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, December 19, 2007

The Silly Season

It is obvious I think that with the impending Dec and Jan hols, there won't be much art around to yak about, though one's always hoping. So dear reader, have a good break. You've probably noticed I've been having some technical difficulties with my hyperlinks, or if you use a Mac, you might be experiencing layout problems. Thank you to those who have been giving me good advice, and thanks also for your patience.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Recent Comments

Evan Webb on Art To Shut Your Eyes For
Andrew Paul Wood on The Pencilcase Painters
Leafa/Janice Wilson on Whaaat According To Art?
Nancy Sutherland on The Pencilcase Painters and Out On The Streets
Roger Horrocks on Art To Shut your Eyes For
Ali Bramwell on Out On The Streets

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Whaaat according to Art?

Existence: Life according to Art: curated by Leafa/Janice Wilson for Waikato Museum of Art and History Te Whare Taonga o Waikato.14 July 2007 -13 January 2008.

This is one of those crammed cluttered shows that Waikato Museum is famous for, a sprawling dog’s breakfast of an exhibition involving close to fifty artists. Much of it is local talent linked to Wintec Media Arts, and a lot of the work is also borrowed from the Chartwell Collection in Auckland - its borrowing part of the deal negotiated when WMAH lost the collection to AAG.

The theme is life itself and the ability of the human species to fabricate stories that explain how we all came to be here. The show is slightly pompous but also shambolic. Its potentially coherent theme becomes featherbrained because of unity lost when ideational ingredients go off in multiple tangents.

Wilson’s show seems designed to promote the careers of a large group of Hamilton’s Christian artists by mixing them in with a national pool of non-believers and creating a forum about Creationism versus Darwinism. Into that forum a whole range of normally irrelevant artworks are seconded in the hope that they will bring substance: lots of mediocre portraits, images of chimps, dogs, flowers, and trees for example. It is all about using art to support a predetermined discussion that mainly revolves around Biblical and scientific narratives.

Despite the abundance of dross there are ten or so true treasures that accidentally got here. The stunning art provided by Dan Arps, David Cook, Richard Malloy, Amit Charan, Yvonne Todd, CK Reynolds, Angela Singer, John Lyall, Emit Snakebeings, Ricky Swallow and Janice Abo Ganis makes a visit to this horrendous exhibition worth while. Arps' sculpture of a faceless mud man laying an egg from out of his shoulder blades, and Malloy's gorgeous toy terrier covered with thick blue paint are fabulous treats. You just have to grind your teeth while looking for such rarities.

Existence the exhibition may be a shocker but the published book is far superior. It is blessed by the contributions of several highly competent science writers (Nicola Harcourt, Michael Graham and Bartholomew Karalus) whose efforts make this project far more than what it might appear to be - a Christian attempt to do a Waikato version of the big Darwin show currently on at Auckland Museum, and toured by the American Museum of Natural History. That Auckland show is a better visiting experience but it has no art. This one has little coherence, but at least it has some taonga and several stimulating essays.

Images by (working downwards) Meredith Collins, Gregor Kregar, Michael Shepherd, exhibition logo.

Art School? What Art School?

Art School 125: 125 years at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch Art Gallery. 9 November 2007 – 17 February 2008.

It is a terrific idea for the Christchurch Art Gallery (as a replacement for the old McDougall) and the University of Canterbury art school at Ilam to work together to celebrate 125 years of tertiary education. The two have long been the main art institutions in the city with lots of historical interaction and it makes good sense. Yet for a partnership that looks significant, especially when touted in an online introduction to the exhibition on the CAG website, this is a sorry affair. The show feels lacklustre and not at all satisfying. The presentation overall on the floor and online seems indecisive and troubled by an irritating ad hocism that perhaps reflects the current crisis in Ilam - with the university administration dismembering courses once considered vital to the health of the national art community.

That it looks skimpy and unambitious is maybe passable for a touring show – which it is. On its home turf it needs a lot more floor space so themes can be explored properly, for it could have been a lot bigger and better if it had really wanted to get its importance across to Cantabrians. It could have occupied the whole of the upstairs floor by dismantling the current permanent collection exhibit – which has been up far too long – and using those galleries.

With what we have, references to the art school are dispersed through other exhibitions too, with a strange doubling up within the collection exhibits. The Canterbury graduates there have extra cards pointing out their period of study placed alongside the exhibit labels. This method seems makeshift, as does the online catalogue which goes through the history of the place year by year, only to grind to a halt at 1959 and be replaced by a series of assorted interviews with ex-students. It is as if the curators ran of out of steam.

