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, February 26, 2009

Fringe but mainstream

Manga Mad – Tokyo Otaku
Produced and directed by Ray Castle
Transfigured Nights
Produced and directed by David Blyth
Premiered at MIC Toi Rerehiko
Galatos screening Thursday 26 February

Both these unusual films are remarkably entertaining and informative. One deals chiefly with Japanese urban culture and the role of the adult comic industry, and other related activities to do with fantasy, like amine, masks or dressing up. The other is about webcam entertainment: rubber - bondage – drag - asphyxiation enthusiasts (normally lumped together as ‘fetishists’). Blyth has selected about eight such ‘performers’ who talk about their (locally) private but (globally) public practices with eloquent candour.

Castle’s film is the more academic of the two, with Japanese intellectuals and /or sales persons analysing their stiflingly conformist culture and its gender roles with penetrating insights. The bright poppy colour and rapid editing however make it optically demanding. The pace and dazzling light seldom let up.

His subject-mater varies sufficiently to hold your interest: from teenage girls absorbed in comics about homosexual boys falling in love, the ubiquitous syndrome of unrelenting ‘cuteness’, the cathartic benefits of violent and explicit imagery, to otaku – the obsessive fixations many male collectors have on certain female characters. It keeps surprising. The movie does get a little visually repetitive near the end - it is a pinch long - but new ideas keep surfacing to engage with.

Blyth’s production, though also a documentary, is extremely sensual. More overtly 'artistic'. Wonderful blurred textures of moving rubber heads and patterned black torsos dominate. References to Boiffard and Bacon abound and the music dramatically varies for each of the articulate, masked speakers. The streaks and smudges make the grotesque no longer ugly or fearful, but surprisingly gorgeous. Each shot is beautifully composed, the camera positioned at inventive angles to capture the moving masked visage with optimum drama.

While with Castle’s film you feel the narrative content or subject dominates over his filming technique, with Blyth it is the opposite. He is a sort of abstractionist, an exquisite formalist who knows how to use the digital medium as if it were smeary oily paint. A natural image maker and crisp editor, every shot he makes is rivetting. Transfigured Nights is an utterly absorbing creation. The word I would use is ‘masterpiece.’

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Out the Window

Various Artists: Raised by Wolves, Richard Maloy, Sam Rountree Williams, Holly Willson, John Ward Knox, Annie Bradley
Curated by Holly Willson and Sam Rountree Williams
Design work by Nell May
11 February – 6 March 2009

This is one of those shows that is all about context, about the art ‘frame’ or what is outside it – rather than what is within, though that can’t be ignored either.

This time there is nothing actually inside the Window window in the library foyer. Works are located at various spots around the university, or in Annie Bradley’s case, online. Some are easy to find. Others aren’t (despite the terrifically designed info sheets by Nell May that have maps), and after several attempts I gave up searching. This writing is about what I found.

So how important is this issue of context? What happens when you rip art out of the white cube (my violent metaphor is deliberate) and plonk it down in the so called real world. This show examines that. It is a theme Sam Rountree Williams has long been preoccupied with.

Personally I think the significance of context is exaggerated. This is because ultimately the declaration that something is art can never release it from an art context. If defined as such, that frame is always there and will never dissolve. Whatever the physical environs a work is put in, saying it is ‘art’ or knowing it is such, helps shut out many distractions that might intrude. The only thing that really makes that process difficult is putting it close to other art works. It is like putting two different cake mixtures, based on two different recipes, together in the same baking pan. Something very peculiar happens when they mingle.

That is the logic behind Sam Rountree Wiliams’ placement of one of his three oil paintings below an early Richard Killeen cutout in the library foyer. The two works play off each other but in my view both suffer. (If I was Killeen I’d be annoyed he put his work so close). It’s like pouring a can of Pepsi into a tin of baked beans and expecting the resulting concoction to taste good.

With his two other placements Rountree Williams uses other university buildings, those of business schools, and again plays off against the university collection in one building, making a comment perhaps on the prestige of acquisition. Does the work’s meaning change when it pretends to be included in an important collection? Well maybe not its meaning, but certainly its value. (In the northern hemisphere collectors often have to prove the pedigree of their collection before a dealer will sell to them.)

What about the business schools? Is this artist slyly trying to interest future corporate CEOs in his practice while they are in his age group and still studying? And what of the actual architecture of the buildings? His small painting displayed in the brick Old Choral Hall looks quite different from what it would look if hung in the same space as his other work – in the new Owen G. Glenn Building, a huge modernist glass tower.

