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, October 29, 2008

Connecting to the 'Real' World

SUPERFLEX: If value then copy.
23 October - 22 November 2008

SUPERFLEX is one of those politically motivated art groups that kicks into motion certain processes that function in the zone between the ‘art world’ and ‘life world’. This is exemplified by the concept of the littoral, a term not linked to them specifically but which nonetheless is related to their practice. (It is discussed and promoted by theoreticians and artists like Bruce Barber, Grant Kester and Ian Hunter.) However the littoral is originally a late seventies concept that is regional in focus. Contemporary art collectives like SUPERFLEX on the other hand are resolutely global in aspirations, and comparatively less altruistic and more anarchistic. They mix a wild nihilism into the commercialism of their aims.

Keen to have a palpably subversive influence in a capitalism dominated world, to intercede within it economically (though not solely on behalf of economically disadvantaged communities as in littoral), the Danish group have come on their second visit to New Zealand, this time for a show in Auckland. (The first was to do a Govett-Brewster project with Greg Burke.)

Their ARTSPACE display involves two projects that explore copyright issues, and are anti–monopoly and anti-private ownership. There is also a third component which promotes the other two by enabling the screening onto t-shirts the slogan (in Māori or in English) that is the title of the show.

FREE BEER presents the local manufacture of a beer that is brewed using a recipe circulated by SUPERFLEX, and modified as a local variation (Version 4.1) with its own uniquely coloured label. In readiness for the closing party, Auckland artist Simon Cuming is making a new variation (Version 4.2) that will be available then. Most of the profits will go to ARTSPACE.

The other project, COPY LIGHT, is more humorous: the photographing of famous brands of lampshades, and the duplication of those images so the photos can be positioned on cubes to become new ‘box’ lampshades. Though the gallery blurb says that the borders between originals and their copies are being tested this is not really the case. The new lampshades would never be mistaken for their source originals, even if legally the process is not permitted.

This is a clever exhibition that deals conceptually with ‘ownership’ in an unusually forthright manner. Since Napster became popular though, such themes are hardly revelatory. Good to ponder over nonetheless. Especially if you are thirsty and have two dollars of loose change in your pocket.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Austere, stacked panoramas

Basil Beattie: The Janus Series
Two Rooms
23 October - 22 November 2008

Basil Beattie is an English abstract painter who has been working since the late fifties, often presenting extremely large canvases. His images are symbolic archetypes characterised by a brutal rawness in their drawn dribbling lines - made with large house painting brushes. They avoid any namby-pamby finesse, revealing in a subtly sophisticated roughness that focuses on the materials of canvas and oil mixed with wax.

This show of new work, called Janus, as suggested, looks both ways – to the future and past. The dominant metaphors are a car window-screen and a rear view mirror, showing usually barren ploughed fields and railway lines that could also be jetties overlooking the sea. Incorporating distant horizon lines, Beattie’s painted window/mirrors are vertically stacked, in fours or threes.

This window motif has a well known history in Aotearoa, with McCahon using it in works like The flight From Egypt (1980) – a bus window that doubles in its figure/ground ambiguity as a twister - and also comic frame sequences much earlier like Six Days in Nelson and Canterbury (1950).

With Beattie, though the play between past and future is clever, the images themselves mostly aren’t – at least compared to his earlier work which is far less literal and not symmetrical at all. I prefer the wonky, teetering vulnerability of that – it acts as a foil to the thick dark scaffolding-like lines. They seem about to collapse or topple over as forms, for all their allusions to physical strength. There is a self-effacing humour. Even a vulnerability, for all their brutishness.

In the Janus series the stacks of three ‘windows’ work better than those with four, due to greater simplicity – especially those with ominous black skies which suggest cavernous, subterranean spaces. Within his long career, I think Beattie’s works are more successful when they are ambiguous, more abstract and asymmetrical. They work best without narrative storytelling or symbolism, when he is relying on intuitively placed marks that come from playing with line for its own sake. When he is making paintings not pictures.

Untangling art

Denis O’Connor: The Tangler, Chapter 1
Two Rooms
23 October - 22 November 2008

I don’t know about narrative art. Though my modernist training as a student, I usually don’t relate to anything that smacks of magazine or book illustration or obsession with craft for its own sake - though I am a sucker for a good story, and Denis O’Connor has plenty of those. But these works irk me, just as works by Elizabeth Thomson, Fiona Hall, Gavin Hurley (but not Peter Stichbury) do likewise.

