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, 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.

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