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, December 21, 2008

Summer flora

The Enchanted Garden
Curated by Mary Kisler
Auckland Art Gallery: upstairs @ the New Gallery
13 December – 8 February 2008

This is a family show set up for the summer holidays, and is about gardens as sites of recreation, and also through symbolism and metaphor, philosophical speculation about the world, nature and civilization. It includes works from most of the many diverse collections in the care of Auckland Art Gallery, and because of that, seems to be about the institution's holdings more than a particular theme.

For in trying to sample everything, it attempts too much (and oddly also not enough) - for in some rooms, the focus becomes dissipated. Portraits and still lifes are included, as are paintings depicting myths in the woods, orchards, feral landscapes and buildings. There are even canned fruit labels, bonnets, dresses and a tea cosy. Few traditional art and craft genres are not squeezed in. However a couple of background trees or a flower or fruit do not a garden make. This doesn’t have a rigorously tight curation like that of say Zara Stanhope in the Adam Art Galley’s similar Botanica exhibition of five years ago.

It’s a shame because a more detailed look at the history of gardens –particularly earlier - would be very interesting, but to do that, more exhibits from other (probably overseas) institutions would be needed. Yet if one forgets the occasionally tizzy, scattered selection, this is a fun show to dip into. There is some wonderful contemporary work from artists like Jae Hoon Lee, Richard Orjis, Megan Jenkinson, Boyd Webb, Judy Darragh, Gil Hanly and Kim Meek, plus the usual ‘vegetation’ paintings you’d expect from artists like Pat Hanly and Karl Maughan – one impressively inventive with its ‘molecular’ Blakean cosmology, the other stilted and rigid with its placement of receding bushy forms.

One surprising inclusion is a brilliant Ross Ritchie painting quoting Toulouse-Lautrec, showing a customer in a brothel sitting between a madam and one of the girls. They are looking out at the Auckland landscape through a large plate glass window. Here ‘garden’ takes on totally unexpected, non-botanical meanings.

The highlights of the show though are where artists are represented by sizable bodies of work that provide impact. Paul Morison’s short Cambium film and his dozen Black Dahlia screenprints are gorgeously inventive as refined graphic, black and white forms, while Ernst Haas’ large suite of coloured photographs of different blooms are spectacular and moody.

Of the single works, I was greatly surprised to see a wonderfully rendered Magritte etching/aquatint, Pear and Rose, of great delicacy and subtle violence, and a surprisingly energetic - but also admirably composed - pencil drawing from Rodney Fumpston, whose prints I usually find flat and insipid. Overall we see a wide range of depictions and representations of plants and gardens in a disparate show that is fun to visit over summer while you have time on your hands - but which by the time winter arrives, will be long forgotten.

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