For me most interesting art is about trope, and getting away from conventional methods of representational coding - such as symbolism or ‘realism’. Story telling in static visual art is somehow missing the point of art’s innovative potential, just as art that is too word reliant in its contextual envelope misses the point about its own visuality - and inadvertently becomes literature or philosophy or history.

Good art invents new sorts of trope through playing with materials and meanings (not necessarily their meanings, any meanings) to discover new combinations, new forms of juxtaposition. It grabs the world and shoves it under our nose. We are forced to scrutinise it in a new way through the new signals it is emitting, structures that the artist has discovered.

So when O’Connor builds this car that is a bit like a child’s go-kart (a vintage version), it celebrates his skill by mixing it with whimsy and 30s nostalgia, and tying it in with autobiography and his love of Irish culture, but he is not really pushing art itself in any new direction. The car (like his slate symbols) is a conventional illustration - an emblematic image functioning in a manner that is almost mediaeval. Like heraldry. There is no new logic being tested, like what you might discover with say Ceal Floyer, Pip Culbert, Bertrand Lavier or some Gambia Castle shows. It is about manual dexterity, some poetic resonances, and not much more.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sticky light

Eddie Clemens: Captive
Sue Crockford
14 October – 8 November 2008

Eddie Clemens has quickly acquired a reputation for making witty surrealist or satirical wall sculpture assembled from pristine components that he has contracted out from various industrial manufacturers. Often they are kinetic. Moving or static, they invariably are subtle in their references.

In the main gallery at Crockford’s he has two sorts of sculpture: for wall, and for floor. The freestanding project is an installation of collapsible clothes drying racks, those white rubber-coated, wire frameworks that let your washing dry indoors during the day while you are away at work.

Several of these are on their sides. On the thin bars parallel to the floor Clemens has placed transparent drops of hot melt glue, positioned at regular distances apart. They look as if dripping clothing has just been removed because it wasn’t drying quickly enough, to be popped into a spin drier hidden round the corner.

Placed near Crockford’s large windows the rows of drops on the racks catch the light streaming in, and glow. This is clever, sensitive work that is so understated it would be missed if put in the wrong site. It is about perception, not narrative. The transformation of the ordinary.

Clemens’ wall sculpture consists of black umbrellas festooned with keychain - made of tiny connected balls not links - that configures into large spider webs when opened. The drooping silver lines, like the rack drops, sparkle in the light. The umbrellas suggest Magrittean bankers and black suited civil servants, and are slightly creepy – like crows’ wings. The webs, which have Goth connotations, allude to the catching of prey, clients with money.

The brilliance of Clemens’ imagery is that it works on you when you have left the room. It bubbles away in your mind, taking a little time for its richly layered resonances to become apparent.

Locked in tight or floating free

Noel Ivanoff: Levigation
Jacquie Ure: Pink Noise
Randolph St Gallery, 26 Randolph St, Newton
21 October – 31 November 2008

This is a clever pairing of two painters at the Whitecliffe Art College gallery, for both apply pigmenty substances in different, but nonetheless connected, ways. You see the precise movement of the application tool in both cases, and witness the thin (transparent) paint in the centre with thicker opaque colour at the margins.

Noel Ivanoff uses a circular grinding tool that applies, mixes and grinds pigment with binder all at the same time; Jacquie Ure uses a carefully controlled brush to paint rectangular bars or thin lines. Ivanoff uses one colour only; Ure uses several.

To create his paintings, Ivanoff applies onto sheets of dacron overlapping discs of squelchy cadmium orange in long rows or columns that double back and forth until the sheet is filled. In contrast to Ivanoff’s ordered, very regular system, Ure uses that of ‘pink noise’ – structuring between order and chaos, but leaning towards order: her grids of different coloured brushmarks almost don’t overlap, her horizontal lines of vertical brushstrokes almost line up at their tops, in graphlike lines they almost follow an even trajectory.

As compositions Ivanoff’s rectangles seep over the edges of the table shape on which they were made, creating an intriguing very compact tension, with rows of internally stacked crescent shapes. That is an important part of their appeal. In comparison, Ure is not interested in edges or shaped dynamics that press against them. Her pale forms float indifferently on a support that holds them as if they could be rendered on the walls or on air itself. They exert no palpable pressure or weight, only hover – like butterflies searching for a net to hold them in.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Okay, eyeCONTACT readers, if you are in Auckland over Labour Weekend

I happen to be giving a talk on blogging at Auckland Art Gallery's Art Lounge on Sunday at 1.00pm. Actually I don't believe I am a 'blogger'. For me the term is too linked to the diaristic and petty gossip to be applied to this site. Come along and tell me I'm wrong, and why. All welcome.