Richard Maloy has his videos of private performances positioned in varied spaces within the library building. You really have to move extensively around the different floors to see them. His three recorded actions of building up accumulations of clay over his ear, nose and hand, and torso and arm, attempt to create bodily extensions or corporeal substitutes, and seem in this context to be a comment on the library as a repository of knowledge, an adding to of the mind’s resources, an extension of accumulated mental faculties.

Annie Bradley’s online spread page takes a lot of scrolling to explore properly. It is a meandering Photoshop–style collage, with various snaps of pedagogical spaces, like the School of Medicine, with long bland corridors and pokey lecture theatres. Interspersed throughout are configurations of stacked, unravelling files that become floating snowflakes or tumbling sheaves; sliding toppling reams of information. Most dominant is a geometric frieze of folded, interwoven ribbonlike lines that doubles as a complex maze of alternating pathways and corridors for the student.

Bradley’s sprawling field makes her compressed and layered forms take on the structures of microscopic plants and crystalline minerals, mixing them into the interior images of architecture. In her vision of knowledge accumulation and dissemination, culture and nature blend and become interchangeable.

There is more to come in this exhibition. A performance by the Wellington group Raised By Wolves will be presented at the Clocktower on 2 March.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

As Simon Ingram’s show at Gow Langsford continues,

more and more works are being painted by his system of robots, replacing the original ‘manual application’ paintings on the walls, and resulting in an unexpected diversity of mark and spatial form types.

Both method sorts look good, but they do buy into the ‘retinality’ that Duchamp, for one, despised. Clearly they are meant to be about so much more, but the sense of shallowness is because (in my opinion) Ingram makes no intelligent use of the convention of titling. As ‘games with rules’ the details are not publicly elucidated as they could – and I believe should – be. A conceptual artist like Christopher Williams, for example, puts all particulars necessary for a viewer’s grasping of the making process behind his photographic images onto labels, and Ingram clearly needs to do likewise. Without that information lucidly presented alongside the paintings, they remain ‘eye candy’.

The trouble is that to do this Ingram has to reveal that not all his paintings (esp. the hand-painted ones) are programmatic. Indeed some are impulsive, where he got bored with a system, changed his mind, and switched to a new process. That is why I acerbically said in one of my comments that he was a ‘closet’ de Kooning. To quickly change course is like a gestural mark reflexly flipped by the arm into a new direction. It is emotional, bodily and unthinking.

In my comments I also said that Ingram fed drawings into the programme. He has quite reasonably pointed out to me that is a mistake and very misleading. In fact, the image above (from the invite) shows part of the on-going process on the LCD screen after the ‘game’ rules have been set up in the programming of the robot. This blue-lined image however seems to be a red herring that muddys the conceptual waters behind Ingram’s methodology. Better, maybe, not to show it.

I have written this second post because this is an excellent, constantly evolving exhibition to visit, think and write about. I wanted to clarify my thoughts about the processes and end results here.

A recent comment on Ted Bracey

from Mr. June.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

We mourn the recent passing of Ted Bracey,

superb painter, theoretician, educator and supportive friend to many an Ilam graduate. He will be sorely missed.

Friday, February 20, 2009

For this site it’s unusual: a review of a ceramic exhibition. For this, we thank Rhondda Bosworth

Len Castle: Mountain to the sea
Lopdell House, Titirangi
13 February – 13 April 2009

Here we have a master at the top of his game. This body of work is a national taonga. It has a cohesion and substance rarely seen. For those of us looking down the barrel at old age, this thrilling work is a revelation. Len Castle is in his 85th year, and he has made most of these 61 works since 2003.

Castle’s practice is independent of throwing on the wheel or using plaster moulds. Peter Simpson, in his catalogue essay says: “His work has become increasingly sculptural as he has cut, beaten, kneaded, torn and twisted clay”.
He quotes Castle as saying “Those of us who work with clay and fire can be called alchemists, and visual poets.”

The artist Theo Schoon introduced Len Castle to the beauty of geothermal areas in the North Island in the early 1950’s. Castle has returned many times with his camera, and it is worth noting that his photographs, fascinating works in themselves, successfully elucidate his creative process.

