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.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Legitimate derision?

Brett Graham: Campaign Rooms
Two Rooms
27 November – 20 December 2008

Sometimes righteous anger is a great catalyst in stimulating the creation of interesting art that otherwise might never eventuate. This Brett Graham show is a sarcastic response to last year’s police ‘terrorist’ raids on the Tuhoe and Ruatoki communities. Most art lovers in Aotearoa probably feel Police Commissioner Howard Broad misjudged the situation appallingly, that most of the accused picked up in those raids are harmless - though we’ll know soon enough when the courts decide (the terrorism charges were dropped but not the arms ones). Anyway, in a gallery situation Graham seems to be preaching to the converted.

Though this is heavy-handed art without nuance, many of the seven works here shrewdly blend Maaori, Pasifika and Moorish motifs (or attire) to make an exciting hybrid. Through screenprints of weapons, a video installation, a stealth bomber covered with carved spirals, and Pasifika–based bomb casings, they ridicule global generalisations where the word ‘terror’ is used irresponsibly as a blanket condemnatory term, and unconnected groups are suddenly lumped together.

The most striking work is a video that refers to Joshua Reynolds’ painting of Omai, the Tahitian captured by Cook who was presented to George III and his court. The image is projected into a large cast bronze bowl of oil on the floor and shows him dressed in flowing Arabian garments seemingly from a pantomime (as was Reynolds’ intention), and wielding a tewhatewha is if issuing a challenge. The oil though is a rather clumsy attempt to contemporise the image, fit it into a modern global narrative. It’s not needed.

One work which doesn’t fit into the main theme at all is a sarcophagus of marble with a 3D image of the South Island carved into its lid. It seems to an act of mourning, implying perhaps that that under populated area is dying of neglect. Maybe it is a Tainui (Graham’s iwi) salutation to – or even dig at - Ngai Tahu?

In the mid-nineties Graham made a lot of elegant wooden sculpture, based on plant forms and coloured with pigment in the manner of Anish Kapoor. Now his work is more akin to Robert Jahnke in that is it is symbolic, not coloured, and openly political. It is also less formal, more figurative, and less poetic.

In this show it is the Omai video that stands out as a clever elaboration of Reynold’s painting and the extraordinary story that goes with it. With the sculpture, the tomb and the plane seem underdeveloped, as if they are the start of much more significant projects to come later. They seem too small, and like the beginnings of something yet to be explored.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Aerobics and ballet for artists

Holly Wilson: The Hardest Talent to Cultivate
A Centre For Art
11 November – 29 November 2008

A free-standing hoop propped up by clay chocks greets you as you step through the door of the ACFA gallery. But who is expected to jump through it? The artist, the visitor, or the filmed actors? This sculpture, one chalk on duraseal sign and three videos make up Holly Wilson’s exhibition.

The red sign says ‘Looking Forward’ and the videos ostensibly are about practising skills, looking forward to gaining strength or improved motor co-ordination. Or the young women dressed in black leotards doing these highly repetitive, monotonous exercises could be sending up Dan Graham or Bruce Nauman. Only the whole project seems totally serious.

The videos are of a ‘Simon says’ follow-the-teacher kind of lesson, aiming to tone up the arms and (I think) learn to swim; two women rolling in opposite directions on a rice mat and then returning to meet together in the middle; and someone learning ballet poses from a book lying on the floor.

Not overly exciting all this. Not memorable at all. You’d get more entertainment watching dead fish float in your granny’s goldfish tank than these videos. Whilst all the works in the room are tightly related they don’t add up to much. Not one of ACFA’s highlights.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Bits of silver crystalline crayfish

James Charlton: dForm
MIC Toi Rerehiko
22 November – 20 December 2008

This work by James Charlton seems to straddle the practices of artists as diverse as Simon Ingram and Daniel Crooks, exploring programming procedures that have unpredictable results and transmuting digital treatments of ephemeral images to make three-dimensional objects.

He presents three interrelated exhibitions:

The first gallery, at the top of the stairs, with dForm, features three machines with turntables, on which are vertical cylinders of soft clay. Machines individually awaken and spasmodically start to modify their clay forms, starting to spin when sensors detect movement. As the day’s visitors negotiate the space their collective trajectories affect the prodding and goosing of the damp, earthy columns.