Whether the weather....

atmos: weather as media
Curated by Janine Randerson
MIC Toi Rerehiko
17 October – 15 November 2008

The eight artists in this exhibition incorporate the phenomenon of weather into their practices, looking at the Greek word ‘atmos’ for ‘breath’ or ‘vapour’ and extending it beyond storms to include cinematic mists, or background noise.

They provide a mixed bag to dip into. Because it is sited in Auckland, the show is likely to be compared with similar themes explored there by other artists like Philip Dadson (Flutter, Breath of Wind) or Billy Apple (Severe Tropical Storm Irma 9301). While this topic certainly is a current theme, as global patterns continue to alarmingly change, in comparison it comes across as a bit dull, and slightly sterile. The ideas tend to be too layered, over worked and unnecessarily complicated, and the technology often really isn’t that exciting.

Randerson’s own work, though, holds together well. It consists of ten circular films projected onto the floor, and includes satellite imagery of changing cloud formations over the earth, and shots of ‘tornado chasers’ from You Tube pursuing twisters. Despite the dodginess of curating herself into this project, it is the one with the most immediate impact – placed in the middle of the main room. The show would have been a real fizzer without it.

Lisa Benson’s project is a lot simpler, and superior because of that - involving light coming in the window near the end of the curtain, and transforming assorted rectangles of photographic paper on the wall. I’m not quite convinced of its relevance, as its presence relies on the limited assumption that light conditions are tightly correlated with weather patterns. How does one compare meteorological conditions by looking at paper on the wall? Wet weather, with more light reflected from cloud cover, might have greater impact than direct sunlight. It is hard to reach conclusions, unless one has documentation from previous years.

The two lightboxes of Hoon Li, like Randerson’s project, are the crowd-pleasers of the exhibition, showing horizontal transparencies of hybrid cloudscapes, viewed from above out of a plane window. They are like Jae Hoon Lee meets C. K. Reynolds, but referring to Korean and Japanese scroll painting, their elongations incorporating a sense of speed.

The dullest work is that of the French artist Jérôme Knebusch, with almost a year’s clippings of daily weather forecasts taken from Le Monde, clamped together on a plinth, and translations written in vertical lines descending the walls and positioned in chronological order. It is hard to form meteorological conclusions from only the data of a year, and seems, along with Cameron Robbins’ project, to be technically at odds with this venue.

Andrea’s Polli‘s Antarctic sound recordings of scientists, machines, and treated data are treated to make aural art – though Randerson in her essay, surprisingly uses the word ‘musical’. To me, there is no hook. The content is uninteresting, as are the sonic sensations. Devoid of lyricism or transmuting structure, they don’t hold the listener’s attention.

Douglas Bagnall’s Cloud Shape Classifier is a well known, online interactive project, presented first in Enjoy and then RAMP. It is really about aesthetics and art itself as a social creation, rather than weather. As a satire on how we seek out the beautiful in visual phenomena, and how patterns form, it is a clever idea, though one wonders how many people will actually engage with it.

Tom Corby and Gavin Bally’s Cyclone.Soc. is the social masquerading as weather, using assorted streamed media to form words in projected lines. These make up swirling fingerprints, topographies (or cyclones) on the wall, a deliberate information overload from varied sources, one that is difficult to read. Technically amazing, the dense layering seems excessive as metaphor.

The wind drawing of Cameron Robbins is interesting because of the questions that are not raised, but which other artists elsewhere, like Simon Ingram, similarly using technologies of the ‘non-self’, do. Robbins images are delicately ornate and look like etchings. (Similar to Graham Bennett in Christchurch). Though ‘drawn’ by a wind directed machine, they are highly aesthetic, being carefully devised by the artist as circular documents bearing beautiful marks. They tell you very little about the weather but a lot about Robbins and his visual taste.

The fold-out catalogue for the show is excellent. It seems to have been done by the UNITEC design department, its eight essays and introduction short, pithy and lucid. For a free hand-out that can be picked up at the gallery, the whole thing is beautifully put together.

