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.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Painted Light

Paul Winstanley: Paintings 1989 -2007
Curated by Brian Butler
ARTSPACE, Auckland
26 April - 31 May 2008

In this wonderful little survey of English artist Paul Winstanley’s work, there are twenty-one paintings, of varied size, that ARTSPACE director Brian Butler has assembled from key collections in California. While it doesn’t say much about painting per se (in the sense of paint as tactile substance or subject of experimental technique – as with say Harding or Frize), it does say a great deal about the relationship between painting and photography as a tool. From an image in a book or magazine the simplicity of Winstanley’s forms might make you think they were digitally fiddled-with photographs, but when you experience them directly, the sense of pigment being worked into a canvas with a brush is strong. There is a softness. Totally different to chemicals on glossy paper or plastic, and methods of pixelation.

In the floor talk he gave at ARTSPACE, Winstanley mentioned his early admiration for the planar paintings of Brice Marden, the American painter, and you can see why. There is a sense of nuanced chromatic control and great restraint here, in the typically English way that one sees in Tate Britain with painters like Richard Hamilton or Paul Nash. To do with the English climate and light from many overcast days, the love of greenish grey and avoidance of bright saturation. A maverick art historian like Francis Pound might argue that this is the result of a learned visual style, not based on observation in unique regional conditions, but in fact it is a learned style acquired under certain geographical / meteorological circumstances, and then – as in Winstanley’s case – reapplied to works made in other countries like China.

The interesting thing about Winstanley’s paintings is their nod to the modernist picture plane, the way they reflect the shape of the supporting canvas in their composition. They have a strange balance between looking through and looking at. If you compare them with say, in this country, Jude Rae’s still lifes, her work draws you in, but it denies that the painting is an artefact, an object. Her canvas visually ‘dissolves’ and is not celebrated. Winstanley though, likes the rectangle and shows you so. He is not fixated on illusion, but enjoys the way the painting sits on the wall and interacts with the architecture and various fittings in the room.

Even when he tries something unusual, like round stretchers, they profoundly activate the wall. Two pinkish circular paintings (Pods 2 & 3) based on photographs made inside a viewing room at the top of a tower in a Chinese city, provide a strange tubular sensation - as if you are looking through two holes in the ARTSPACE wall that bend behind it and link up. The space between the canvases becomes part of the installation, and ARTSPACE turns into Kelly Talton’s. You want to walk into the circles.

From looking at this show it is very evident that Winstanley is besotted by reflected and atmospheric light, and that he loves rendering it as it is experienced inside public architecture. Three large paintings of a walkway over a motorway are based on photographs taken at different times. Each symmetrical work has its own distinctive qualities of illumination, a combination of pulsing haze from the distant end of the corridor (the cumulative effects of fluorescent tubes on the ceiling and their floor reflections) and shimmering reflections in the glass windows on each side.

The best works feature a warm white with grey or very dark brown, and avoid hot colour. Such stand-out paintings are cool masterpieces vaguely influenced by Hamilton and Hockney, but even better than those artists’ works. That is really saying something, but Night Office 1 (1996) and Still (1995) are compelling in their use of bleached out space and soft smoky edges. Their impeccable compositional placement and glaring smudgy light makes them profoundly and beautifully perfect for their size.

Some of the smaller city street scenes and office interiors are impressive too, having a jewel-like quality from details such as reflections on green plastic seats, or light passing through pink translucent umbrellas. They are intimate works, not muscular but gorgeously delicate. The bigger works involve you bodily. Both types are hard to forget.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The hidden

Layla Rudneva – Mackay: Tell yourself you’re OK
Starkwhite, Auckland
21 April - 17 May 2008

Hiding one’s ‘real’ personality or identity behind a constructed persona is not that rare an occurrence in art, literary or entertainment circles, but making self portraits while constantly hiding your face and body (and perhaps those of a helpful friend) is.

Initially the behaviour seen in these photographs can perhaps be interpreted as a form of comedic body sculpture like that of Erwin Wurm, or functioning as a human display stand for certain fabrics that are for sale. Maybe they are something else - the consequences of self-loathing or shame. The show’s title supports that view.