This incohesion and lack of focus makes 125 desperately seem to be trying to be all things to all people. It could have compared Ilam with other tertiary art institutions and for example, instead of including artists like Maddox and Hammond (who though successful actually attended Ilam for very short periods) focussed on those more committed to exploring the courses on offer, and what they benefited from the School.

The website points out that the gallery is carrying out ongoing research around this show and that is admirable. Hopefully we’ll end up with a proper publication containing a series of thoughtful essays about topics such as Ilam’s contribution to the national scene. It would be good to have some speculation on why it has been so successful at exporting talent to Auckland. Or discussions about the formidable intellectuals of the seventies like Tom Taylor and Ted Bracey, with their considerable contributions to Canterbury’s cutting edge art practice and national art education, and continuing influence. Or some analysis – and gender breakdown - of the assorted art careers that Ilam graduates end up with. Fingers crossed.

Images are, top to bottom, by Joyce Campbell, Saskia Leek, Robin Neate, Ronnie van Hout, Don Peebles, and Margaret Dawson.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Warhol in Brisbane

Here is an article from Andrew Paul Wood:

It's the holiday season, and Christchurch is glutted with a surfeit of mediocre stock and storeroom shows, so just for a change I went to Brisbane, Queensland, for the opening of their amazing Andy Warhol survey show.

Brisbane, the Big Pineapple, has very much an 'instant city' feeling of newness and energy to it – a bit like Dallas or Huston – the sort of thing that is only achievable when lots of money, energy and enthusiasm are chucked at it. For kiwis it's a big city without a stick up its bum. Fortunately in the last ten years Bris-vegas has really hoisted up its cultural socks and chucked it at the arts as well. Although, one notes, they lack for some of the sartorial niceties: the formal jandal, anyone? Dress shorts? And people kept earnestly smiling and being friendly – which as a kiwi I am simply not used to (that and being warm) – although admittedly most of them assumed I was British or Interstate, so shhh.

People who should know better say and write a whole bunch of crap about Warhol – mainly because he was so good at saying nothing and concealing himself Wizard of Oz-like behind banal subjects and mechanical process that anyone can read any agenda into him. Americans – nation of Oprah, self promotion and high esteem - are particularly bad for over-intellectualising the silver ghost, as if still surprised (or embarrassed) that their culture managed to produce someone so world-shakingly disengaged. Really he was an arbitrary cultural magpie with a designer's eye and an intuition for the zeitgeist – but that makes for thin catalogues. Nature and intellectuals abhor a vacuum.

Once you get past the Warhol industry – essentially the surviving sycophants that fawned on him when he lived. Warhol like the professor in Don DeLillo's White Noise who is obsessed with packaging. In fact, the best approach is to not read anything about him before seeing the show (and you must see this show). Don't even read this, just go and look. As the man himself said, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." It was the smartest thing he ever said.

The exhibition consists of over 300 works from the collection of The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh (Warhol's birthplace) and is one of the largest and most comprehensive Warhol surveys ever mounted.

The show begins with Warhol's drawings of shoes (foot-fetishist that he was), boys (ditto), dollar bills (ditto ditto) and newspapers, deftly combining the sinuousness of Jean Cocteau with the jittery blotchiness of cartoonist Ben Shahn – more or less as he laboriously copied comic books to pass the time as a convalescent child (Warhol, rather amazingly, contracted chorea – St Vitus' Dance – as a boy) with an obsessively over-protecting mother. Mrs Warhola's handwriting misspelled copperplate appears in many of her son's works, and she lived with him until 1971 – by which time we can only assume she had given up on him getting married.

Paralleling developments in commercial advertising design, the perky-delicate commercial-style drawings gave way to photography and screen-printing, introducing the familiar images of Campbell's soupcans and celebs.

These candy-coloured antidotes to Cold War paranoia, ephemeral as fashion, turned Marilyn, Jackie and Elvis into tragicomic drag queens and Byzantine icons, raised to an immortal Olympus. There are also the films – which are far more interesting in concept than to sit through.

In 1968, suspiciously almost two months exactly after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Warhol was shot by bonkers man-hater in sensible shoes Valerie Solanas. She said she did this because he had too much control over her life. This is almost certainly true – most of the inmates of the Factory only existed as long as they were reflected in the blank stare of the increasingly corpse-like Warhol, fawning for the little permissions and familiarities that positioned them in the flunky hierarchy.

Warhol's production after that date is grouped in this exhibition as the 'late works' – playful flirtations with Abstract Expressionist smears worked into dollar signs, corporate logos and self-portraits. Like Picasso's late drawings, these are often maligned as being weaker that the '60s stuff. Not true. These late works in many ways perhaps reflect a new depth for Warhol – a direct attack of the pretensions of Abstract Expressionism through paintings 'of' Rorschach tests and camouflage patterns – figurative images of abstract forms. Please go to this show. Fortunately it will be around for longer than fifteen minutes.

