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, March 20, 2008

Forget your cinnamon buns and chocolate

Stations of the Cross: an Easter Exhibition
Curated by Joanna Trezise and Jaenine Parkinson
Gus Fisher Gallery
14 - 24 March 2008

The Gus Fisher is trying to cover all bases at the moment, but the fact is it is not a good venue for contemporary art. The floor is a real distraction that kills sculpture, as do the venue's decorative inlaid doors and domed space two-dimensional work. The place needs a proper makeover, but as it is a historic, protected building, such a sensible and functional modification is not likely to happen.

The exhibitions now also tend to be fusty. The recent Adele Younghusband and (current) Gabrielle Hope shows for example were/are excruciatingly inconsistent affairs, and over the last year or two the programme has become more conservative.

On hearing that this Easter show of specifically contemporary work was commissioned by the Presbyterian Church, I didn’t know what to expect – especially as the Stations are a particularly Catholic concept. However the curators involved, Joanna Trezise and Jaenine Parkinson, spring a few stimulating surprises.

‘Hallelujah!’ first of all for there being no McCahon, Smither or Harris works. Their over-exposed crucifixion or ‘Station’ paintings are thankfully nowhere to be seen, and the fifteen commissioned artists selected for the fifteen stations along JC’s bodily trajectory make up a peculiarly mixed bag, but there are some treats. It would have been much better using the whole gallery and including some film or video, but never mind.

Fifteen artists with fifteen hugely varied approaches in media and attitude is quite a gamble. The fragmentation is not resolved by the thematic structure but it doesn’t seem to matter. The many contrasts and vehement oppositions bring an unexpected richness. Instead of Christian propaganda we have here a true forum, a notion that the art world often embraces in conversation but which it rarely puts into practice. Many of these artists appear to be non-believers. Others broadcast their commitment to the Christian faith. This ideological jostling makes the show refreshing in its candour.

Five works in particular I found physically and mentally engaging.

Peter Madden’s sculpture has one of his ubiquitous, gold leaf covered, plastic skulls placed on a tall plinth of shiny purple plastic. As he has also coated the Gus Fisher glass doors with gold leaf, it is not until you have opened them and entered that you are suddenly confronted by this vertical figure. It represents Jesus, clad in a sarcastically ‘royal’ robe, about to be condemned. The intense colour makes it quite a visceral experience and a superb start to the ‘Station‘ tour.

Further down the sequence at the Tenth Station, Niki Hastings-McFall has another skeletal Jesus standing on a green hill of foliage and flowers. Awaiting execution and stripped of his clothes, he is holding a vinegar soaked sponge and a straw. There is a lightbox under the plastic leaves and they glow gorgeously. The absent flesh and clothes merge into one as a metaphor about the transience of life, youth and beauty.

John Pule’s series of painted hardcover tomes, continue a number of projects where he attacks the destructive influence of Christianity in the Pacific region, using written or drawn post-colonial narratives. His set of 14 Christian guidebooks are given raw, repainted covers that are virulently scathing of missionary-induced guilt and despair. I prefer these to Pule’s paintings, though those are hard-hitting too. The books are more confrontational, and don’t bury their anger in a mass of decorative detail. Their inclusion brings some gritty intellectual credibility to this show.

Darryn George is a hard-edge abstractionist pretending to be a Christian-Maori symbolist. The reverse is stated in the catalogue, and understandably so, for he often clutters works with symbolic elements even if they detract visually. Yet if put on the spot, George would probably rather construct an elegant design than tell you a morally uplifting story. He loves form. His ‘The Women of Jerusalem Weep For Jesus’ is a seductive though deceptively simple painting, with particularly rarefied compositional control.

The placing of Jesus’ body in the tomb is the theme explored by Hamish Tocher in his wonderful projection on to the gallery ceiling via six over-head projectors. The various foreshortened actors look like they are standing on a high glass sheet and participating in a Mannerist mural. In terms of Biblical narratives these figures seem to obliquely allude to another story, that of a vision experienced by the hungry disciple Peter, where on a rooftop in a strange city God delivers out of the sky a sailcloth sheet bearing live animals to be eaten (Acts 10:11). The confusion between a food-laden sheet and Jesus’ corpse wrapped in a burial shroud makes an inadvertent pun about the Eucharist and the eating of Jesus’ body.

What believers would make of such humour I do not know. However the range of work in this show makes it worth a visit for anyone - whatever their religious inclinations. Naturally it is on over the entire Easter period, even public holidays.

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