Theoretically the three dForm ‘artworks’ created each day are unique though I suspect only James Charlton would be able to tell them apart. Strangely they are ignominiously dumped in a pile on the floor, and occasionally broken. (In the catalogue Charlton is so process obsessed he dismisses the clay results as ‘crudely created lumps’ and seems unwilling to accept the performance residue as ‘art’ – in great contrast to the equivalent forms displayed in 16: sec.)

Around the corner from dForm (deform, 3Dform?) is plus. Here collective movements generate through web cams on the ceiling a composite image on the screen and an evolving soundtrack. The marks on the large screen change direction and the cumulative formation of shapes alter, as people enter and leave the room.

So far Charlton’s process-based show is distant, dry and icy – though perhaps that depends on your tastes. For me, it is specialist boffin material that is not wildly exciting, yet the last room is a surprise. It succeeds in taking his ideas somewhere else.

The use of accumulated movement in plus Charlton has developed further in 16: sec with sixteen looped videos made by filming rubbish being blown about on the street. Using a stereo-lithography machine he has converted the digital camera files so that they cumulatively can be rendered into 3D form (he says ‘as a computer controlled tube of toothpaste that builds up a form layer after layer’) using plaster that is then electroplated in iridescent silver.

Singly the sixteen sculptures are quite extraordinary in their own right – as bizarre crystalline growths that are like spiny crayfish parts - independent of the amazing process that lead to their creation from digital filming. Yet I can’t help but wish Charlton had put either each sculpture with its original generating film, or else placed them on a pile on the floor, as in dForm, so they become a tighter spatial entity, an alarming, highly evocative, Sci-fi construction. The installation is very good, but it could have been stunning.

16: sec is remarkable nonetheless. It is very unusual. Don’t miss it.

(Many thanks to the artist for the above images.)

Here are some images of Julia Morison's Myriorama: 4 in theTauranga Art Gallery.

Myriorama:4 is on until mid March.
Morison's other show there,Teaching Aids , is on until 14 December.


Sofia Tekela-Smith: Grace
John Leech Gallery
11 November - 5 December 2008

Sofia Tekela-Smith is an artist whose practice showcases the tension between ‘applied’ art and ‘fine’, and attempts to bridge, if not obliterate’ the distinction. Making jewellery is her first love and she openly flaunts it, using various strategies to legitimise its status as ‘sculpture.’

With her earlier work, placing her body ornaments onto black fibreglass busts modelled on herself, family and friends, she used a quite brilliant device to critique the colonial gaze, whilst making (traditional) sculpture that could also display ‘Pacific’ jewellery. Since then though, her strategies have been less successful. Other devices, such as making large colour photographs of Polynesian (and Pakeha) women with red stained hands miming poetical phrases, have ended up perpetuating the sexually appraising gaze they claim to be critiquing. The current show at John Leech’s has other problems.

One of these is the use of appropriated images from the Renaissance (Botticelli and Raphael), a method linked to the eighties and in Australia anyway, to artists like Imants Tillers and Julie Brown-Rrap. Tekela-Smith was a teenager when those artists were making such work and her thinking is different: she has tied the Renaissance images and her own body into a narrative about the life of her mother who was a nun before she married Sofia’s father.

It’s a clever idea but it runs out of steam when she uses a tondo format for framing (decorative motifs imposed on to mirrored surfaces), into which she places her pendants and necklaces – in front of the photograph. The mixing of illusory space and real objects seems forced. The codes of representation also get mixed in an unresolved manner: background with indexical photography, foreground stitched lines which sometimes also run through the photos.

These sewn lines serve as a sort of clumsy drawing. Sometimes she uses silk thread, other times her own hair. Even though they are symbolic and are used to make a political point about women’s craft, they lack finesse and end up looking awkward.

Sofia Tekela-Smith’s jewellery looks better in isolation, away from these measures that try and get it acceptance as ‘art’ – or if that already, then ‘serious’ art. The convoluted framing and narrative contextualising only distract from ornaments that look far better by themselves.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Lighthouse flat

Bill Culbert: Flat lighthouse
Sue Crockford
11 November – 6 December 2008

Bill Culbert’s installation at Crockford’s is an irregular, very loose grid of rectangular surfaces placed flat on the parquet floor. Lots of old empty window and door frames, recycled doors, windows, sheets of pane glass and strategically positioned illuminating lights. The latter consist of five swivel-armed desk lamps facing down towards the woodstained floor and ten fluorescent tubes facing upwards.