It is hard to imagine why any artist (any person) in today’s liberal climate, could ever feel seriously ashamed - whatever the cause - to the degree that they see themselves as a leper. Support groups of kindred souls and counsellors are always easy to find, and usually self–directed dread comes from imaginary causes anyway.

So to hide behind towels or blankets for photographs, if it is to go beyond a shallow gimmick, needs to be looked at in an art historical context. Is it related for example to John Baldessari’s late eighties news photographs where all faces were hidden by coloured discs. Or is the mystery of the unseen artist’s face and body something like Duchamp’s With hidden noise (1916), where a rattling unknown object is hidden inside a ball of string that has plates bolted on both sides. In these photos Rudneva-Mackay does rattle on.

Are we likely to care if she is ok or not? Is there a strong motivation for us to become curious about an artist's disability or hang-up? What about the photos’ landscape backdrop and the prints’ colour quality? Will liking those drive us into seeking out further authorial information or will they suffice?

Well I’m getting a little carried away here, aren’t I? Layla Rudneva–Mackay is not exactly poncing around Auckland locked into an iron mask. It is not a performance she is doing, only making some photographs – and she is happy we concentrate on those. On what the camera sees or doesn’t see.

Yet the title of her series asks for speculation, something she could have avoided with a less psychological caption. She is inviting our interest in her well being. She wants her art to be about something outside these images. She thinks she has a problem and she wants us to be concerned about that.

Perhaps some of us will be.

The falling of water and light

Martin Basher: The Spectacular Fall
Starkwhite, Auckland
21 April - 17 May 2008

Waterfalls have long been a part of New Zealand Aotearoa’s landscape art subject matter, ever since William Hodges laid eyes on this country with Cook, and Hodges was an inspiration to McCahon when he began to paint the first of many waterfalls in the early sixties. Waterfalls of course are also an important symbol for Duchamp, blending his use of ‘fountains’ with the idea of ‘delay’, and apparently stemming from an occasion in 1915 when he got drunk at a party in New York, passed out on a staircase and wet his pants.

Though in his artist statement Basher ties his waterfalls with the American Hudson River School, they are really closer to Christmas card illustrations with their steep mountains and fir tree forests. The best ones have a wonderfully piercing yellow light in the tradition of the Romantic Sublime, most also having angular houses with steep rooves that look like ‘witch cottages’. (Some of these have solar panels.) The houses and skies are better painted than the trees and dew-laden cobwebs, which are comparatively clumsy.

The overall effect is saccharine mixed with the drama of great height - and seemingly without irony. I would (reluctantly) prefer to see Graham Sydney paintings to these, because Sydney is obviously more skilful, plus his emotion is more distanced - with nuance. These are over the top.

Basher’s work is therefore a close cousin to that of Saskia Leek. It’s a form of schmaltz, but compared to her, more spatially ‘realistic’ and spectacular. I dislike the sentimentality in his paintings but I appreciate his skill with light. They are worth seeing for that.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Art in Kingsland

Peter Robinson: Closed Cell Construction
Jar, Auckland
Over six months duration

First of all, this is not a ‘drive by’ art show. You’ll see nothing that way. You really have to hop off your skateboard, wander over, press your snout against the big glass window and peer in.

Secondly, the exhibition is about light – natural that is – and form. Light which changes over the course of a day. Form which is crammed into this peculiar, cube-like space.

Robinson’s installation is a heap of polystyrene chains piled up to the ceiling. There are four types: the whopper, hefty, ultra-thick ones which are a new development from his recent Crockford show; the much smaller, more delicate links; and a variety of ‘negative’ lozenges that come in two sizes and which are strewn around the floor and on the occasional big link.

The theme continues Robinson’s interest in the legend of Prometheus, and in chains as a form of substance, an invented ‘material’ with its own unique set of physical characteristics that he can continue to explore.

Jar, with its funny little skylight tucked away on the righthand side, also allows lucky people like me who live close by, to observe the effects of direct sunlight coming in the ceiling and window in the late parts of the day. It will be interesting to see how the polystyrene responds to that, whether it will look opaque or translucent, and if the dark shadows of sunny days will make the forms more pronounced, and if overcast days dissolve them.

