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, May 31, 2009

Legendary carver

Mark Adams: Rauru
Book launch - Rauru: Tene Waitere, Maori Carving, Colonial History
ed Nicholas Thomas
Two Rooms
21 May - 27 June 2009

This is an exhibition of a selection of photographs Mark Adams took for a book recently launched at Two Rooms and published by Otago University Press. The hardcover publication examines the life and work of a remarkable Māori carver, Tene Waitere ( Ngati Tarawhai) 1854 -1931 who worked in the Te Arawa tradition and who lived at Ruato on Lake Rotoiti. Adams provides the visual documentation of Waitere’s labours, purchased by European and Māori alike, and found now not only in Aotearoa but also England and Germany. The book contains about a hundred of Adams’ images, some taken in the mid-eighties.

This publication, edited by essay contributor Nicholas Thomas (Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge) with interviews with Waitere’s great-grandson James Schuster and Lyonel Grant, a contemporary Māori carver, will be revelatory to many people like myself who have never heard of Waitere and his achievements.

Because Adams uses a large–format 8 x 10 inch field camera it is wonderful to see untrimmed prints pinned to the gallery wall that really provide a sense of the architecture around Waitere's carvings. Glossy with remarkable acuity, the tonal range of the C-prints is more pronounced than the same images on the published page. They have far greater depth, and often wide images are made by positioning three large coloured photographs side by side.

The highlights are several images of interiors within two extraordinary buildings. One of those is Te Tiki-a-Tamamutu, The Spa Hotel, Taupo, where the some of the figures have unusually angular, zigzagging facial motifs. The other is Rauru, a house sold by the Rotorua Hotel Manager C.E.Nelson in 1904 to the Museum Fur Volkerkunde Hamburg.

In Rauru the images of the mythical God/hero Māui in particular are sensational. In one he is hauling the North Island (shown as a fish) out of the sea. In another he is attempting to enter the sleeping body of the Goddess of the Underworld (Hine-nui-te-pō) through her vulva with the intention of murdering her, but she is awoken by a laughing fantail and crushes him first.

Waitere brings these wonderful stories to life, as does Adams in his documentation, for in Hamburg the dark painted wooden columns are lit from behind skirting boards near the floor. The upper heads, eyes and torsos glow in ominous intensity, while the legs, feet and lower panels are strangely bleached by the upward directed light.

While the book is bound to be acquired by many libraries, Adams’ meticulous images, experienced directly, are very special. Don’t miss them.


Peata Larkin: Between Worlds
Two Rooms
May 21 – June 27 2009

With this exhibition Peata Larkin has abandoned the rectangular format that was evident on the works she included in an earlier Two Rooms group show. The new circular or eliptical ‘paintings’, set within square canvases, suffer greatly because of this. In my view her work is going backwards.

The reasons in essence are formal: too many colours to provide a sense of structured meaning; the myriad colours included don’t have nuanced relationships and in fact clash for complementary (optical) reasons; and the beaded globules of paint are usually too small to have impact in relation to the size of the stretcher.

Without any understanding of colour Larkin’s method of pushing paint through the weave of the canvas from behind becomes a shallow gimmick. The method doesn’t develop an aesthetic for the artefact by indicating chromatic control nor does it show a sensitive relationship with the dominant ‘neutral’ colour that happens to be white.

If there are meanings in these works (as claimed in the gallery blurb), then I don’t see them. However as a pakeha male it might reasonably be argued that I lack the appropriate biological, contextual and cultural background to have access to those aspects. If that is true and I am uninformed, then I hope some readers will present a clear counter-position, possibly along the lines that (as the gallery notes say) ‘in Maori tradition the weaver is the storyteller’ and that in these works there are stories of value. It would be good to hear other opinions.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Exposed but hidden faces

Layla Rudneva Mackay: Green with Envy
May 27 – June 20 2009

In contrast to her last exhibition where she made 'portraits' where heads, faces and whole bodies were hidden from view, this new Layla Rudneva-Mackay show uses exposed faces, but still hidden behind make up - white-faced or tinted pancake, foundations and creams. The six photographs here in Starkwhite’s new back gallery allude to the theatre: they are stagey with appropriately coloured backdrops, costumes and props. They tease out the notion of applied facial makeup as rudimentary mask – not for disguise though, but accentuation of mood. An elaboration of a psychological state or - more permanently, a character trait.

