be written figures of speech, metaphors or symbols in a novel or poem, and the discussion in the wall labels would be almost exactly the same. Their visual dynamic, a crucial element in grasping their appeal (admittedly one aspect of many) is never elaborated on in any detail. There is no educative process on the joys of careful looking.

Of course you have to be sure it is the art you’ve come for that is in fact in front of you. In this show’s organisation, the way different categories of object are indiscriminately mixed up is quite confusing. You have the artworks (fine or applied), intended by their creators to be seen as such; you have contextual material examining the show’s theme – like recipe books – in vitrines; there are diversions for children like toy tea sets on tables in the centre of the viewing spaces; there is material to direct an audience towards exhibits, like cardboard boxes on the stairs bearing the title’s stencilled name and pointing upstairs; and there is conservation equipment that has its own explanatory label, like a light data logger next to a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger.

Sometimes it is difficult to decide where one exhibit finishes and another begins. A woven Anatolian rolling pin cover is so closely positioned to a Patrick Hanly placed below it that its tassels are actually touching the painting. (Puzzlingly its unknown Greek creator is listed as New Zealand American). Or a work continues after you thought it had finished. An Ani O’Neill woven octopus is placed on a plinth one side of a gallery and hidden far away up near the ceiling on the opposite wall above a Boyd Webb are scattered its progeny, mysteriously separated. Amusingly clever for sure, but difficult to identify unless you ask a guard.

Most inconsistent of all is the content of the labels and signage. Most of it is written for eleven year olds (below a Brian Brake photo of Picasso and his daughter at a café we read: a café is an informal restaurant, offering a range of hot meals, sandwiches and occasionally alcohol. The café culture here in Aotearoa New Zealand has become a popular place to breakfast and lunch. They are meeting places for conversations between friends, colleagues and family); some is nonsensical (the colours shapes and textures found in art are often based on references to the kitchen pantry, the ocean or the soil), or else is academic, out of context and not adequately connected to the exhibit (Next to a Dutch Bourjinon and quoting Norman Bryson: Still Life at the table is structured around an anxious polarity, with vice and pleasure beckoning at one end and abstention admonishing at the other ).

Though the show is shockingly trite in its concept and poorly elucidated, if you rake through it carefully you can find some very good art – a lot of it purchased by the Chartwell Trust. It is worth avoiding the outrageous door charge by coming on a Monday so you can enjoy such knockout works.

My top six would include Robert Jahnke’s lettering of ‘Koha’ made with chocolate fish on offer to the gallery audience, a perhaps sarcastic comment on Maori fishing rights; Boyd Webb’s lightbox Wrack Wring showing a toxic phosphorescent soup bubbling around a strips of bacon skewered on a piece of barbed wire; Billy Apple’s sequence of three stages of a chomped on green bronze apple - entitled 2 minutes 33 seconds, the time it takes to eat it; Anne Noble’s gorgeous black and white rectangular photo of a meticulously arranged table setting for a nun; John Daly’s image of Steve’s Fish and Chip Shop with the rear reflection of one of the customers wearing white shirt and braces bent over the counter; and Daniel Malone’s clever comment on ‘local’ identity: a gourd on which is painted the Lemon and Paeroa logo, and a plastic L&P bottle on which he has incised in koru–style lettering the brand name in full, as if a sort of moko.

That's the thing. A show's presentation might be woeful but if some of the art is superb and memorable, you forget the sound of your grinding teeth and get involved with it. Despte the shoddy context.

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