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 6, 2007

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.

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