The earlier installation by Stephen Bambury was about reflected light in trays of oil, and what it did to the walls of the room. Robinson’s project is quite different in mood. His installation is about the mass he has inserted into the space, and how light can effect that.

(photos courtesy: Over the net and on the table.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Exciting drawing show

Sue Crockford, Auckland
8 April - 28 April 2008

One of the big mysteries of life, more enigmatic than the chemistry of love, more secretive than the movement of magma at the centre of the earth, more puzzling than the selection of the finalists in the Walters Prize, is how to define what drawing is.

Is it a particular support that is the key, something like paper or velum? Maybe it the medium type that is the defining component, an implement like a pen or pencil.

There are other questions too, such as can drawings be reproducible in editions, or are they strictly unique? Are they a method of research that might not be finished, a preparatory process for a later project? Do they have to be about marks on a 2D surface, marks that imply space, and not actually a sculptural item or linear object in itself?

Crockford’s show doesn’t stretch any of these envelopes – it’s conservative in its approach to the discipline – but it is a goodie. There are some great surprises here. Here are my picks:

First of all three very unusual pencil studies by Gordon Walters, with sensitive cross hatching, erased sections, over-inscriptions and smudges, along with small sketches in the margins. Working drawings that came before the preparatory collages that came before the final paintings. Terrific to see.

Then there are a couple of vibrant, wildly abandoned Mrkusich studies, in gouache from 1961, made just before he started to explore Jungian symbolism. The brushstrokes and hot earth colours make these seem of a fiery bush or primal furnace, with no hint of the geometry to come.

There is also a set of seven black ink drawings made by Ralph Hotere and Max Gimblett, seemingly combining Max’s splatter with Ralph’s brush daubs and strokes along the paper edges. With black mounts and 80s framing the resulting images are subtle and sometimes minimal. These images, made in New York in 1980, are more rewarding than what is initially apparent.

Of younger generations, Marie Shannon has two intriguing pastel studies of the space in Esso Gallery in New York, with framed items on the walls, and restrained colour. Peter Robinson also has five very recent hard-leaded pencil drawings of his recent polystyrene/dripping chain sculptures. The understated lines are fine and piercing with descriptive use of contour for the masses, some nuanced spatial inflection, plus a few stencilled links for the chains. After his recent large, loose brush drawings these tight precise works are a wonderful airy surprise.

This is the kind of drawing show I like. No awful portraits or landscapes. Mostly artists honing their ideas, and testing them before a final commitment.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Spot the difference

l. budd /untitled /N.D. (c.1997)/ awning, acrylic paint /1350 x 5500 x 1100 mm (extended)

disputed (et al) / National Park (sorry) / 2008 / wood, cork, tarpulin, perspex, paper, speaker, rock, amplifier, rubber, fabricated trolley, foam, found image, acrylic paint/ edition of five / 1200 x 1120 x 900 (overall, approx) / courtesy of Starkwhite

lionel b (l. budd) / unity of appearance / 1997 /awning, acrylic paint, pencil / 1400 x 2800 x 1170mm

l. budd / untitled / 1992 / hand-poured silicon, plaster, wallpaper / 130 x560 x 300 mm (each,approx.) multiple released by the Estate of L. Budd

The Estate of L. Budd
Michael Lett, Auckland
15 April - 17 May 2008

This show is about the pleasures of language, the joys of mischief-making, and the limits of identity. Revelling in ambiguity, it forces the visitor to examine lists of materials and names, to check their accuracy and to ask if their leg is being pulled. It is the type of show that museum registrars must dread because the most basic procedures become slippery, evanescent and untrackable. Items and their accompanying definitions move around. Things are never where you left them last.

In recent months L. Budd appears to have died. The et al collective will have to carry on without his/her contributions. But looking at the list of four works Lett has provided, the titles don’t seem accurate.

The untitled work, for example, of a dozen multiple scroll holders and three pieces of wallpaper, has no trolley listed and according to et al’s Govett-Brewster survey publication, was made by Merit Gröting anyway (see arguments for immortality, p.96).

