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.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

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.

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