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, November 13, 2008

Straka show

Heather Straka: (Life) Still
Anna Bibby
11 November - 29 November 2008

When it comes to eating, although I’m no vegan, I’m not a rabid carnivore either. But I have a sweet tooth, so I was somewhat perturbed to discover my stomach rumbling while examining Heather Strakas’ paintings of dissected body parts. These she studied in part of the Otago Medical School in Dunedin, while being this year’s Frances Hodgkins Fellow.

The images in question were of sliced cross-sections of human brain, delicately coloured – and perhaps a little bleached by formalin. Despite the occasional straggly vein, they look, I realised later, unnervingly similar to slices of ornate ice cream cake I used to greatly enjoy as a child at birthday parties. It’s a particularly delicious variety of creamy ice cream that I suspect is unobtainable now.

The other paintings of severed fingers, intact eyes and various organs are not so yummy. As with Straka’s style of image making, everything is tidy with no bloody, horrid torn or raggedy bits. And in a soft and dark umber-grey light that, with a few drops or puddles of strange secretions, is slightly mysterious.

Straka has also included several paintings of dead roses and orchids, with fallen wilted petals, as well as one painting of a clammy chicken wing from the supermarket. A very funny surprise in this context.

There are also some great erotic portraits of a glowering, androgenous young woman: one frontal with tightly bound breasts; another sternly looking over a twisted back. She is described by the artist’s beautifully worded, evil title, as a ‘human tissue monger’. I think that means she is in charge of one of the dissecting rooms.

I normally dislike Straka’s portraits because of their Lindauer–like stylisation and the smooth contours of the heads’ edges. The silky smoothness of the dark surrounding space upsets me. These though, along with the grisly dissection works, I really like. Perhaps it is the humour which gets to me, bubbling way down below the immensely serious subject-matter, only to occasionally, very briefly, rise to the surface.

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