Andy Warhol is at Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, Queensland – it's only Australian venue – until March 30 2008. Andrew Paul Wood travelled to Brisbane courtesy of Tourism Queensland, Brisbane Marketing, Qantas and the Mercure Hotel Brisbane.

The Pencilcase Painters

Here is another from APW:

The group of painters sometimes termed the “pencil case painters” that arose from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, Christchurch in the 1990s, is interesting not only because it is probably the last great expression of Canterbury Regionalist painting, but it is also the first identifiably original school of postmodernism to be found in New Zealand art.
What is mysterious about this grouping (loosely considered to contain Tony de Lautour, Bill Hammond, Seraphine Pick, Shane Cotton, Saskia Leek, and possibly also Grant Takle) is that there seems to be no singular influence or catalyst that forged the similarities in style among these painters at this time, but rather these stylistic similarities seem to have come about through a number of lateral exchanges spread rhizomatically through their association. To describe this phenomenon, I will adapt Goethe’s expression “elective affinities”.
Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften in German) is an 1809 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In early Nineteenth century chemistry, the phrase "elective affinities" was used to describe compounds that only interacted with each other under select circumstances. Goethe used this as an organizing metaphor for marriage, and for the conflict between responsibility and passion.
Working closely in the same studio space after graduating, each artist seems to have brought something of themselves individually to the gestalt, before ultimately diverging into personal and often archetypal themes. Cotton’s early interest in American painter Terry Winters, for example, or Bill Hammond’s orientalised view of bird colonies on sub-Antarctic islands. This cocktail was nurtured in a matrix of a proud Canterbury regionalist tradition, and the neoexpressionist culture formed by Rudolf Gopas in the 1960s (which resulted in the brief-but-bright careers of Phillip Clairmont, Allen Maddox and Philip Trusttum), but particularly drawing strength from the animistic, anthropomorphic landscapes and caricatures of painter Tony Fomison.
Although this occurred largely innocent of contemporaries such as German Neoexpressionism or the Italian Transavangardia, the Pencil-casers must be read in a broader international context, even if they were only aware of it peripherally. Ignoring, for the moment, New York graffiti artists like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, California was developing its own regionalist riposte to the neoexpressionist hegemony of New York that might to relate to what American writer Ralph Rugoff described as “Pathetic art” Rugoff describes this as art that “settles for an undignified ridiculousness, constructed with preterite materials, this work often seems laughably awkward; its gawkiness, both conceptually and physically, frequently gives it an adolescent appearance. … A typical characteristic of Pathetic art is its low-grade construction.”
It even becomes questionable whether Pathetic art is ironic:

Bereft of irony’s protective distance, pathetic art invites you to identify with the artists as someone [not] in control of his or her culture … Pathetic art is sad, but also funny, and the sadder it gets, the funnier it seems.

Pathetic art is usually the art of a dysfunctional or anxiously paranoid society that shows no signs of improving. In the United States this resulted in the exhibition Helter Skelter: LA Art in the ‘90s at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992. In New Zealand this impression has perhaps not been quite so catastrophic, but reflects more the cliché of uncertainty and unease surrounding notions of national identity, recession and massive economic restructuring.
American Philosopher Arthur Danto described the phenomenon in the US as “demotic art”, noting that the drawing in such work showed “zero degree of draftsmanship … the kind that finds its way into tattoo parlours, prison wall graffiti, leaflets advertising garage sales … derisive, sullen, hostile, punk … charmless, expressionless, flat, mechanical, smeared, logogrammatic.” He concluded that in fact such art was “massively mainstream” and was “antiaesthetic, palimpsestic, fragmented, chaotic, layered, hybridised … a mirror of our times.”
This seems an almost perfect description of a Tony de Lautour painting with a bricoleur’s eye for visual vocabulary from graffiti and prison tattoos (skulls, daggers, joints, bottles of booze, spiderwebs, tears, lightning bolts) in their exact Delft blue and occasionally the vomit-violet of regurgitated methylated spirits.