His passion for marine and volcanic landscapes has inspired many of these forms – closely reminiscent of shells, rocks, fossils, stones, algae, lichens, cooling lumps of magma. They have an amazing verisimilitude to the real thing, but because this is art, and these are not found objects in nature, they become objects of meditation and contemplation. These artifacts, created from elements of the Earth itself, hold powerfully encoded meanings. They pulsate with colour and texture. They are tactile. One wants to touch, but the cracked surfaces are suggestive of heat.

Castle has written in ‘Touched by Fire’ (NZ Geographic #43, July-Sept 1999):

Clay and Fire are my partners. When I encounter them in nature, my response is fascination and awe. The phenomenon of cracking intrigues me, and is one of the textural expressions that I use in a number of my ceramic forms.

During my research for this review, I learned that clays are powdered rock mixed with water. They have various qualities depending on what minerals they contain, and the fineness of the particles. The glazes can be pure minerals which melt at high temperatures, leaving a glass-like coating over the clay, or mixtures of clay, flax, pigments and silica.

Len Castle began working with this medium in 1947 during his training as a science teacher, and became a full-time potter in 1962. He studied both in St Ives Cornwall with Bernard Leach, and some years later with Japanese ceramic artists. The work shows the Japanese influence still, not so much in the forms themselves which are timeless and all his own, but in their Zen-like meditative quality.

My favorite bowl (they are all magnificent and often suggestive of volcanic lakes) has a ragged fringe of clay inside its immaculate circumference. Within the bowl is the deep, rich, red glaze that Castle has used liberally in these works. “Volcanic flower” too, a singed, seamed flower, has this molten red glaze at its centre.

There is so much evocation here, and a virtuosity that is about much more than technical expertise. Many personal qualities are required to achieve at this level, including vision, talent, imagination, determination, patience, and energy. Accordingly his exiting “Inverted Volcano(es)” (2007) are a wonderful fait accompli of the artist’s imagination. For this viewer they epitomize (literally) a turning upside-down of conventional expectations.

This touring exhibition was organized by the Hawkes Bay Museum and Art Gallery, who are to be commended - except for the inclusion of the work of 10 poets, who were invited to “respond” to the work. This is a curatorial concept that needs to be discouraged. If curators invite and include multi-disciplinary “responses”, where will it end?

Installation images courtesy of Lopdell House, Castle portrait courtesy of Chris Hoult.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Herne Bay show

Group Exhibition
Anna Bibby
11 February - 8 March 2008

The dozen artists in this group show present a sort of ‘After New Year’ celebration: a display of stock to kick-start 09’s season. While there are no real surprises it is a good chance to see Anna Bibby’s taste - (craft–oriented, domestic scale), if you are not familiar with her shows already – and to ponder what her artists do. Lots of them seem to like to make bird imagery. Apart from Des Helmore and Tim Thatcher, they all have avian subject-matter somewhere.

In some ways this display is more conservative than some of the Bibby solo artist shows. Heather Straka is represented by a rendered chicken wing, whereas her recent exhibition was of dissected body parts and not for the ultra-squeamish. I say ‘ultra’ because the images were still slightly tasteful. They weren’t photographic and stickily messy – though they were blackly humorous. In that context this chicken wing (extraordinary looking with its little stalactite flaps of loose skin) was a bizarre guffaw, and remains so here.

Jim Dennison and Leanne Williams cast-glass birds surprise not because of their cute angular forms but because of their translucent colour (delicate blues, greens and browns) that often seems deep inside the small glass masses, and casually positioned. This colour has a hovering independence from form, a freedom – and is birdlike in itself.

Megan Hansen-Knarhoi’s Flock presents 26 pairs of woolly, stylised hands, clapping in unison on the wall as if in a soft Killeen cutout. They applaud themselves like swirling, noisy birds – prodding the viewer’s aural imagination as well as visual.

In one of the front windows, Martin Poppelwell’s ceramic bird on a skull, with its buttery coloration and overlaid coal-black grid, is a strikingly combination of whimsy with sensuality. Focussed and uncluttered, it is unlike his scappier and looser work on paper in the other window.

Sam Mitchell’s acrylic paintings on clear Perspex dazzle with her technique of painting under the surface in ‘reverse’ order, so that detail is applied before planes of colour, covered from behind so not to be obliterated. Mitchell’s smaller forms (such as naked ladies, budgies etc.) are more successfully rendered than the large portraits they are positioned on. The little images have a fluid line and buoyant energy missing in the stiffer, bigger, blue visages.