Godzone's modernism

Long Live The Modern: New Zealand’s New Architecture 1904-1984
Curated by Bill McKay and Julia Gatley
Gus Fisher
17 October – 22 November 2008

I’m one of those people who, though it's not a major interest, when it comes to architecture, likes the tactile experience of exploring certain buildings, treating them like installation art or walk-in sculpture. However in gallery shows about architecture, I tend to get bored with photos of buildings, working drawings and plans. They seem so removed from the bodily experience they help to create. Yet modernist architecture is something I take seriously, as part of any modernist project – applied arts or fine. I happen to love grids in any shape or form, and am intrigued by Bauhaus design and all the early Dutch and Russian modernist painting types - so I enjoyed Long Live the Modern (which is really about promoting a book) for its connections with those. Yet it could have been better.

It is not that it is all head. There is a visceral experience, and it comes though the eleven models in the main exhibiting room, positioned on high plinths. They are the true stars of the exhibition, even though they serve as sensual freestanding sculpture and tend to outshine the buildings they are based on. That is a cruel irony, for devoid of irritating distractions like landscape forms, nearby vegetation, local weather conditions, social functions, working inhabitants etc, they in miniature consequently seem cleaner, purer and more focussed.

Nevertheless they don’t save the show from being slightly staid. The stationary images are good for detail, but they don’t capture the sensation of being in the featured modernist spaces designed by architects like Tabor Donner, Miles Warren, Peter Beaven, James Beard, John Scott and others. The show could have been expanded further, using more uptodate exhibition technology. Projected films or animated graphics, simulating viewer movements, would have been useful in demonstrating movement around and within these pristine, usually elegant spaces. And because it is a general survey, the exhibition doesn’t dwell sufficiently on each building - apart from an eye–of–God view from outside.

Architecture is a time-based art, akin to film as we move through its internal and eternal spaces getting pleasure from its surfaces. The static wall documentation displayed here is good enough, and easily suits matching a lavishly illustrated book like Gatley’s, but as a gallery display it really doesn’t do the sensation of bodily experiencing Kiwi modernist architecture justice.

Devouring envelope

Sonya Lacey: From what position do you speak and in the name of what or whom?
Window, Auckland University Library foyer
16 October - 14 November 2008.

Recent Elam graduate, Sonya Lacey, is normally associated with sculpture or drawings, so this interactive, conceptual project is unusual. The title implies an interest in the political positioning of the viewer through their background demography – economic status, race, gender, education, sexual orientation and so on – looking at characteristics of privilege and power relationships within the Window audience and examining what they might assume about themselves in relation to the wider community.

Yet ostensibly, at first glance, her project is more about public speaking as a performative skill, sourcing material from various online questionnaires in teaching programmes to form questions which when answered, feed into the Window project and shape it. You yourself, if you wish, can click into the online component here and participate by answering the twenty or so questions.

In the Window gallery there is no direct reference to the online questionnaire, only a large papier maché ball on the floor and a stack of essays in the foyer by Cherie Lacey (The artist’s sister perhaps?) Her wordy meandering text centres around Emmanuel Levinas’ ideas on face–to–face encounters, while exploring the anthropological notion of ‘the gift’ as presented to the artist, a theme that vaguely continues within the online project, with the free use of other people’s questionnaires, and the reader’s possible contribution to her project. Basically though, the work seems to be this dull and indulgent essay - not what is in the gallery – that hogs the spotlight.

In other words the frame is the art in this show. The contextualising supporting material has usurped the exhibit. What was the footnote has gobbled up the essay, smacked its lips with a quiet burp, and caused the art to disappear, only to take its place. Like a cuckoo in a sparrow’s nest.

See what you make of the online questionnaire? Though hardly riveting, it is more absorbing than the gallery project. Only slightly.

What is interesting is the existence of galleries like Window, and how non-art students using the library might feel about such esoteric presentations. They probably, like me, believe in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and that – as in any field - experimental research, no matter how inaccessible or dry, is a good thing. However it is only a small community that enjoys this kind of practice and its very public presence in the foyer probably antagonises the rest, turning off any empathy they might have hitherto had for art.

There is a case that this ostrich-like attitude is damaging, this confrontational stance that deliberately ignores an opportunity to win a new audience. It prefers to waste it in favour of an agonistic rhetoric that only a few highly educated extremists will understand and where there is no artwork at all to be considered. Only family musings.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Those miraculous Koreans

Fiona Amundsen: Miracle on the Han River
Gus Fisher
17 October – 22 November 2008

Fiona Amundsen’s display of seven Chromira photographs in the small Gus Fisher room is based on her recent residency in Seoul. In her typical manner they are cool but incredibly still images of social spaces where people are eliminated - through the slow exposures being taken early in the morning. However for the first time in her work that I’ve seen, there are occasional faint traces of distant figures.