The way they attempt to expose, not conceal, hints at the symbolic use of colours like green and yellow. A bit like Shakespeare and his flowers and weeds. One model is masked around eyes and nose bridge only, others are confined to the face, another is face and neck, another still is eyes, nose and cheeks (but not mouth or chin). Five women and one bearded man.

One image of two long haired, white-faced young women in jeans and t-shirts is trite. It is far too ordinary – as if from a card shop. The others though have a strange intensity, a surprising eroticism even. However it is not the colours of the shaped and somewhat impassive ‘faces’ that do that but the contrast with the normal skin of arms, shoulders and neck. It confirms the ideas of McLuhan’s “the medium is the massage” where tactility and partially covered surfaces create spaces more loaded than anything nudity can create.

What is impressive is the care of the artist has taken in her compositional placement. ‘Blue’ refers to Vermeer, uses a hand-held blue mask as well as blue make-up and backdrop, and has very controlled lighting on the model’s neck, hand and arm. ‘Yellow’ features a yellow transparent backdrop with red peeking through from underneath, and strategically exposing a red corner on the bottom left of the photograph so it counterbalances a blue blouse and red skirt.

With this very fine second exhibition at Starkwhite, Layla Rudneva-Mackay continues to surprise. Though not as overtly provocative or nihilistic as her first ‘outdoor’ show, this ‘indoor’ one is more measured and contemplative, and more sensual. Well worth visiting.

Surface and beyond

Glen Hayward: Live Transmission
May 27 – June 20, 2009

Upstairs in the small L-shaped gallery at the top of the stairs in Starkwhite, Glen Hayward presents a wide selection of wood carved simulacra, some of it on a fake worn painted door resting on ersatz trestles. There are over thirty items here spread out over the walls, ‘table’ and floor, some designed to make you think even real fixtures are Haywards.

Of course many artists are preoccupied with mimicry, and some like Fiona Connor, are not as hyper-exact as Hayward in their verisimilitude. He is notable for providing less clues in the finish of his replicas, and is especially pristine. However Connor has a genius for thinking up inventive in situ architecture-based projects, so someone like Hayward also needs to figure a way of proving his art is not just about craft or manual dexterity. Virtuosity for its own sake.

With this in mind, the best sculptures here are the handful that are Surreal, such as a paint tin with a gag nose, an inverted tap with eyeball, or a crownlike ring of splashed milk with snail: images that generate amusement through incongruity or which are dreamlike simply because they hit a nerve (like a box of castration rings, a spud that looks like Mickey Mouse, or an enlarged squashed Lego block).

In these few painted, carved kauri objects Hayward uses incongruous pairings to intriguing effect, and one can imagine him exploring the idea of hybridity or mutation further: perhaps in a more complex fashion. With these works he is not wowing his audience so much through accomplished technical skills as figuring out shrewd combinations that can generate disturbing psychological power.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Richard Reddaway - Light, Sound: Built
Jonathan Smart, Christchurch
May 12 – June 7, 2009

Three sprawling, but varied, installations make up this Richard Reddaway exhibition in Jonathan Smart’s back gallery: one wall based, another floor fixated, a third – in a corner – both.