Yet above it on the catalogue is another work which has disputed authorship, one called National Park (sorry), a fish tank covered with bubblewrap (unmentioned) on a trolley, and containing a speaker which occasionally plays Arabian music.

As for the likely meaning of these objects: the scrolls and awnings in this show double as possible paintings (‘blonded’ surfaces) and symbolic shelters from hostile elements. The unity of the collective ‘self’ is both disparaged and embraced by contradictory components. Different personas are showcased but they have unifying commonalities which remain.

Plus the main work here, the scroll holders, seems to be about art collections, archives, and storage facilities. It is reflexive, about the care of itself and other et al artworks. It’s a minimal, tough work (especially if the trolley is not included), one that gives the finger to various clipboard–ticking museum bureaucrats, government officials and collectors who want their art and artists easily defined and properly housetrained.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Billy's tribute

Billy Apple: The Bruce and Denny Show
Two Rooms, Auckland
10 April - 10 May 2008

It is well known that the relationship between art and life was a major preoccupation of Pop Art and of many of the later conceptualists, especially – as in Billy Apple’s case – when ‘life’ involved the marketplace and advertising. This Apple exhibition blends together the autobiographical (the artist is telling us about his passion for racing cars) and the museological.

Instead of a show in a gallery where, say, a printmaker might display in a vitrine his burin, acid and zinc plates, and books of referenced Old Master reproductions, Apple’s support material for his paintings and prints consists of a legendary McLaren car being installed in the gallery, a film of a famous Canadian race featuring interviews with NZ heroes Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme, and if you ask in the office, a recent purchasable DVD doco on the artist’s career and life.

One curious observation is that the support material tends to overwhelm if not totally upstage Apple’s art on the walls. The presence of Denny Hulme’s M8A-2 Chevrolet as a sensual, sculptural object –whether static in the gallery or kinetic on film – dominates the exhibition. Apple’s conceptual project, gorgeous though it may be with its construction by several carefully supervised artisans, despite its many references to the car, can’t compete. However in his very fine catalogue essay Wystan Curnow makes some apt observations about Apple’s project, tying it in with Bataille’s concept of the gift, exchange and sacrifice. Apple seems to want to give something here to his audience. He is introducing them to another world beyond art galleries. And in recent years, particularly since the early 2000s, Apple’s work has been more about his own mental states, alluding to his innermost fears (like the possibility of death at sea in Severe Tropical Storm Irma 9301) and recreational passions, as in this show.

There is one problem though: Apple’s history as an in situ installation artist. With the two site specific tours of galleries in the seventies, and many other projects since, he is famous for treating each venue’s architectural fittings and political history as subject matter. When he ignores those achievements simply to present in the gallery space something that looks like an Apple installation but isn’t, there is a dilemma. After all the McLaren car is not for sale – nor was it made by Apple. Nor is it a readymade. Nor has it been raced as an Apple artwork. It is merely a footnote for Apple’s paintings. Nothing wrong with that approach for another artist, but because of this particular artist’s context it seems a letdown.

The paintings and the prints however are pretty interesting. As tributes to two dynamic personalities Apple has long admired, they fall into a lineage of symbolic portraiture that includes Francis Picabia and Marsden Hartley. Apple’s portraits are of the two drivers, their respective cars, and the racetracks where they won. Three subject matters that overlap.

These images use fonts and proportions Apple has been passionate about most of his working life, like Futura and The Golden Section rectangle. His branding aesthetic is mixed with the cadmium yellow of McLaren’s brilliantly designed car, each driver’s personal number and number colour choice, the shape and alignment of the racing tracks, and the conventions of the chequered flag.

In some ways the upstairs presentation of the paper works is more successful than the downstairs gallery. Apple has organised the near identical material differently, bracketing for each driver important (green) racetracks between their respective yellow car and driver portraits. Most of the seven racing venues Apple showcases here had Hulme and McLaren taking first and second places but Apple’s track configurations draw out subtle distinctions between 1967 and 1968.

