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, April 5, 2009

Embracing mortality

Heather Straka: The Sleeping Room
Hocken Library Gallery, Dunedin
4 April - 26 May 2009

Heather Straka was last year’s Frances Hodgkins Fellow down at the University of Otago, and so this is her presentation of the years work. Some of it has already been shown in Auckland, particularly the ‘body parts’ paintings based on autopsies and dissections. There were some simmering erotic portraits of young women in that smaller Anna Bibby show, but they were in the minority.

However in this current Dunedin show of about twenty-five works, those portraits dominate the walls and space - despite the blackly humorous exhibition title referring to death. The ghoulish anatomical images are in little groups of three or four, and are much smaller.

The androgynous women that Straka focuses on have a hint of the demonic, a sneering menace that switches occasionally to a slightly hammy gothic. These girl-boys glower with an almost imperceptible whisper of humour. Mixed into their theatrical intensity is a vaguely smirking knowingness, a celebration of their own seductive sexual powers - the pleasure of taunting and teasing.

Here Straka explores a carefully thought out vocabulary of body language, mixed with nuances of facial expression and architectural props. Half a face and body, baring an exposed flattened nipple, peers around the edge of a corner. In another, a contorted twisting back, with straining face turning to the viewer over her compressed shoulder – in a tiled bathroom. A third has tightly bound breasts that instead of concealing femininity, accentuate it through the transparency of the bandage. It is all double (even triple or quadruple) talk. Lesbian erotica, with the ambiguous gender also designed to make straight and gay men (and straight women) horny.

While it is two shows in one, perhaps there is a unity present after all. Male ejaculation is traditionally called a ‘little death’, prostitutes in England used to rent rooms overlooking sites of public execution (allegedly to increase the client’s pleasure, having coitus while watching a hanging), and sex and death – through women often dying in childbirth – have long been traditionally linked.

Or maybe a rumination on not only mortality but the transience of life, and with that, the transience of desire - the quickness of pleasure. How quickly lust and/or love fades. Half the show displays certain semiotic buttons or triggers that arouse or pique interest. The other half declares the stupidity of desire, and the dumbness of life itself – in the face of death.

Straka’s grey tonality suits these themes. Even such sexy come ons have skin patinas glazed with the stony hues of mortality. All chroma is carefully knocked back. As with corpses devoid of body-heat, all temperatures are icy. There is a wicked aura of necrophilia in the portraits, despite the women’s lively eyes and flickering half-smiles.

I like these works of Straka more than her other earlier paintings. The faces contain some qualities of self-portraiture, not literally as physiognomies, but as rebuses for aspects of her personality. There is an element of self knowledge here, perhaps some wisdom about mental games and sex. An intriguing exhibition.

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