The wall work is like a series of modernist box-buildings set on a cliff face, with different sizes and projecting depths. But these are not model houses but wired up, super sharp, music speakers, made of chipboard and covered with veneer. The five speaker clusters emit a soundtrack that is part of the sculptural experience, for the noises energetically move around and come and go. We hear simple sounds like a dripping tap, laughter, whistling, or solo violin. Or more those more complex like the murmuring and roaring of a crowd in a big sports stadium. Often also there are several speakers in each box, so you have to listen carefully to discover which is the source. You need to move around a bit.

On the floor is a wooden desk used normally by the gallery proprietor. On its wide top and around its feet, and out into the middle of the space, are about a dozen lamps glowing against the dark wood grain. The work is a bit too Bill Culbertish for comfort, yet Reddaway’s choice of glass lamps is interesting. They are oddly ornamental. A few are severe, like truncated cylinders, but others are organic, like shells or seeds, some angular and spikey, and others still have scalloped frilly edges. Their peculiar mix of decoration intrigues.

The highlight though is really Reddaway’s collection of Swandri droopy blob creatures. Part club-footed people, part tartan-clad amphibians, but also woolly and podgy, they cling to the walls and slither downward in crumpled heaps – yet they are actually held off the floor by very low tables. They have a Rob McLeod or Elizabeth Murray look about them, and have speakers built in that for this show are not working. As lumberjack androids they are wonderfully ambiguous in their activity. As if there is some kind of orgy or beating on the floor of the wood shed we have just interrupted.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wild cards

Neil Dawson - Deck: First Cut
Jonathan Smart, Christchurch
May 12 – June 7 2009

In Jonathan Smart’s front gallery Dawson presents two sets of six card replicas: greatly enlarged playing cards of screen printed powder coated paint on stainless steel. Just under knee height they are curved so they can stand upright on the floor. Or, using holes in the corners, they can also be hung on walls. The patterns and designs on both sides are meticulously reproduced from the smaller originals

Actually they are a lot more than just highly ornate, enlarged playing card facsimiles. They have been very cleverly cut so that – in one case - there are three concentric rectangles (plus a circle) bent in alternating concave or convex alignments. For six types of card Dawson has invented six permutations of cut-out and bent formation.

Some are sliced rectangles (frames inside frames); others are circles or diamonds inside rectangles; others still are sets of lines radiating from points. Usually they play with the elaborately intricate ornamentation on the card’s back, delineating some of the dominant motif contours.

With these inventive works, Dawson takes something terribly commonplace and makes it extraordinarily interesting. All of a sudden you want to examine playing cards and their Arts and Crafts designs. You start to wonder about their history.

As an installation Deck: First Cut works well. A room full of these works on only the walls would look tediously regular - for as relief sculpture you don’t want to see too many in succession. However on the floor as part of a ‘pack’, a large number (i.e. over three) seem more unpredictable. Looking down on the curved planar edges helps enormously. It is also interesting looking through the holes at what the curved stainless steel reveals of its own form.

Placed this way with one on the wall and eleven on the floor, they look better than they would suspended in mid air on invisible wires, a possibility which Dawson might have considered. They seem like a herd of animals, originally two by two as in Noah’s Ark but now intermingling. An excellent sculpture show.

Mind the gap

SUPERFLEX: Today we don’t use the word dollars
ANZ Bank, 312 Karangahape Road
One Day Sculpture Project, commissioned by ARTSPACE
27 May 2009

Georges Perec, the great French writer of the seventies and co-founder of OULIPO (an influential experimental society of European scientists, mathematicians and artists) once wrote a detective novel entirely without using the letter ‘e’. He was an innovative intellectual who loved to work within restrictions. Another of his novels (Life: a User’s Manual) has a chapter sequence organised like a knight making L-shaped leaps around a chessboard, where each square is a room in a boarding-house. Such artists adore prohibitions. They relish creating difficulties for themselves, and for others.

So what if a group of artists specifically forbade bank tellers to say the word ‘dollars’ during their daily transactions with customers or other banks?