One looks forward to see what painted tributes Apple plans to make in the future, and how he encodes those stories. It is not so much his taste that is of interest but how his ideas test the confines of the painted canvas. What is fascinating is the function of his artworks, in particular the sociology around – and not within - the language. What the stretched canvas becomes before it is hung on the wall – though what happens to them after that is amazingly interesting too.

Imaginary worlds

Barbara Tuck: Calibrating the loss of Sparrow Hawk
Anna Miles Gallery, Auckland
26 March - 19 April 2008

Barbara Tuck’s paintings usually feature sections of dripping overhanging vegetation hovering in an isolated, highly ambiguous space, with a soft diffuse light behind them. In the past there was a sense of piecemeal fragmentation where the placement of each luxuriant botanical extravaganza seemed tentative, but in this exhibition her composition is particularly confident. There is the same deliberately imprecise rendering of foliage and ground and playing off of light and dark as before, but now also there is a new interest in a deeper perspectival space: receding horizon lines are mixed with a hint of the panoramic.

The positioning of elements is now so assured, and the panels are bigger. Amongst the leafy clusters are ochre landforms with sky-reflecting rock pools. We are seeing more earth.

Tuck has a distinctive manner of stroking the thin paint onto the board she uses as a support. This makes the earth around the copses of trees feathery and softly mottled. The very air seems caressed. With these paintings imaginary ingredients flow into one another; sprouting vines and barky growths blend into wispy clouds of Naples yellow and lavender mist.

Tuck’s use of fictitious landforms is similar to the landscapes created by the great Waikato surrealist, Margot Philips (in the Chartwell Collection but not illustrated online) except that with Philips the light is much harsher, there are few trees, and furrows of the land are like those of a giant exposed brain. Both utilise fantasies from within to make haunting extrapolations of their natural environment.

Swarms of little men

Gregory Bennett: Blacknoise
Vavasour Godkin, Auckland
27 March -26 April 2008

Blacknoise presents a dark sci-fi fantasy of a world dominated by thousands of digitally created, shavenheaded young males, all athletic, supple and eternally energetic, swarming over public spaces and all they come across - even floating in the ether itself. The handful of women who are shown are on their backs on beds in buildings. The work seems to have satirical intent.

The imagery though is not violent. The figures are often configured in flailing towerlike structures, practicing a form of gymnastics where forms open and shut like flowers. They exercise tirelessly. Only women sleep. The guys keep on moving.

You have to get up close to see these works. From a distance they seem to be like the holistic brush-marks of Mark Tobey. They could almost be maggots, all writhing in a field. Closer still you might think they are scrambling people from the mescaline visions of Henri Michaux. In fact they are like Lilliputian armies created by Pixar studios, stills made in anticipation of some big screened production, with test samples moving on LEDs.

Maybe Bennett should make such a film. The stills have a steely, Escher-like iciness, especially in the architectural drawings. Although incredibly detailed, these might become tiresome. Because all the figures are the same, the interest is in how the plethora of individuals is grouped, how Bennett clusters them. Real time movement however, would really enhance the motion already implied.

Bennet is no colourist for his harsh blacks, greys and reds make the images optically piercing. But as an unusual fantasy the content of his work is intriguing. Hopefully it will lead to something more ambitious.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Symbolic Portraits

Julian Hooper: Átváltozik
Ivan Anthony, Auckland
9 April - 10 May 2008

There are two parts to this Julian Hooper show.

The first re-exhibits in Anthony’s front room some of the Liliu watercolours Hooper displayed in the Gus Fisher last year during the Turbulence Triennial – works that feature a quirky mixing of Hungarian, Fijian and Tongan motifs within various imaginary and factual historical, colonial narratives.

Those works are not very successful, though the strange symbolic portraits he invents are unusual and intriguing. Many look like studies for something that needs more time to get resolved. He has tried mixing together various painting styles and the results simply don’t meld.

The second part of this show is in the two back rooms and a lot better. More Europe focused (though Pacific motifs are still present) it is less technically ambitious but with more compositional and conceptual focus. Hooper has taken the torsos and standing clothed figures and given them geometry, exploring a way of combining Miro-like components so they ‘swing’ like music. He manages to manipulate rhythms of shape, soft brusherly pulses, and arabesque curves, blending them with Picassoesque distortions.