Certain semiotic themes have become dominant through the rhizomatic dissembling of Elective Affinity, especially two images that might be considered specifically New Zealand in character, indicating at the very least a flirtation with national identity: Islands and Birds.
Islands and other carved up divots of the landscape occur in the paintings of Hammond (floating Ukiyo-e like on arsenical malachite “perilous seas forlorn”), De Lautour (mountainous white on black and shaped as corporate logos, or resting on wooden planks and trolleys), and Cotton (enclosed in wooden compartments, as flag-bristling pincushions, and contained in urns like pot plants). Floating beds fill a similar function for Pick.
For Hammond islands provide a series of isolated mythical tableaux where his bizarre man-bird hybrids can await the missionary or the taxidermist in what are tempting to read as a kind of postcolonial fantasy of an impossible Pakeha dreamtime. For Cotton these ‘islands’ represent a memorial cri de Coeur for the land of his Maori ancestors carved up by European colonisation. Pick (born on Kawakawa Island in the Bay of Islands) the floating bed is an island of sanctuary relating to a nostalgia for childhood – like the fairytale island paradise Orplid invented by German writer Eduard Mörike (a literary precursor of Tolkien’s Middle Earth).
For De Lautour, islands seem like fragments of a decayed empire or bits or a white trash Antipodean Eden corrupted by consumerism and outside pressures – a message further borne out by his evenly matched, eternally battling heraldic lion and iconic kiwi.
Hammond’s islands and their Ovidian inhabitants came as a dramatic change from earlier frenetic scenes of rock’n’roll Surrealism.

What I would like to suggest was occurring in this process of Elective Affinity during the period when these artists were most alike in style, is parallel to the postmodern ambiguity of the construct of ethnicity in the early 21st century, particularly in postcolonial New Zealand. From a Marxist perspective:

What is involved is the splitting of the notion of ethnicity between … the dominant notion which connects it to nation and ‘race’ and … the beginning of a positive conception of the ethnicity of the margins, of the periphery … a recognition that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position as ‘ethnic artists’ … We are all, in that sense, ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are. But this is also a recognition that this is not an ethnicity which is doomed to survive, as Englishness was, only by marginalising, dispossessing, displacing and forgetting other ethnicities. This precisely is the politics of ethnicity predicated on difference and diversity.

Essentially what the ‘Pencilcasers’ seem to have been unconsciously doing, is attempting to forge a set of new mythical archetypes to provide nutritious strata for the tap roots of a new New Zealand identity. These images and landscape porn like the Lord of the Rings franchise, act as a kind of epitaph to our relationship to the land and to nature. I suspect that the huge jingoistic groundswell of LOTR obsession in this country had a lot to do with European kiwis finding in Tolkien’s mythopoeia a kind of Pakeha Dreamtime legitimising a closer connection to the landscape by non-indigenous New Zealanders.
Perhaps this is because the great South Island tradition of landscape painting is no longer legitimate and quite possibly redundant. Traditionally the South Island landscape painting derived from the tonal impressionism of Velásquez mixed with the Romantic Sublime by the Victorians. This was reinvigorated at the turn of 19th/20th centuries with an infusion from the plein air painting of the French Barbizon School via Petrus van der Velden (of Jozef Israels’ Hague School), James Nairn (onetime member of ‘the Glasgow Boys’) and Girolamo Nerli (a minor Italian noble influenced by the Macchiaioli painters and Frances Hodgkins teacher).
Now, with growing realisation, neither Pakeha nor Maori can claim to have that kind of straightforward relationship to the land – that kind of visual conquest and ownership is no longer accessible to us. For Pakeha, in the words of Robert Frost’s poem “The Gift Outright” (read at the inauguration of American President John F. Kennedy in 1961),

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours

But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Maori, on the other hand, feel understandibly dispossessed, robbed of the land and dispersed around the country (indeed, the world), their culture diluted and eroded by migration to the cities.
The marketers have commodified and pimped the very landscape we inhabit to a series of postcards; a reality TV show for the voyeurism of tourists who know nothing about our culture, nor care to; a forest of signs – that which Baudrillard termed a ‘simulacra’ of reality. “Nature red in tooth and claw” has, instead, given way to a pabulum of glossy brochure images to be parodied by these artists.
Thus the New Zealand landscape proliferates in infinite, carefully airbrushed and photoshopped reproduction into countless square kilometres of virgin bush like dark wet jade, freaked with meandering and braided skeins of river quicksilver. But interestingly, it is as if the actual New Zealanders have been erased – neutron-bombed – from the landscape. We have become irrelevant to the task of selling the country, reduced to the status of mere staffage to give a sense of scale; or if Maori, used to give a tough of exotic flavour as a point of difference.
That this all took place in the 1990s can hardly be said to be coincidence. It coincides with the breakdown of the welfare state brought on by Ruthenasia and Rogernomics in the late 1980s, and a much more vocal proactive Maori voice in civic life as a product of the so-called Maori Renaissance of the late ‘70s/80s. This matrix of crisis offered the ideal conditions for “pathetic” and “demotic” art.
The ‘Pencilcasers’ offer us a kind of response.