It sounds sadistic doesn’t it? Except the ANZ Bank staff I spoke to in Newton, on the receiving end of this particularly mischievous behaviour modification, were totally non-phased. Didn’t worry them a bit. Loved to have a diverting and entertaining challenge over what turned out to be a pretty quiet day anyhow. They even put balloons up. Made it a party game.

In a contract drawn up with the Danish art trio, SUPERFLEX, the bank staff agreed to use other words instead. If they forgot, they were fined $1 for each infringement. This embargo affected four tellers, the manager and a few other admin staff, plus the receptionist.

The funny thing, in my view, is that the contract was a bit vague. The staff could if they wished, have said ‘bucks’, or ‘greenbacks’. Even had a drawn $ sign on a pad, as one person did. I would have expected them to use words like ‘cash’, ‘revenue’, ‘monies’, or ‘funds’.

In fact most managed happily to count out notes without saying the dreaded D-word, or paused seemingly absent-mindedly in mid sentence leaving an aural gap. One even just said ‘beep’ if it were a swear word. Wonderful! (Ever heard that 1965 Bob Dylan line: Money doesn’t talk, it swears?).

That is exactly SUPERFLEX’s point: they are showcasing an all pervading fiscal obsession that corrupts our global culture, an acquisitive drive that goes beyond the commonsense necessities for survival or human contentment. Some people and organisations are forever greedy – no matter how damaging the cost is to others or the planet. This artwork makes a game out of mocking a mindset so ubiquitous it has become invisible. It throws out the challenge that maybe there are other ways of looking at things.

In the morning business was subdued, but in the afternoon things got livelier. Curious artists called in partially because of the bank’s location – very close to ARTSPACE, MIC, Ivan Anthony and Room. Some tellers attracted very few art buffs while others were like lamps attracting moths – who just zeroed in to try and trip them.

In my visit I was amazed how gracious everybody was and how undisruptive the prohibition turned out to be. I’m starting to wonder if even banning all synonyms would have had any impact. It is a bit like strangers who have no common language meeting for the first time. Because humans are innately inventive, if there are predetermined assumptions of purpose, communication is effortless.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Murat has some views on the review on AUT's show inGallery 3.

Planar modification

A Plane For Behavers (discussion continued)
Alicia Frankovich
16 May – 27 June 2009

We have here three public indoor performances, and another private outdoor event at Kitchener Place, documented on video. The four connect a bit like the installation placed in the main ARTSPACE gallery, its four monitors on chairs positioned to make up a square, a square plane suspended by its corners with remnants from the first work hanging above.

Frankovich is a gymnast preoccupied with linear vectors. She thinks in terms of vertical drops or lifts, horizontal conveyancing and diagonally angular ascents or descents. Her body is a point in motion co-ordinating with other point/bodies. Dot becomes line which transmutes into plane.

Such elements take on poetic metaphor. Plane becomes aircraft guided by pilots who are accountable for their actions above ground. Notions of responsibility are embedded in space. Dimensions within the aether acquire social properties.

Using limited means Frankovich has created a surprisingly layered presentation. Each of the three ARTSPACE rooms elaborates on different vector combinations: horizontal movement with no people is presented in the long space off to the far left with a stationary ‘dumb waiter’ shuttle that has a moving cable; in the big square gallery we see vertical/horizontal movement involving one person hoisting or many people carrying the artist; and horizontal motion (live but not videoed) and diagonal movement (videoed but not live) are enacted in the smallest room by pilots as agents for all three vectors.

There is also a fourth performance created several times a week where people sit in the four chairs in the main gallery for an hour, clutching the functioning monitors to their chests and resting the weight on their knees. They are here carrying not the artist but the moving image of the artist being carried. Their presence in the gallery makes viewing those screens more disquieting and confrontational, involving an unanticipated social dimension. The visitor remains a passive observer with some difficulty.