The portraits look great within their dark wooden frames and seem an eclectic synthesis of Diena Georgetti, Joan Miro, Giuseppe Arcimboldo and perhaps Jim Nutt - though the paint is much thinner and the forms more fragmented. These latest works can be simister, especially the image of Vlad the Impaler, with his paranoid eyes peeking through the petals. This series is not as spatially spectacular as Hooper’s last show, but much more intimate. Well worth a visit.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Taste that Ear

Tim Hawkinson: Scout
Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland
8 April – 16 May 2008

Californian sculptor Tim Hawkinson is one of those artists who manages to mix wildly inventive ideas with dazzling technical facility. (A little like say Tom Friedman for example, where you are constantly surprised by new uses found for old materials. Though Hawkinson is much more surreal) His Gow Langsford show has some intriguing and very unusual works in the front gallery - a couple of fizzers there as well - but also some knockouts in the gallery office, out the back.

Hawkinson’s title work, Scout, is based on a well-known diagram that scientists use when talking about the relationship between parts of the brain and muscular limb/organ co-ordination. It shows a cross-section of the cerebral cortex with pertinent body parts juxtaposed along the brains contours, their relative size distorted to match the surface area that neurologically connects with them. Hawkinson has made an amusing standing figure of the assembled parts, retaining the enlarged proportions of the drawing but clothing it in a fringed buckskin outfit all made from carefully cut, crumpled and stitched, used packing card.

This welcoming figure represents the homunculus, the little man in the brain who controls, feels and drives the bigger body. This version is headless, with a huge testicle and hands, implying a brainless but libido driven personality. Having no brain, considering the work’s conceptual origins, is a great joke. It is bit like a Golem that has escaped its creator.

The other major work is Deposition, a whistle playing tree. It has a rattly motorised bead-lined belt that moves the piston in a penny whistle so it plays a tune. The necessary compressed air is pumped up from below through plastic tubing embedded in the bark-stripped trunk and branches.

The two other large works in the front space are holistic drawings. One is a giant image of a foot made of silver quilted polyester, the other is a honey-comb made of Styrofoam and foil. Though big, these are understated and so subtle they end up being anti-climactic.

The real stunners, as I’ve said, are in the office. There you can see two sculptural collages made of large coloured photographs of human body parts - notably an ear and a tongue. They are a sort of combination of Ava Seymour and Lee Bonticou, and wonderfully inventive as reliefs. As photographs wrapped around moulded Styrofoam, these images really engage. Creepy and mesmerising, they are the best things in the exhibition.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Welcoming Cave

John Reynolds: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
Christchurch Art Gallery (Burdon Family Gallery)
14 February - 27 April 2008

This show is based on Reynolds’ set design for the Court theatre and so, naturally, is theatrical. It mixes lighting contrasts with a range of scales - from tall ladders to very small drawings pinned to the wall – and a variety of complexities, most involving overlaid grids. The spot-lit drama gives it oomph far beyond Reynolds’ other projects of recent years.

The sculptural props here don’t really need moving, verbalising people to enliven the space - for they work very effectively, statically, in the gallery on their own. They might not be so successful though, in actual performances of Thomas’s play. The mix might be overcooked and destroy the narrative –but perhaps that might not matter.

The best elements are grids projected on to the walls over pencilled grid drawings, or sprayed balls of silver suspended within bright spots. The gallery is turned into a sort of cave, and the bright areas interact beautifully with various ladders and planks on trestles draped with netting and rope or small paintings. This installation has great atmosphere. Not as visceral as Darryn George’s project next door but amazing nonetheless.

Colour Cathedral

Darryn George: Pulse
Christchurch Art Gallery (William A. Sutton Room)
9 March – August 2008

Darryn George’s installation here is light years more exciting than his recent, related, Gow Langsford painting exhibition in Auckland which was hampered by the muddled variety of its images, its overworked textures and too complicated Christian/Maori symbolism.

