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, 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.

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