1. An expression coined by Lara Strongman when she was curator of the Robert McDougall Gallery’s contemporary annex, probably around the time of the Skywriters and Earthmovers exhibition in 1998 which included a number of Pencil-casers. The phrase refers to the scratchy doodle and graffiti like nature of the artists’ work, as one might find on an adolescent’s pencil case.
2. Ralph Rugoff, “Just Pathetic,” Just Pathetic, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles 1990, pp3-4.
3. Ibid p19.
4. Arthur C. Danto, “Books & The Arts. What Happened to Beauty?”, The Nation, March 30 1992, pp 418, 420-21.
5. S. Hall, “New Ethnicities” in K. Mercer (Ed.) Black Film/British Cinema, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1988, p29.

The images come (top to bottom) from de Lautour, Hammond, Takle, Pick, Cotton and Leek.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Out on the streets

Dane Mitchell. Barricades
Starkwhite, Auckland.
November 13 – December 9 2007

Images of protestors standing behind barricades and hurling rocks or Molotov cocktails at government forces are monotonously common in our newspapers and television screens. Dane Mitchell is so fascinated by them he has collected over three hundred such photographs. A large part of his current installation at Starkwhite consists of pencil drawings of barricades based on the newspaper clippings he has collected over the last two years - part of a proposed but uncompleted project researched for a venue at Sao Paulo university. The images come from a wide range of confrontations between police and demonstrators in a number of countries at different periods.

Mitchell is intrigued by the engineering of these obstacles, their spontaneous and makeshift nature, and patterns of the different varieties. Some of the drawings are words placed over traced maps of Paris, and refer to the fifties group of radical Marxists, the Situationists. The maps also allude to the boulevard layout of Paris, designed by Baron Haussmann under instructions from Napoleon III. The narrow streets were replaced by wide roads so that it was impossible for dissidents to erect barricades to block troop movement.

Mitchell’s installation mixes drawing with sculpture and some sound so that everything interpenetrates. Rectangular sections of the front wall by the K’ Rd entrance have been cut out and converted into riot shields. The remaining holes look like gun pits and you peer through them when you enter the gallery. Close to the entrance gap is a shovel with its blade embedded high in the wall and a red flag hanging from its handle. The project references the recent police raids on Tuhoe, and police suspicion of nationally co-ordinated, armed insurrection.

With the last two or so shows he has had at Starkwhite, Mitchell demonstrated what a fine producer of elegant drawings he can be. These are a little like Sam Durant in theme and method, but show a big interest in shape and considered placement on the page. And they look elegant framed and lined up on the wall.

Still there was a time – only five years ago - when Mitchell was the bane of Auckland curators and directors, when his conceptual investigations into museum and gallery systems and politics made him serious enemies, and when his presentation was clumsier than what it is now. Has his work become too stylish and marketable? There seems to be less risk in his aestheticized, recent projects.

There is also the question of rhetoric about revolution on white dealer gallery walls. Mitchell has to be careful he is not over-commodifying these images of anti-government resistance; they could become like ‘Che’ coffee beans, cultivating a superficial ‘revolutionary’ ambience for a young, easily impressed, artworld audience.

And what do the drawings say about their potential purchasers? They seem to extol an assumed political position, with a sneaky pinch of anthropological voyeurism thrown in. Maybe this is what Dane the Bane intends? That these works are like Trojan Horses. Decoys that ask hard questions about his own practice and his art collecting audience.

(Images courtesy of the artist and Starkwhite.)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Things, qualities and space

Making Worlds at the New Gallery, Auckland. 3 November 2007 - 21 January 2008

The role of education staff in the making of a gallery’s programme is an interesting issue. Some might argue they have too much power, even in some institutions having a vote on new acquisitions or submitting proposals. Yet such personnel are crucial for increasing art’s audiences and artists benefit from that. They help inculcate the view that art is normal, that as a form of pleasure – in its viewing or making – it plays a key role in our daily mental musings.

Roger Taberner is Auckland Art Gallery’s Curator of Education. For the summer holiday season he has assembled from the gallery’s collections a ‘family’ exhibition consisting of work from nineteen artists. The aim of the show is to involve the whole family in the exhibition through incorporating additional interactive activities, involving making things and answering questions.

Thematically the exhibition examines the way many artists transmute the mundane into the extraordinary. Extremely general, this all-embracing notion is about the role of the imagination. The spectacular examples in the show are Eugene Carchesio, Peter Madden, Marie Shannon, Francis Upritchard, Neil Dawson, Morgan Jones, Denis O’Connor, and Boyd Webb. They differ from the rest in that certain prosaic objects have triggered off an imaginative energy which has enabled them to make new variations of those objects. With Don Driver, Jim Speers, and Len Lye this has happened to the physical properties of certain materials: qualities inherent within substances, rather than actual images; while with Paul Cullen, Chiho Aoshima, Julia Morison, Bill Hammond, Tony de Lautour and Robert Ellis the work explores conventions of spatial ordering, and various sign systems that fit within that.