Probably the most striking (and heretically non-feathered) paintings in the show are by Desmond Helmore and Tim Thatcher, works that celebrate the viscosity of paint while containing its fluidity within tight spatial structures. Helmore is the more austere of the two, a remarkably honed sensibility of exquisite precision. Thatcher, much looser, has larger less illustrative works, and uses a deeper space, but is just as controlled in organisation, though not in style of application.

The photorealism of Emily Wolfe is distinctive, but not the sole point, for it is accompanied by an exact sense of scale for each canvas. This sense of intimacy with the viewer is a vital ingredient, more important than her meticulous detail or plasticity of form. On the other hand, Gavin Hurley’s stencil-like portraits, with their airbrushed contours, floating shapes and skilled tonal control, comment on representation itself as a process, more than say, historical subject matter as content. Style is his subject, and narrative readings appear to be a red herring. He creates a celebration of flatness and contrivance, a relishing of artificiality.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

This copyright debate that's furiously raging...

Have a look at what Lee Cunliffe (Artbasher) says about it, and the excellent links. I think I agree with a lot of what he says. I'm worried about sites run by responsible people like myself being shut down by disgruntled dealers or artists, without any fair adjudication or discussion.

That possibility is very scary. It kills off any open art debate or public criticism in the culture. It's horrendous.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Call for Action (Beyond Art)

Jim Allen: Hanging by a Thread II
Michael Lett
4 February – 7 March 2009

The strangest of images greets you through the glass doors when you enter Jim Allen’s latest exhibition at Michael Lett’s: a photograph of a collage of an angel. It seems to be a life-sized self portrait, made up of flayed body parts from medical text books and collaged newspaper texts. This thin-skinned and ‘sensitive’ artist-angel has winged feet like Mercury, is wearing a halo in which is embedded the word ‘saboteur’, and carrying at crotch height a small Greek temple in which is burning the flame of liberty.

I thought at first this image was laden with irony, that Allen was doing some kind of self critique (especially with the nimbus and flame) that re-evaluated his earlier interventionism - but now I think it is more complicated. Though there definitely is humour, a lot of self-mockery, this is still serious. Very much so.

This is confirmed by the urgency of the show’s title and by the fact that below the collage on the right-hand side is a small inverted photograph of a hooded Iraqi prisoner of the American forces, being tortured at Abu Ghraib. The ‘real’ world here is presented in vivid contrast to that of the sincere but sheltered realm of art-activism and pedagogical models.

Going past the collage and entering the inner gallery, we find three types of presentation: three coloured photographs at eye-height on two of the walls; four small sculptures on long sticks at eye height in the middle of the oblong room; and on the floor two small LCDs with videos connected to earlier performances.

There is a hierarchical structure here in this multilayered installation. As you would expect from such an influential artist and teacher, Allen has positioned his components with eloquent precision. The photographs show a bandaged tree (‘heal our ecosystems’ it seems to say), some bones stacked on a chair (inaction leads to disaster?) and a hospitalised Arab boy sitting up in bed (protect the innocent).

This last image has an abstract formula placed on the wall alongside it, taken from a cybernetic coursebook. Here Allen seems to be ridiculing art that is over-academicised and deterministic. The dry, impenetrable theorem seems motivated by sarcasm.

Even more in your face are the sculptures. They are about human agency and the viewer’s ability to act. A bloody bandaged finger (the nurtured body’s power to heal) and a piece of hair (the body’s ability to replenish) are in juxtaposition with a quote from Brazilian artist Lygia Clark about righteous anger (“the mouth which is transformed into a language of itself to the bite of rage”) and a dirty cloth (power to wipe away ignorance and clarify?).

At some distance below eye height and comparatively isolated on the floor, the two LCDs let Allen comment on the gap between art and life, elaborating on the ironic heroics detectable in his collage. The right-hand one shows the movements of Peter Wareing, a flim-maker who was recording Allen’s recent performance of News, the newspaper crumpling work, in New Plymouth, but reveals nothing of the performance he was documenting. The other on the left shows a section of Parangole Capes, an older work where four tied up and blindfolded performers, swaddled in layers of calico and hessian, try to wiggle and roll their way to the centre of the gallery where they can help release each other.

