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, July 29, 2008

Hands across the Tasman

Attrium Research Collective: the buzzing confusion of things
St. Paul St, Gallery 1
July 24 – August 22, 2008

The Attrium Research Collective is a group of Australian and New Zealand artists who have formed collegial links while working at AUT in Auckland and RMIT in Melbourne. A partnership has formed between the two art schools, resulting in convivial ties amongst the lecturers as they invariably got familiar with each other’s practices. This Auckland show slightly overlaps another nearly identical ARC exhibition just presented at RMIT. Four of the eight artists (Jonty Valentine, Greg Creek, Sally Mannall and Martine Corompt) have the same work in both.

The results are not really collaborations where you can dissect each work and see the contributions of different individuals. They seem to be more about dialogue between artists after they have made the work, not during. Jonty Valentine, an AUT teacher of graphic design, is the only case of a true interaction occurring between him and other artists, for he has taken their images and adapted them for presentation within an elegant hardcover book. Called A Commonplace Book, it is a collection of useful references and visual arguments, and alludes to Sally Mannall’s video, a work where she gets a group of individual students to examine an empty wooden gun case, figure out its function, and respond. Valentine has designed his book in relation to that unlatched, openable object – leaving the top folded edges of the pages intact so the owner has to cut them to open it.

Sally Mannall’s video of individuals investigating the felt-lined pistol case, makes assumptions more akin to a Kiwi sensibility than Australian. Firearms are more common (openly worn by police for example) across the Tasman, and not regarded with the great trepidation they are here, where we have more an ‘English’ than ‘American’ attitude towards them. I’ve seen people chasing each other through the streets of Melbourne, waving guns in their hands as they screamed at each other. I assumed at the time this was normal everyday behaviour for Australians.

Public fear, surveillance and the facial characteristics of criminals are all ingredients in the work of Martine Corompt. Her scroll of ersatz wallpaper depicts silhouettes of confronting, leering faces with scenes of potential petty crime. It has an inventiveness that takes a prolonged detailed examination to properly reveal, for initially it seems benign and sweet. Her other work, Cesspool, is mesmerising - an animated black puddle with transient menacing visages appearing in its rippling, flowing contours.

Greg Creek, like Corompt, likes black graphic forms, using them to explore a blending of several visual genres such as newspaper layout, comics, dribbled splatters, map contours and gestural brushmarks. His wall display is intriguing but it is his contribution to the Commonplace book that is particularly exciting, a sizzling display of riffs on speech bubbles, a set of playful extrapolations on the comic vocal convention. The highlight of the book.

Nova Paul’s The World of Interiors is a film and audio project that sit uneasily together. In fact the film is superfluous – though it does seem to refer to the title of this exhibition, a quotation form William James about the very early experiences of infants. What is striking is the intensity of the sound recording, an articulate monologue by a friend of Paul’s in Dunedin who is recovering from a breakdown. His rambling, debatable, but nevertheless pithy, comments on a huge range of subjects, such as denial (“denial is the engine room of the universe”), hospital bullying, drugs, wisdom, chakras, reflexology, and the elemental nature of psychic pain, make excellent - if not compelling - listening. It doesn’t need visual accompaniment.

David Thomas is a much admired RMIT teacher well known in both New Zealand and Australia, and a very interesting painter. His green and black site-specific contribution to the show on a tinted window and inside wall however is a disappointment, mainly because the work he had in Melbourne looked so much better – obviously the result of being extremely familiar with the spatial environs of where he works.

Part of the problem in Auckland with his painted installation results from the distracting given horizontal dotted lines on the dark window glass. However the tinted glass functions as a foil to his added shiny black rectangle inside and compels more viewer movement - and an inside/outside vertical green combination works well. In Melbourne (and I’m basing these views on online photographs) the spatial dynamic was more pronounced with its vertical planes of chroma, the rhythms of their position and orientation, and paired ‘chording’. Obviously having untinted glass windows made planar relationships clearer, and gave the work there more immediate wallop.

Ron Left is probably a better painter than Thomas (the year Sriwhana Spong won the Waikato Art Award, Left had a gloriously inventive painting in the final hang), but these days he seems far more interested in photography. The results are pretty ordinary, using processes and procedures in common usage for over thirty years now. However it is in Valentine’s book that you see Left’s talent for compositional placement being showcased. His playfulness in positioning lines of small photographs within certain sequences of pages, teasing out levels of height on different pages with repeated combinations, and contrasting colour of lines of images with tone, makes his contribution nuanced and distinctive.

The most sensual, methodical, yet haunting photographs in the show come from Monique Redmond: a series where she documents empty sections in the small, but once vibrant and busy, small town of Ohai in Southland. As population numbers dwindled and families moved north in search of work, they took their buildings with them, leaving rectangular paddocks oddly surrounded by the remaining houses, with the occasional remains of a path or garden in the middle. These subtle images show us where history has attempted to obliterate its own footsteps. You feel like an archaeologist looking at these images of absence, scrutinizing the surface ground-covering for clues. They have a discreet melancholy that forces you to imagine what was present, how it existed and why it left without a trace.

A show such as this – a collaboration between two tertiary institutions – you might expect to be dry and dully academic. While some of artists’ statements are, the work itself isn’t. There is a lot here to make a prolonged visit enjoyably memorable.

(Images from Jonty Valentine, Sally Mannall, Martine Corompt, Greg Creek, and Monique Redmond.)

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