Amundsen’s control is such that all these extremely sharp, detailed, urban images look like they were taken on the same day, though their titles show that is far from the case. They all have bleached, white skies and a soft, very even light. Her images are devoid of any romantic seduction through hue, or appeal to tourist interests. The work looks industrial in method. As figurative images go, they have an icy, abstract ambience, yet they don’t exhaust the viewer’s interest. There is lots to see and think about in each frame.

Like the works of the LA conceptualist, Christopher Williams, who employs other photographers to make his images, Amundsen’s own images are precise in their manipulation of chroma. In this suite the oranges and greens are intensely saturated, just as such colours normally are on an overcast day, with our retinal rods and cones creating in crepuscular light, what is called the Purkinje effect.

All the images of the architecture surrounding the Han River’s tributary the Cheonggyecheon - with its water turned to silk by the slow shutter speed - have a strangely subtle tonal blend so that the silhouetted edges look vaguely collagelike and forms flatten. Especially where the dynamics of perspective are not dominant.

Amundsen’s photographs are not of environments that are hyper-dense in buildings and advertising. You don’t get a dominant picture-plane in your face, cluttered with facades and neon. She likes to include air and roomy physical space so that the shown vistas meet halfway between ‘the concrete jungle’ and idyllic fields. They are never claustrophobic, or agoraphobic either. Only rich as a series of cross-sectioned views of South Korean social change, history and economic progress (the latter is the economic miracle the exhibition’s title refers to) – and, more particularly, image as constructed artefact.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Nocturnal screenings in K Rd

Harald Hund and Paul Horn - Habibi Kebab: From the Life of an Artist (20/10)
Starkwhite: Night Shift film programme
15 October – 23 October 2008

Last night (between 7pm and 7am in Starkwhite’s doorway) was a good chance to look closely at the brilliant art world satire: Habibi Kebab (2003). The film was made by carefully splicing together portions of old Turkish movies, and transposing over their turbulent romantic themes English ‘translations’ that ridicule political correctness, artspeak, and art careerism. These Austrlan artists have made a wonderful work that projects a lot of warmth. It is not mealy-mouthed but an affectionate dig at art world pretensions, while also acknowledging the vulnerability of emerging artists.

It is very funny. The reason is that the writing of the captions is so good. Here is one sample quote:

Artist to her mother: The doctor is a curator who earns his money as a plastic surgeon. He is going to show my work.

Or this little exchange:

Artist to dealer: I’m supposed to show in this dump?
Dealer: Everybody has to start small.

I missed seeing this work when it was showing at Starkwhite last year. I‘m delighted to have had a second chance.

There are three nights left of the screening of other works on the programme:

Tonight (21/10) Grant Stevens: In the Beyond
Tomorrow (22/10) Terrence Handscomb: The Revelation
Thursday (23/10) Daniel Crooks: Pan No. 4.

Take advantage of this rare opportunity while you can. See you there

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Conveyor belt art

Dale Frank
Gow Langsford
14 October – 7 November 2008

There was a time, I remember, in the mid – to late eighties, when Dale Frank was widely respected as an experimental artist, one who came out of performance to really push the notions of what painting (and also drawing) could be. His projects, with huge sheets of swirling graphite lines, or painted protruding polystyrene blocks on canvas, or lush carpets, stunned with their outrageous imaginative leaps. His work then was thrilling.

His early varnish paintings were incredible too, at first anyway, with their marbled effects and oozing dribbled traceries – but gradually something happened. It was as if he had inhaled so many polyurethane fumes that his mental physiology got seriously affected, resulting in the corroding away of any remnants of common sense. He has been making poured varnish paintings for years now, and not for any explorative purpose. This show, Frank’s umpteenth at Gow Langsford, is packed with work (double what’s needed), cranked out on a production line by rote, with many using the same colour combinations. It seems motivated by cynicism and greed, it looks so excessive.

‘Eye candy’ is one of those derogatory terms applied to non-narrative artworks that cannot sustain interest. Work like Frank’s can be exempt if presented with sophistication - so it transcends the superficial by allowing associations arising from new techniques, materials and formal properties to gradually develop in the viewer’s mind. However when it becomes wall-to-wall those mental processes get thwarted, and potentially ‘deep’ works stay shallow through the killing of their individuality by over-crowding. And older work in the same series gets conceptually damaged too. Its context changes, early excitement turns sour, and what was once dynamic ossifies. Credibility goes down the gurgler.