As you’d expect from a Culbert show, the lights play off in varying degrees of intensity - reflected (on glass or wood) or directly radiated. Surprisingly Culbert has left Crockford’s big windows overlooking Auckland’s waterfront uncovered, thereby diffusing the illuminating and chromatic contrast between light sources and avoiding theatricality. He obviously intends it to be a daytime experience where the textures of the weathered grey frames and cracked glass are just as important as the glowing auras. On overcast days, the glare from outside dominates, though with clear skies, less light but more colour will enter the room and get reflected in the glass.

Personally I find the show too low key, and lacking in drama. It lacks fizz. But it does link up with many of Culbert’s photographs and his love of worn textures in those. Overall though, this show attempts subtlety and ends up dull. Culbert is best when he works within darkness, making magic out of things that don’t normally glow but which he transforms and takes beyond the ordinary.

Considering 'considering...'

Stephen Bambury: Considering Wittgenstein
12 November – 20 December 2008

That sneery expression “Stupid as a Painter” that Duchamp and his pals used to laugh about, is it still creating an excessive over-reaction from some painters? Well from the above exhibition title it appears so. After all, how does Bambury do his ‘considering’? Does he write philosophical treatises tying Wittgenstein’s ideas in with his studio practice? Perhaps he works with a copy of Philosophical Investigations in one hand and a paint roller in the other? Why the pompous vague title that he has made no effort to justify?

Now if we were to take this artist on in his own game, we could point out that the American philosopher Donald Davidson once wrote this:

How many facts or propositions are conveyed by a photograph? None, an infinity, or one great unstatable fact? Bad question. A picture is not worth a thousand words, or any other number. Words are the wrong currency to exchange for a picture. (1.)

So paintings are the wrong currency to exchange for words. One Bambury title in this show does in fact quote a clause from Wittgenstein about ‘conditional denotation of the properties of material’, but even if it were the ‘right’ currency, it is out of context and incomplete. Yet despite all this, if we disregard the title, Bambury’s paintings themselves are in this particular exhibition, a treat.

It’s a large show, found on both Jensen’s top and ground floors, one that is refreshingly varied and sensitively hung. There is a wall sculpture (gold leafed house), some digital prints, a set of 10 screenprints, a C-type photograph, some sensual paintings on aluminium featuring Bambury’s well known cross motifs, a selection of diptychs with connected L-shaped motifs, and other cross works exploring reflecting, tilted quadrilaterals placed over subtly raised corner squares.

Judging from this selection, Bambury seems lately to have been exploring more unusual chromatic combinations within his cross format. More interestingly, he also has been making paint from rusted iron filings (maybe a development from the Six Degrees of Separation show and also his Lumley tower oxidised copper panel mural) – something akin to Pauline Rhodes’ work of the eighties, but more about manual application of filings as ‘pigment’ than processes of oxidized staining used for activating space.

These rusted cross works have delicately modulated, rivulet–strewn surfaces, mottled winding trickles compressed within a densely patterned, auburn-sienna plus sign. They have an industrial feel, rich in associations with weather and agrarian architecture, and without the ceramic-like glazes of some earlier works from the late eighties.

Other works emphasize pitted, pock marks, flat cratered holes formed by burst bubbles and stretching, shifting planes of drying paint. Some have coloured trapezoid shapes that exert strange pressures on the square aluminium support edges; a few feature highly reflective glossy, quadrilateral forms; others still utilise subtly intertwined, butted in unison, spindly crosses.

This is the best show Bambury has had for some time. The two floors are quite different in mood – with more intimacy upstairs. Nicely hung and well worth a visit.

(1.) From Davidson's What Metaphors Mean, found in 'On Metaphor' ed. Sheldon Sacks, Chicago U.P.,1979, p.45

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Inebriated power poles

Frank Breuer: Ascetic Monumentality
McNamara Gallery, Whanganui
1 November - 29 November 2008

At the moment in Whanganui Paul McNamara is showing in his unusual, domestic feeling gallery - converted from a doctor’s surgery that was converted from a bungalow - two shows: Frank Breuer and Fiona Amundsen, in adjacent rooms. Amundsen’s is very similar to her recent show at Gus Fisher. Breuer has never shown in Aotearoa before. Both are big admirers of the German photo-conceptualists, Bernd and Hilla Becher, famous in the sixties for their documentation of cooling towers. Breuer was one of their last students.