This artist is a shrewd manipulator of different logics. The video documentation, gallery sculpture (living or otherwise) and even undocumented works (not in the building, but on the website) are tightly meshed together so their relationships seem inevitable. A superbly planned and executed exhibition.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Motorway paradise

Cellulite Rose: Island Resort
Room (295 Karangahape Rd)
14 May - 30 May 2009

Artists collective Room, formerly Room 103, have moved. They are now firmly ensconced in the middle of Auckland’s ‘Art mile’, positioned very close to MIC, and opposite ARTSPACE and Ivan Anthony. It’s an inspired location, and the exhibiting space has a very different ambience from the old downtown venue in Achilles House. Much less office-like, it has a concrete floor, no carpet, and a clean rectangular shape with no nooks and crannies.

Cellulite Rose’s show is a great start, based on a landscaping oddity just around the corner and easily visible from the Newton Road overpass, facing East. I look at this peculiarity almost every day when I walk to K’ Rd to check out the shows. In the gallery she (I’m assuming a female gender here) has installed a large projected DVD loop on one wall, and two much smaller LCDs on the opposite one. The above three images are stills.

The DVDs show the artist (another assumption) taking advantage of a landscaped pond and incorporated line of trees in the middle of the Northwestern motorway. The A shaped form is tucked into the southern edge between Upper Queen St and Newton Rd – near Ian McKinnon Drive.

The artist has decided to use the newly discovered ACC amenity as an island resort, to put up a hammock between a couple of cabbage trees and use a lilo to shoo away the ducks and splash around in the sun - amidst the noise and fumes. I imagine she (and recreational equipment) got dropped off by friends who also took the photos. It would be too dangerous to go there by foot.

So, as art, is this interesting? Obviously it is an entertaining prank, a bit of light-hearted exhibitionism, but it also raises questions about big cities and how little the general public know about planning decisions that affect their daily interaction in the civic space.
This ‘resort’ seems to be some sort of stormwater outflow that has been cosmeticised to help beautify the motorway. As such it is a good idea, but one which because it has been successful, has also been invisible. Hundreds of cars drive past it every day, with not one driver ever realising it is there. Just an occasional haven for aquatic birds and nosey-parker artists.

(Thank you to the artist and Nick Spratt for the images.)

Snap, Crackle....

POP: Sean Kerr
A hardcovered artist’s book published by Michael Lett/Clouds
Essay by Natasha Conland
66 pp. and colour images
May 2009

This snazzy exuberant publication showcases the talents of Warren Olds as book designer and Natasha Conland as essayist. Just as much as Sean Kerr the inspiring artist. Olds and Conland are in top form, Olds with his design placement, sense of colour and brilliant sequencing, Conland with her observations, clarity and unusual quoted references, and they both have wonderful material to work with.

I usually find Kerr’s interactive googly eyed or gunshot works more irritatingly trivial than engrossing. I am far more entertained by Tony de Lautour (I like mischievousness) or Tom Kreisler (and appreciate absurdity) but Conland’s essay is so persuasive I‘ve started to doubt my own attentiveness. I’ve obviously missed something in those earlier sculptures – especially as his recent Newcall show was very striking in its conceptual layering and deliciously silly vulgarity.

This is a great little book. It presents Kerr’s working drawings so that their varied interconnections seep into you slowly, but Conland’s text attempts to analyse the humour in narratives based on moving images.

Kerr’s preparatory drawings are not comic strips. He doesn’t elaborate much via sequential graphics, so the static images exasperate if you allow yourself to get excited by Conland’s ideas. Drawing as such she tends to ignore. Her essay, though splendid, is in the wrong context. It needs an accompanying survey of noisy interactive sculpture to resonate properly.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Serving up cardboard

Rirkrit Tiravanija: Untitled (Pay attention)
One Day Sculpture
New Zealand, nationwide

For this event Rirkrit Tiravanija and his assistants will not be serving up Pad Thai - as is usually the case in many of his performances. Instead the artwork is the posted out invitation that has been sent to those on ARTSPACE’s mailing list – to be held on the date stated: TODAY, and as no mention is made of any specific date, probably yesterday and Saturday too, when people went to their letterboxes.