As is I hope obvious, though pitched as a kiddie-winkie show, in reality it’s not. Most of the work is far too sophisticated. Even occasionally scary. There is good stuff there that even the most fatigued art buff will find invigorating. Personally I was delighted by the Chiho Aoshima animation and the bizarre digital Jim Speers drawings of imagined circular cinemas. Eugene Carchesio’s grid of inventively 'constructivist' matchboxes is spellbinding and of course the 1988 Hammond is a cracker too, from the good old days when the artist was less avian obsessed.

My only gripe is that it should be like Ron Brownson’s Likeness and Character portrait show downstairs, and have free admission. To charge families at the door when it’s them you are trying to attract is truly nutty. New Zealand art should be free for New Zealanders to look at. That is the only way audiences will ever increase. It’s obvious.

Images top to bottom: Ronnie van Hout, detail from I'm Not Here, installation, fibreglass, camera and monitor, 1999, and Taranaki, coloured photograph, 1992; Morgan Jones, Here On There, tanalised pine and galvanised roofing iron,1986; Boyd Webb, Blessed, cibachrome photograph, 1985; 2 images from Chiho Aoshima,City Glow, 5 screenvideo animation with Bruce Ferguson, 2005; W.D. Hammond, Channel Zero, acrylic and varnish on canvas 1988; Julia Morison,detail from Quiddities 1-10, cibatransparencies 1989; Neil Dawson, Interior 5, acrylic,brass,1979; Eugene Carchesio, Works from the Museum of Science (Dept of 100 Poems), matchboxes, paper,cardboard,1986-94.

Substance and light

Neil Dawson at Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch. 27 November -22 December 2007

It is easy to see why Neil Dawson is exhibiting his latest set of wall works in the front room at Jonathan Smart’s, the space with the big window overlooking High Street. The light is so intense there, especially in summertime, and it brightens noticeably as the day progresses. The work changes accordingly. It becomes more evanescent and shimmering, more holistic and less composed. Figures merge into ground. The metallic green and grey colours in particular become even more iridescent.

Dawson has six works on display: five on walls, one hanging suspended from the ceiling. The hanging work (Pointer) is a spray-painted, double cone that turns horizontally like a swivelling compass needle. The two halves are coloured grey and red while the opposing cones are made of a curved steel mesh with patterns of flying darts that diminish in size as they approach the two tips.

Two other cones (Vanishing Points) are on the walls, pointing to the floor. One pattern is of crevasses, the other of vertical crosses. The two motifs are linked with the two cones being side by side. Dawson has a black wit.

While the cone works are great, the rest of the show is made of three arcs (Sweeps) that hang on the walls. I like these even more. Curved with the centres projecting out, they look like sweeping brushmarks sliding across the wall. One is patterned with inverted darts among scudding clouds, another is with just clouds, and the third with I-beams suspended in the cumulus. They have a lightness of touch the cones lack, partially because of their interaction with the walls, the way they cling to the vertical planes of the architecture. There is a nice teasing of the volumetric, a nuanced agitation of the space that accompanies the eddies turning the double-cone and the shifting light coming in the window.

By the way, the images I have pasted here are not from the Smart show, but very similar.

Boys from Dresden

Discipline, Frank Nitsche and Eberhardt Havekost at Gow Langsford, Auckland. 16 November - 8 December 2007

These two artists are from Dresden, the German city flattened by Churchill’s bombers and made famous through Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five. Frank Nitsche makes paintings that use computer graphics and Eberhardt Havekost creates photographs of demolished buildings or car wrecks he subtly aestheticizes with digital technology. On first take, the former is romantic, exploring chaos and collapse, while the latter is classical, obsessed with order, nuanced design and placement of shape.

Nitsche’s large industrial looking paintings have a hint of Diebenkorn, but mainly appear to be a synthesis of manga with Picabia. They are very design-oriented, but the two biggest works (approx 2 m. square) have whispers of underlying cartoons or comics in the way they look based on abstracted heads. These are beautifully crafted, refined paintings. Their unexpected associations grow on you, for initially they are quite unnerving in their iciness and overt computer procedures. There is an ambiguous wit and design punning that slowly dawns as you warm to the sensual manipulation of shape and delicate intricacies of line.