This Christchurch show was executed by professional sign painters working directly onto the walls, and is exciting because of its physicality. It is an amazing experience to walk around the huge room, the designed motifs are so rhythmically and chromatically intense. The super saturated colour gets absorbed by every pore in your body, and the intense walls, the front one repeating the number ‘Waru’ (eight: the eight day of the week, a mystical, spiritually focussed day), pulse with an octane energy that pleasurably steamrolls over you.

This is a particularly successful treatment of this space. Hopefully it is the first of many such spectacles to come.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Inscribing, pretending not to inscribe, or inscribing nothing

Six Man Stand Up Tent (FIN)

(Clockwise, six titles as follows) Mt Pirongia. LA. Way out in the black-blocks possuming with Crumpy. Night Fell. After a few drinks it was decided we should have sex (Song for Billy and Kyle). "Am I hurting you Barry?" I proffered. "Na mate, she's beaut" (Avery's Peak)

View to Lion Rock. G3 (Boy Named Sue)


G1 (The Peria)

Andrew Barber, Six man stand up tent: a tale of redemption. Real men were homos
Gambia Castle, Auckland
28 March - 19 April 2008

When you visit a municipal art museum, do you read the label before you examine an artwork, or do you scrutinize the art object first, and then read the wall text? Or else, do you just ignore the wall labels altogether? Or on the other hand, maybe you prefer to forget the art. Perhaps the labels are all you look at?

What about artworks in general? What if you are reading an illustrated art magazine? Are the titles crucial for you, or do you study the objects first to determine their possible logic - and then ponder their titles?

This group of Andrew Barber paintings at Gambia Castle seems to provide a tongue-in-cheek satire of lengthy Australian art titles of the mid-eighties, like those of Dale Frank or Mike Parr. Preoccupied with male homosexuality and erections, his own titles do not seem to be serious.

If they are not, then neither are the paintings. One contaminates the other. However let’s assume both are dead straight – extremely serious – and about labels and titling, and their relationship to painting and mental imaging. Paintings that are evenly coated monochromes, or else obliterated images hidden under dark painted layers.

There are two sorts of canvas – linen or denim – primed with gesso, that are covered with raw umber (maybe mixed with a pinch of black) of varying density. Sometimes horizon lines and underpainting can be detected, often the paint is applied with circular movements of the brush, and occasionally copious brush hairs are deliberately left in the paint.

Like the artist Robert Ryman, Barber puts in decoys. Ryman is often mistakenly thought of as being obsessed with white paint, but in fact his work is about a lot of things, including huge signatures and clamps holding supports on to a stretcher. Like Ryman, Barber uses humour – but something else drives the work.

Most obviously, Barber is playing with mental pictures within the viewer’s imagination - like say Lawrence Weiner’s bracketed texts, Robert Rauschenberg’s telegrammed ‘Portrait of Iris Clert’, or Michael Craig Martin’s ‘Oak Tree,’ which is a glass of water on a shelf. You match words against painted canvas to try and figure out what the canvas hides, what the words reveal, if Barber is kidding or bluffing - and if that matters. Was any image ever there? Is the entitled activity really happening under painted cover of darkness

Art meets Science

Portrait of Iris Clert

An Oak Tree

It is interesting to compare these mischievous Barber works with Ed Ruscha’s paintings of 1996-7 that he exhibited in the 47th Venice Biennale. These works are sentences with their words blocked out, written over dark fields. Later he moved to landscapes also mixed with overlaid obliterated sentences, and made lithographs. The titles tell you the words you can pop into the individual rectangles, one at a time in sequence.

Be Careful Else We Be Banging On You, You Hear Me?

You Will eat Hot Lead

Noose Around Your Neck

A Columbian Necklace For You

A Columbian Necklace For You

The Barber paintings are Ruscha paintings flipped over as method. He gives you words (as Ruscha does) in the titles, but with no floating rectangles as their painted surrogate, only ‘blank’ dark canvases. Ruscha in 1996 blocked out images and text. Barber here blocks out images without painting on any clues to the titles – except for half a rendered text obscured horizontally in the first painting. He moves towards Foucault’s writings on Magritte in ‘This is not a Pipe,’ but doesn’t articulate a discussion about representation. Only that implied within brush marks, underpainting, painted edges and types of canvas. No written, painted words.