The first seems to be about losing sight of a clear objective, about not being cognisant of a ‘bigger picture’; the second about the inability to feel (physically and emotionally), about desensitisation. Both LCDs refer to art’s remoteness from global issues currently acknowledged as urgent. Allen appears to be implying that art is irrelevant now, it is ossified and dead and political action should move on without it. He is using art to reprimand itself, perhaps even repudiating his own past as artist and teacher – and waving the flag for much bigger issues instead.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Free-falling, while looking for your parachute

Broken Fall
Newcall, A Center For Art (temporarily in St Paul St, Gallery 2)
10 February - 28 February 2009 (Newcall)
10 - 13 February 2009 (ACFA)

Broken Fall is a clever idea developed by AUT lecturer Jan Bryant, of asking three Melbourne artists (Katie Lee, Lou Hubbard and Susan Jacob) to come over to Auckland and adapt their practices for two spaces in that city. To get a response to this recontextualisation she has also asked two New Zealand sound artists (Tim Coster and Richard Francis) to use the Australian shows to generate new works to be performed in the exhibition spaces.

Of the Australian displays, Lou Hubbard’s projected video grids are the most physically imposing. She uses the matrix as a structure while also slyly undermining it. At ACFA she has a group of seven toy Japanese soccer players, each attached to a hexagonal plastic section of playing field, standing in a sink so that they collapse and separate when the tap is turned on.

Her Newcall work is more interesting, wittily comparing the scaling of a fish with the scraping off of film from gambling cards, and in opposition, the manual completion of a grid by crossword. These actions are performed by an elderly woman who in one of the grid's four rectangles, stands alone in a corner of the room. The tension between the actions of her hands and her impassive face holds your interest.

The most intriguing work in the Newcall exhibition is Susan Jacob’s dried up Christmas tree projecting from the inner side of a door leaning into a wall. It has its branches reversed so they point up instead of down. Its subtle transformation draws you back to look at how Jacob broke off and realigned the various twigs, something that is not obvious.

This sculpture is not tightly connected to Jacob’s working drawings (at ACFA) and drives home the point that good art is often impulsive and about play, about fooling with materials – where hands are almost separated from the mind.

Of Katie Lee’s two videos (and related horizontal floor sculpture), the ACFA one without her figure balancing in a square taped to the floor is the more successful. The time lapse photography of the room’s flickering sepia light and artist’s absent body makes it a compelling – albeit austere – spatial statement that effectively references her works in the other space. The Newcall video though, intrigues more through being set in a low cupboard, than through the content of its moving images.

How did the Kiwi sound artists respond? They differed in that Coster used recordings of the Australians installing their projects as a starting point, and Francis experimented with the ACFA space itself and a variety of sound sources (modulator, computer, and portable objects).

Of the two live gigs, Coster’s thirty minute performance was the more dramatic and satisfying – less monotonous. His build up of an even drone of looping rumbling hums, delicate fluttery rattles and hissing wipes maintained a consistent tension until about five minutes before the end. Then suddenly samples of a sweeping operatic aria emerged, fused with peals of laughter and the occasional squawk. What was dry and abstract suddenly erupted into unexpected lyricism and humour, a poignant flowering that just as abruptly stopped – leaving the audience stunned and wishing for more.

Top three images from Newcall Gallery, bottom three from ACFA at AUT, then invite.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Serious looking

Winston Roeth: New WorksJensen
4 February – 12 March 2009

One of the great ironies of conceptual art is that despite the anti-retinal position stated by the influential Marcel Duchamp, many of the first generation conceptualists like Weiner, Kosuth and Bochner adored painting and were big fans of artists like Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman. And even an artist like Robert Rauschenberg, a close friend of John Cage, was very influenced at Black Mountain College by Josef Albers in his theories of colour perception. He was taught how to look, despite his practice being so different.

Albers’ Bauhaus-based theories list various laws of colour interaction, discussing optical phenomena like after-images and the complementary hue-tinged washes that effect planes of neutral colours like grey. Albers and his teacher Johannes Itten wrote wonderfully informative books studying the retina’s neural behaviour in response to juxtaposed planes of contrasting hue.

I mention all this because though colour optics have been out of fashion for a while they seem to be returning. Consummate colourists now are gaining more recognition, particularly those like English artist Bridget Riley and (in this present case) American painter Winston Roeth, who create colours in the brain that are not on any painting. What you see is often not what you get. Strange things happen between the eye that looks and the vision that is experienced, especially when the light is natural and strong.