It is the synthesis of computer drawing with traditional oil painting that makes Nitsche’s paintings intriguing, for they are very different from an acrylic painter who uses computers like Andre Hemer. Some lines have dragged dry bush marks and some shapes splatters of dripped paint. However you have to look quite closely to see them.

Likewise, Havekost’s digitally tweaked images of industrial decay are understated. In New Zealand this technical treatment of photographs occurs in the H-types of Paul Hartigan but his subject- matter and motivation is worlds apart, being about a sense of loss over disappearing street-signage. Havekost’s work is more related to Smithson but delighting in the shambolic and random as delectable residues from processes of disintegration. He has altered the colouration, some of it very subtly, so that soiled fabric acquires dusty greys, and crumbling brick walls have pale washes of pink that reflect the gallery walls outside the frame.

Personally I found Havekost’s photographs a bit dry and academic. I would have preferred a whole room of Nitsche’s more unusual paintings, or some of Havekost's own paintings thrown in. Still it is great to have a chance to see this work. Fabulous that Gow Langsford are presenting it.

Images from top to bottom: Eberhard Havekost, Ewigkeit (Eternity)- nos.3 and 8, photographic screenprints ed.52, 2007, Franke Nitsche, GOB-41-2007, oil on canvas,2007; Franke Nitsche, ROD-40-2007, oil on canvas,2007.

Goosestepping through the whorehouse

Dan Arps’ Gestapo Pussy Ranch at The Physics Room, Christchurch. 15 November - 15 December 2007

Like many of the artists in the Gambia Castle group, Dan Arps in his installations is known for a freewheeling, unstructured mode of visual organisation that celebrates a lack of palpable order. As a dishevelled, freeform exhibtion, Gestapo Pussy Ranch is richly keyed into product that poses as process. The result is a funny, extremely wonky, satire on life management programmes - with personal coaches and analyses of interpersonal organising skills. Although the space is deliberately incongruous, with an old mattress, photographs of peculiar rituals in sleeping bags, cat boxes, scattered disintegrating clumps of straw, foil covered ventilation shutes, geometric forms made of twisted plant roots, surveillance cameras, and hilarious inverted pinup posters smeared with finger painting, the key elements seem to be a laminated pie chart and two typed lists of strategic corporate procedures. The project has an underpinning logic consistent with its brilliantly evocative title - from a Bret Easton Ellis novel - that suggests a Nazi brothel. Implying connections with Human Resource personnel perhaps.

Arps is a clever artist whose work is getting more interesting and less eclectic as his career progresses. He is moving away from his earlier Australian sources to developing his own sensibility. His humour is more hammy and anarchistic than the deceptively academic and systematic approach of Simon Denny, close to Tao Wells in its anarchistic mood, and though subtle, not understated like Nick Austin.

However, this is the sort of show you really have to negotiate yourself in terms of examining the elements, if you want to extract pivotal and considered components from the vaguely rhetorical and nihilistic elements. The anonymous blurb on the Physics Room website is depressingly uninformative and facile, clearly the result of being written long before the artist had decided what he would do in the space, and the images present with it give you no idea of the work’s experiential nature. Worth calling in and checking out for yourself, nevertheless.

Classically inspired

Of Deities or Mortals curated by Ken Hall for the Christchurch Art Gallery. 16 November 2007 - 10 February 2008.

In the mid-eighties I once reviewed a show called Ancient Celebrations at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch. It was an exhibition of ancient Greek pottery. The vases were from the James Logie Memorial Collection, entrusted to the care of the Classics Department at the University of Canterbury, and the exhibition was a real eye opener to members of the Christchurch public like me who didn’t know the highly esteemed Logie Collection existed.

How interesting to see then that the new Christchurch Art Gallery is currently presenting a show of eight contemporary artists influenced or inspired by the contents of the Logie material, relevant samples of which is integrated into the show. As you can imagine, mixing ancient Greek artwork with contemporary practices is an unsettling brew. The two sit together uneasily as visual entities. Even a Neil Pardington photographic triptych showing the Logie acquisitions in pristine vitrines looks icy and self reflexive in its museological preoccupations – a topic of convenient choice rather than of passionate extrapolation. Yet it tells us a lot about how the original Greek objects are presented in the university normally far away from today’s world of galleries and studios.

While the sculptures of standing male figures by Jamie Richardson and Frances Upritchard are curious items in themselves they are more interesting for their differences from the Greek images depicted on vases. Richardson’s squat, chunky, contemporary wrestler (the television celebrity André the Giant) standing with thick raised arms the size of tree-trunks, is made of stuffed felt and other fabrics. Decidedly cute with his blank eyes, pouting lips and pudgy fingers, Richardson’s contribution is really a child’s toy rather than serious art, something that needs to be cuddled and squeezed, even thrown in the air – not just looked at. Upritchard’s bronze figures on the other hand are cold, slightly creepy and tragic, hard with deformed sweeping arms and clawed fingers. With bowed heads and stooped posture they exude despair and withdrawal. They acknowledge old age and death, while Richardson’s piece exalts life at its most intense moments.