Breuer’s images are slightly smaller than Amundsen’s; more vertical in format. Their subject matter is power poles, centrally positioned each time and often flanked by large brick buildings in which the great acuity of detail allows you to scrutinize each brick, if you so desire.

Amundsen’s images are very strictly controlled, but Breuer’s images (illustrated above) are even more austere, particularly with his more limited colour range. Like her he favours overcast skies, but usually he has pale dusty grey streets as well. There is no lush greenery, or icy cool colouration.

I don’t think it is intended but I find some of these power poles incredibly amusing. They have an anthropomorphic quality, where they take on human personalities. Some are untidy, or tilted, and look as if they are about to topple over like staggering drunkards. Others are formal, straight and prim, like military officers standing in line at attention.

Breuer’s images are also more obviously beautiful than Amundsen’s. There is a hint of a constructivist aesthetic about them (with their linear components and warm hues) and less process driven. Both artists make wonderful photographs and it is terrific that McNamara has introduced Breuer and his work (he has been on a speaking tour) to New Zealand audiences.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Robinson theory of Art History

Peter Robinson: Snow Ball Blind Time
Curated by Rhana Devenport
13 September - 23 November 2008

This extremely unusual exhibition at the Govett is the first time the whole building has been handed over to one artist for an installation since the inaugural Leon Narbey Real Time show of 1970. It is a clever and ambitious project because it allows a particularly innovative and versatile individual to create something spectacular that will bodily thrill his audience, while also showcasing the very unusual spatial qualities of this adventurous, open-planned/multi-tiered New Plymouth gallery. The results are likely to attract many out of town art pilgrims to Taranaki.

Robinson has taken the linear wormlike form from ACK and blended it with the multiple chain links that feature prominently in the current work still on view in Jar in Kingsland. Seven varied sizes of joined polystyrene chain are intertwined to make an intricate but tumbling, baroque mass akin to a thickly streaming torrent, as if an ice version were possible. He has also used some of the crumbling polystyrene block presentations that he utilised in recent shows at Crockford,Brooke/Gifford, McLeavey, and Sutton (in Melbourne). The winding, lumpy but entangled, polystyrene snake weaves its way through all the exhibiting spaces, zigzagging between high balconies and low floors, squeezing through narrow corridors and out of look-outs to plummet past mezzanines only to double back upwards again. It starts in a corner of Gallery 2 by the front door and finally ends in Gallery 4, the large hangar-like room normally kept for Len Lye shows.

The worm’s direction is unpredictable as it clambers up to create spilling mountainous landscapes that can be viewed through vistas flanked by buckled chunky forms and doorway edges. These heaped rubble-like lines loop around and pile over disintegrating stratified blocks, and surprisingly sometimes, when seen from below, seem akin to Piranesi etchings. Somehow the gallery is transformed into a twisting subterranean cave with chasms and pillars, yet the venue is not smothered nor blindingly white. The amount of opaque white mass is carefully judged and not excessive. The architecture is interacted with, teased and scrutinised, but not hidden. The building is celebrated, not critiqued.

Mixed in with this is the treatment of the icelike polystyrene by the physical limitations of the connected chain links, where their design makes it almost a new substance, a material that is fluid and floppy and suggestive of fur, foliage and crystalline minerals.

Such an intensely experiential exhibition like this doesn’t need an interpretation or explanatory narrative that gives a predetermined rationale for every element, yet some aspects draw out other levels of meaning beyond spatial and optical sensation. For example Robinson has incorporated in his show a number of polystyrene stanchions holding up delicate polystyrene chains. Most of these are placed in groups within the small galleries at the bottom of the stairs near the entrance. They seem to stand for some quality like the ‘limitations or boundaries of art’, physical or conceptual. Their very literal presence helps make the giant meandering worm a metaphor for western art history, and the seven interwoven ‘threads’ within it disappearing and re-emerging themes or tendencies.

Without these ‘gallery barriers’ one could concentrate solely on a purely visceral response to Robinson’s fascinating show, but the stanchions’ unambiguous existence places other demands on the gallery visitor – pushing their capacity to speculate about what is before them and their own role, as viewers, in its creation.