Roeth’s coloured tempera planes place pressure on the lines of white gallery wall between grids or pairs of panels. They also chromatically influence painted iridescent frames that delineate outer edges. Usually the patina on his flat aluminium or rough slate panels has a soft matt velvety quality with no sheen at all. However this artist is also very interested in lustre and the pearlescent. When he uses a grid, he likes to contrast organic ‘natural’ hues associated with vegetation with synthetic metallic chroma linked to minerals.

Yet Roeth’s work is not formulaic. The combinations are cleverly positioned so each colour resonates effectively with its neighbours while also being gorgeous in its own right as an isolated unit. Photographs don’t come close to representing the sensation of standing in front of these paintings. They demand concentration over time so you can think carefully about what is happening chromatically before you.

Jensen's large downstairs gallery, with its white walls and diffuse natural light is particularly effective in displaying Roeth’s colour skills. The four paintings are meticulously positioned. Upstairs the ambience is different due to the dark red, inner brick walls which really make the panelled works glow. The other white walls are used to present grids of golden lines on coloured paper. They are positioned at irregular intervals for maximum effect to catch the light streaming in from the end window. The arrangement here is about pragmatics, not aesthetic organisation.

It is clear that Roeth as a colourist, is quite unique. The closest talent in terms of colour sensibility we have in New Zealand would be Philip Trusttum whose forms are wildly different and also figurative. His applications are different but his juxtapositions are similar.It’s a very smart show at Jensen that is not flashy but restrained and rich in nuance. The work leaves it to you to approach it with keen curiosity. To extract its treasures at your own pace.

I read no news today, oh boy.

Fiona Connor: Notes on Half the Page
Gambia Castle
13 February – & March 2009

I’m one of those people to whom verisimilitude in artworks means nothing. I make a mental note but it doesn’t impress me. (In fact the mindless labour usually makes me shudder.) Yet I really like this room that’s full of life-size replica newspaper honesty boxes, periodical holders, and magazine racks, along with fake walls with sliding glass display windows. The reason I think it is extraordinary is what is missing. There is not one hardcopy publication, fake or genuine, to be seen anywhere.

I like the idea of this project and its loaded absence, that all of a sudden there is no news to be found. Nothing has happened to report, no developments (worthy or trivial) of any kind. The local populace has evaporated; the nation scattered to the four winds - and the world even further. Imagine sitting in your home with no printed media. No ties to anything 'beyond'. Only family, neighbours and very close friends.

This eschewing of newspapers and magazines implies a rejection of consumerism, the thirst for voyeurism, commerce and the daily or weekly details of sport and celebrity culture. It also suggests an ostrichlike refusal to acknowledge the world beyond the reach of our bodies - almost but not quite, an embracing of solipsism. A turning of one’s back on other minds and bodies. A spit in the eye to the various communities all magazines and newspapers represent.

The density of all these facsimile display stands in the Gambia space is important too, the fact that there are so many visual types from assorted countries all over the world. Their range and cramming in creates an impression. It makes the lack of (apparent) printed paper all the stranger. Even creepy in its media silence. A memorial to the vanished hard-copy perhaps. Farewell to the touch, weight, look, smell and sound of inked-upon paper.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Under the microscope (traces of the heart)

Marie Shannon: Large Still Life
Sue Crockford
10 February – 7 March 2009

There is a rich assortment of photographs, watercolours and oil pastel drawings depicting scribbled notes on paper, gallery and domestic interiors and miscellaneous symbolic objects like screens and candles – all hung in a large salon-style cluster on the main Crockford gallery wall. However the Shannon works that intrigue me above all else, and which I want to talk about here, are the photographs of ‘love’ cards and notes. Little intimate missives of affection that some couples write to each other and which many children write to their parents.

With these images you try and figure out what game Shannon is playing at. On the one hand you are aware that this is art, something embodied in the workings of the human imagination, the leaps of fantasy that artists use to beguile viewers. On the other you may know that she is married to Julian Dashper, another artist, and has at least one child, a son – information which may or may not be contextually relevant. Beyond those basic facts, extra elaborations, other seemingly biographical works can easily be fabricated.

So with such photographic, ostensibly documentary images, the key question is whether Shannon is trying to tell us about private matters of the human heart (notably hers, or Julian’s) ie. deep affection for each other and their offspring and the reciprocation of that love, or is the project more distant? Is it a little clinical, and about what humans do to for the bonding and cohesion of the nuclear family? That public commitment. And could she be pretending to be focussing on particular modes of expression (within her own family) when really she is concerned with the universal or more general sociological – with her own situation being a convenient example.