Ornamental motifs that decorate classical vases are the object of scrutiny by Sara Hughes and Marian McGuire. Hughes rendered the petal-like patterns on the bottoms of plastic containers painted brown. They look like large vesions of paper chocolate containers, those flimsy scalloped liners you find in chocolate boxes, but these originally contained products like margarine or ice cream. Her very large display on the main wall dominated the exhibition. Rich in its variations of circle, oval, oblong, square and heart, each had a delicate and intricate version of the palmette pattern. Because of the assocation of confectionary box liners they looked more fragile than what in fact they were. This was visually spectacular work of an unchromatic type not normally linked to Hughes.

Marian McGuire didn’t provide the spectacle of Sara Hughes but in some ways her large version of the Greek motifs on Japanese paper came from more obvious investigations of Greek design. They drew you into the properties of repeated and enlarged shapes forcing you into a more intimate and bodily experience. You immersed your mind in the motif, scrutinised the shape edges and relationships, and wondered about the man who made the original urn and why he positioned the forms on the vessel in the manner that he did.

Figures found on the lids of urns were the points of interest for Tony de Lautour. He translated them into a small painting of a flat wooden barge crossing the Styx with the figures growing like ghostly trees out of piles of white earth. This unusual work had an obvious link with the Logie Collection in a way that wasn’t so apparent with say, Richardson and Upritchard.

An entirely different approach to funereal procedures has been adopted by Liyen Chong with her hair embroidered drawings of a skeleton and heart. These were positioned close to a fragment of bandage from an Egyptian mummy on which was written spells and incantations. Chong’s hair drawing will slowly turn grey over the years, just as Egyptian hearts will surely decay and skeletons disintegrate - despite magical attempts to keep them intact for use in the netherworld.

The wildest and most non–literal works in the show are three paintings by Reuben Paterson. They link up with a drinking goblet and feature organic shapes made by pouring enamel paint and glitter onto panels of gloss varnish. These works can be interpreted in many ways – the forms can be spilt wine, vomit, urine or sperm. They have a sense of abandonment and the body losing control. Paterson’s work brings an intriguing conceptual component to the show and some spontaneity, exploring function over form, process over narrative, and energy over completed image.

Inimitable Cry Slur

Now showing Fruit Cake Smothered With Icing Sugar: Tom Kreisler at ARTSPACE, Auckland (10 November – 15 December 2007).

Painting shows at ARTSPACE are extremely rare – for good reason. They are relatively easy to sell and there are lots of dealer galleries available to present them to a consistently enthusiastic market. The last painting show I saw here was John Reynolds’, and that was just over two Walters Prizes ago. This exhibition of works by Tom Kreisler (1938-2002) is a much smaller version of the big survey Aaron Kreisler did of his dad’s work in March at the Govett-Brewster. This ARTSPACE selection will be travelling to Wellington (the Adam), Rotorua and Dunedin.

The pruned down version is very focussed. It leans towards the later roughly painted, cardboard works, with fewer of the humorous elegant stained canvases that made Kreisler well known in the mid eighties. Both types feature the artist’s witty wordplay, but the cardboard paintings often had a rueful bitterness that at times verged on a seething fury about the world and the people in it. The curator has taken many of the scrappy cardboard works out of the vitrines and put them on the wall. Some have even been framed. Often the small notebooks in the vitrines are shown open with early sketches positioned opposite the finished canvas work on the wall.

The more user-friendly canvas works - in comparison to the earlier bigger exhibition – are often in each series represented by one or two works. The show is a very satisfying introduction to this artist’s method of thinking and makes his work less sweet overall than what was assumed ten or twelve years ago when he was known solely for his canvas paintings. It reveals Kreisler to be an amazingly complicated painter in his moods and thinking patterns, approach to language and studio materials. His use of sticky tape for example was outrageous in its casualness, and his attitudes to McCahon and landscape painting fascinating in their complex contradictions.

This carefully layered and meticulously organised show is a great chance for Aucklanders to discover a talent that many New Plymouth and Christchurch art lovers have known about for a long time. A real treat.

Images top to bottom: A brush with death, acrylic on canvas,2001; Budgie Latch, oil and tape on board, 1997; Flying from Hong Kong to Ireland, acrylic on canvas ,1983