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.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Waitangi Day on Waiheke

Headland: Sculpture on the gulf
Curated by Jenny Harper, Justin Paton and Helen Kedgley
Waiheke Island
23 January - 15 February 2009

With a title that is lifted from Robert Leonard’s famous 1992 national survey, using a pun linking landscape with intellect, this is an outdoor presentation of 26 sculptures on a meandering hilly track that overlooks some of the beautiful scenery you can imagine. So beautiful in fact, you wonder if there is any point pondering art at all. How can it ever compete?

Well some of it does, but only just – by the proverbial skin of the teeth. Contemporary sculpture has changed in recent years and become more intellectual, about social interaction, less preoccupied with ‘nature’ and besotted with ‘culture’ instead. This millennium’s first decade is quite different from the seventies. This show is pitched at the parents or grandparents of today’s students at art school – unlike say, the One Day Sculpture projects. It is unabashedly old fashioned. It could have been otherwise –with moving images and performances if they had wished. Obviously the organisers and curators didn’t. A shame.

Dated it may be – and very bourgeois (to go with the vineyard visiting) - but there is some interesting work here nonetheless.

Here are ten highlights, sculptures I find unusually memorable.

Two evanescent works that subtly focus on the act of looking and perceptual/spatial processes come from Gill Gatfield and Gaye Jurisich. The former has a vertical plate of thick, tinted glass overlooking the sea with an I-shaped rectangular hole cut in its centre. The latter: parallel horizontal lines of red wire that are suspended across vistas like power lines, and which on reaching the ground, turn into a mysterious archaeological dig or guide lines for seedlings in some bizarre nursery.

The opposite extreme is work I would call ‘cute’, but which has a vaguely serious, powerful presence nonetheless. Lucy Bucknall’s platoon of welded bronze, helmeted meerkats about to ambush users of the path, and posed for action with guns and grenade launchers behind rocks, bushes and mounds of earth – seem more about unusual animals than a satire on military behaviour.

Fletcher Vaughan’s painted aluminium ‘folded paper map’ boat is just as whimsical. It is ‘moored’ slightly behind a tree and you have to look hard into the sea to find it. Easy to see from a distance is Christian Nicholson’s large sculpture of a balsa sheeted, slotted, toy plane thrown by a giant. It has landed near the cliff edge.

Jeff Thomson’s big water tank with portholes is also a lot of fun. Painted blue inside, quirky plastic, metal and feathered items move inside the water-filled cylinder, ascending and falling, and propelled by a solar panel on its roof. Like the military meerkats, a crowd-pleaser.

Some sculptures are particularly well integrated into their sites. Louise Purvis’s serpentine tube of wire-netting stuffed with pine cones is menacingly intertwined with a large pohutukawa tree. Ominous, yet also funny, it is visually fascinating as a continuous linear form, one that critiques an introduced tree-species as ecologically damaging as a parasite.

Paul Cullen’s send up of scientific collecting of data here continues the humour for which he is well known – turning visual conventions and the laws of nature upside down or back to front. His arrangement of metal stands bolted onto concrete slabs bears glass tanks, hosing and copper tubes. It teasingly seems to look out to sea but in fact points to a modernist building set in the grassy slopes behind, with huge glass walls and a geodesic dome. Inspired in its perversity, the half-completed ‘lab’ mocks the natural elements while smirking at this adjacent, domestic but clinical, architecture.

Paul Radford’s tilted dinghy on a mushroom-like stalk, with flaking paint, looks like a massive keeled wooden head by Modigliani. It is sited on a ridge and can be seen for miles. Its simplicity, strangeness and position make it very effective; it is easily the most haunting image in the exhibition.

Another boat form from Pauline Rhodes features a ribbed kayak structure with strips of fluorescently coloured and reflective tape on its struts. Placed inside are piles of black fishing netting, driftwood, seaweed and detritus like old jandals. The harsh intense colour hovers in space in front of the form, as Rhodes’ works are prone to do. She uses chroma to expand the structure, open it up, create vectors and make unexpected linear or planar tensions.

It takes effort, expense, fitness and time to visit a show like this – with its essential ferry trip. It is a mixed bag of artists, but compared to other years the selection seems particularly successful. It’s not cutting edge, but it’s fun all the same. If you can cope with the summer heat, it’s worth it.

(Above, details of works by Paul Cullen and Louise Purvis.)

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