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, July 24, 2008

Woeful space for woeful paintings

Jokes With Strangers: Denys Watkins, Roman Mitch, Garth Steeper, Milli Jannides, Sam Rountree Williams
Curated by Sam Rountree Williams and Patrick Lundberg
A Centre For Art (Level 3, R5, Achilles House)
10 July - 26 July 2008

Here is a problem to be considered. Experimental art spaces like ACFA and R103, collectives set up by young and emerging artists, usually rent space from venues like Achilles House, areas originally designed to be used as offices. These premises are perfect for parties, performances, sound works, moving image and some sorts of installation and sculpture – but for paintings and drawings, their walls invariably are an abysmal disaster. If such works are not shown in pristine circumstances, in a properly prepared environs with clean (usually) white walls and good lighting, their presentation ends up looking appalling. They end up not being taken seriously as items for contemplation and thoughtful debate. They suffer a resistance even before their own individual attributes are looked at and discussed. They become a joke.

So with the title of this show, one assumes the ‘strangers’ are the handful of gallery visitors the artists and curators don’t happen to know. The ‘jokes’ are not intended, I’m sure, to be laughable works in the sense that I’ve explained above. No artist wants their endeavours to be rudely mocked. So assuming that, perhaps these paintings – even in a ‘proper’ gallery – are actually intended to be jocular…er you know…designed to raise a smile.

Putting aside the fact that only two of the five works really make it (and one of these almost accidentally), let’s look for wit in all of them. Take the title as a literal thematic statement and look for humour or clever paradox.

First of all the two competent paintings in the show, by Denys Watkins and Roman Mitch: it was good to spend time poring over their imagery and thinking about spatial organisation. In Watkins' work, the sensitively undulating contours of his shapes, plus the skilled underpainting and manipulation of temperature in the hues, made it easily the most sophisticated item in the show. Not witty particularly, just extremely classy. A wonderful, beautifully considered object that makes you wonder why an artist of Watkins’ calibre bothered to contribute. Leaning on a window ledge, the placement of the work insulted the intelligence of its creator.

Roman Mitch’s black and white painting on a hanging piece of paper slowly grows on you, despite its scruffiness and shambolic presentation. Its geometrical configuration experimented with Alberslike internally receding planes, with an opened-out box turning into a sort of chair. The lids became its seat, backrest and legs and teased the viewer with its ambiguities.

Garth Steeper’s sort of ‘realism’ was a sentimental portrait with a corny narrative. It used humour with the reflection from a bloody steak (on a plate on the table) casting a rosy glow over the large face of a girl about to devour it. A half-clever idea in a roughly made work that only partially hinted at irony.

Sam Rountree Williams’ painting, like Steeper’s, avoided finesse. It seemed to be a strange pun on heavenly bodies: a glowing sun in front of a painted, cross-sectioned medical diagram of post-coital male and female bodies. Very oblique but somehow getting its point across. Just.

One suspected that the fact that Milli Jannides’ painting of rippling waves was one hundred per cent serious, was a joke in itself created by the context of this show and the other works around it. For this exhibition, single selections from individual artists were inadequate. By themselves they remained isolated. There was little conceptual conversation between works, no vibrant thematic argument going on. The paintings were so totally different, it was like five untranslatable languages all speaking loudly at once in this very small room.


Cheryl Bernstein said...

Do you think the show's logo, which you've pictured above, might offer any clue to the curator's intentions? (I've no idea what they were, I haven't seen the show.)

John Hurrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Hurrell said...

You think, Cheryl, the bison means that painting is extinct?
Fact is though that bison are now flourishing.

It's an amusing idea that the curators would be so cynical, smart-arse theoreticians stomping all over painting. I don't think though the show is motivated by hatred. I support the notion of experimental spaces, but paintng needs to be shown under sensible circumstances.

July 24, 2008 5:29 PM

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Silly me, I thought it was a bull. Perhaps I should stick to the art blogging and leave the animal husbandry alone. Good review, though!

John Hurrell said...

Well it has the backside of a bull.For a split second I thought it might have been a lion. But in terms of context, bison makes the most sense.