Shannon has been making this type of image for some time now, and initially I saw them as sentimental and corny. Now though, I am consistently intrigued and amused. They are still sentimental, but I also see them as entertaining props that might never be used as actual notes. For all I know the Dashper-Shannon household could be one of dysfunctional, ferocious belligerence and appalling psychic violence, and no outsider would ever realise. This is art not life - stuff that showcases Shannon’s inventiveness with language, her play with concepts of drawing and photography.

It is about the demonstrative, the showing of emotion as a psychological phenomenon. A very clever, articulated examination of that. It looks at how affective written language functions, without those objects ever necessarily fulfilling their apparently designed purpose. A strange anthropology with collected recorded specimens. Authentic examples or false, it doesn’t matter.

(Thank you Sue Crockford Gallery and the artist for the images.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Ultra Intra

Beginning in the Archive: Giovanni Intra 1989 - 1996
Curated by Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers
31 January - 28 February 2009

It is a little over six years since the tragic, stupid death of Giovanni Intra and since then his work has been regularly seen as part of the Chartwell Collection, and his estate of uncollected items auctioned off. An energetic, startlingly articulate artist and curator who effortlessly wrote with a witty, agile, fluid turn of phrase about anything that caught his eye, ARTSPACE is now presenting his archives – mainly Auckland and Christchurch material that he left with his mother before he went to Los Angeles in 1996 to study theory and eventually become a dealer.

This selection of posters, drawings, photographs, jottings and notebooks is presented in four flat vitrines in the main gallery - in a manner similar to the Tom Kreisler exhibition of a year ago. Whereas the Kreisler show had many paintings on the ARTSPACE walls, only one major Intra artwork is presented, while documentation of others is shown with projected slides. Some of the drawings are photocopied and presented in two bound volumes with the vitrines. Other bits of correspondence, to and from Intra, also bound, are in a back gallery on a table of assorted publications (such as those by the collective Teststrip) that he wrote for or else collected. There is also supplementary material generously lent by Ann Shelton and Jim and Mary Barr.

The best account of this archive, now stored by Auckland Art Gallery (in the E. H. McCormack Research Library) is by Robert Leonard in Reading Room 2. However Kate Brettkelly-Chalmer’s essay accompanying this show is very informative, clear and perceptive –though perhaps at times a little too accepting of Intra’s rhetoric. It is a beautifully constructed text that whets your appetite for the varied contents of this exhibition, cajoling you into using this rare opportunity to examine his ideas through his writing and images, and speculating if he will ever be remembered.

People usually of course change as they adapt to new situations, and I suspect the later Giovanni selling for the LA artists of China Art Objects was a different personality – more mellow - than the prickly young firebrand of this time capsule. Here he is infatuated with Bataille, Debord and Boiffard, and hostile to medical practices and forensic photography. He is impulsive, at times jealously territorial and quick to find fault with colleagues. He easily takes offence with anyone who disagrees with his (then radical) ideas about ‘The Clinic’ and surveillance. However he was also very loyal to those in his inner circle. Much of his correspondence shows that for all his erudition, he was also highly emotional. This display shows his kneejerk responses, as does the one artwork on show.

That work, 365 days (1991), a suite of ‘daily’ photographs, is a sarcastic nose-thumbing at conceptual artists like Billy Apple. It is a silly light-weight project that is only a fraction as interesting as his Nature Morte fetish masterpiece owned by the Govett-Brewster, or Chartwell’s ‘pharmaceutical’ Untitled - currently displayed in Ron Brownson’s In Shifting Light exhibition at the New Gallery.

This archive, though certainly fascinating, isn’t as interesting as his completed, more resolved artworks and essays. Its value lies in what it tells us about the processes behind his thinking, but finished results are – in the end - what count. These documents show us the exhibitionism and posing common to both his images and texts, glimpses of his unrelentingly penetrating intelligence and quick responses, and his voracious appetite for researching those theoretical areas he was passionate about. They give us a taste of what he was on about, but they don't show his talent at its very best.

I think an anthology of Intra’s liveliest and most lucid writings would be the best way to represent him. There are many more texts that he created than artworks, and so a sample of those would be more interesting than say, a touring selection of works. Maybe one day that will happen.