Look at how this unusual occurrence is contextualised. Click on the ODS website and check out the two paragraphs from Brian Butler (ex ARTSPACE director) and Clare Doherty (guiding instigator of ODS). Their explanatory comments seem so crucial it is almost as if they are co-artists. All three elements lock together.

The slipperiness of focussing the event on ‘TODAY’ is compounded by Butler’s slyly cheeky criticism of mediation. Ostensibly in his anecdote he is referring to Tiravanija’s blank slide that accompanied a verbal description of an early work, but really Butler seems to be talking about his own text, his own participation. He is warning the reader through relating an account of Tiravanija’s anxiety about mediation. He uses the artist’s story to swing discussion back towards the website audience, as if saying: Hey you out there, figure it out for yourself. Don’t rely on middle people like Clare and me. Nevertheless he still contributes - by subverting his own discussion.

Doherty’s text is partially about art history, setting the stage by explaining precedents for Tiravanija’s mail action. More importantly - and contra to Butler - it also discusses the image the artist is circulating: those bright orange circles on poles. Yet we still don’t really know Tiravanija’s motivation in photographing them. Why the interest in the flat fluorescent discs that over recent years have replaced illuminated spheres at New Zealand’s pedestrian crossings? He obviously discovered them during his visit last year.

Does he, like some of us, find them aesthetically repulsive, almost a horrid joke? Is he angered because they might be a cost cutting measure that at night is totally ineffective? That they are invisible and cannot save pedestrian lives.

Or is his interest more general and focussed on the work's title - about attention? Does he worry about what these signs stand for, that they warn us to be ready for people who might suddenly step out from the curb? Or is he like John Cage, and is trying to show us something much much wider - that all sorts of things around us in our environment are worthy of our interest.

Whatever the reasons the artist might have, what of those looking at the photograph? Will any of the recipients getting the card think about zebra crossings at all? Until they look at the ODS website (as currently instructed by text), they could think that one of the houses by the pedestrian crossing will be hosting a free Thai meal with lots of conversation and beer – and be busy looking at that Auckland Street sign on the corner with a magnifying glass.

Alchemical encoder or formalist?

Milan Mrkusich: Seven Colour Alchemical Spectrum
Sue Crockford
5 May - 30 May 2009

It is only a short while since the Mrkusich survey at Gus Fisher finished and Sue Crockford has cleverly capitalised on the momentum of that exposure with this dealer show. The seven, smallish paintings on display on her main wall are in essence about chromatic juxtapositions and horizontal sequences – though they are also rich in nuances of delicate underpainting. As an installed group, and within horizontal bands at the top and/or bottom of individual works, the artist uses rules of alchemy where hues are placed in blocks in rows, (mostly) in strict order.

From left to right the sequence goes: black, red, white, grey, green, blue and yellow, yet those names of colours are approximate. Various chromatic tweakings, plus calculated underpainting and inflections of rhythmical finger painting on top, introduce violet and gold for example.

The heights of the seven coloured panels also vary so that over half have double bands at the top, like strata. They are all aligned very precisely so that the tops and bottoms of some are flush with the horizontal strip-edges of others. A few of the bottom strips have a double thickness.

The various bars and blocks on the bands sometimes optically flicker, but usually they function as symbolic sliding doors or chunky barcodes. Mkrusich has mystical intentions. He believes his works are more than just assembled materials - that they connect to some deeper reality.

However he doesn’t rigorously always follow the alchemical spectrum. Principles of balance and spatial extension matter greatly to him, and so often the white blocks end up on the top righthand side – out of position with other colours in the series, but balancing. Here Mrkusich’s use of symbolism is pretty hard to separate from his formalist aesthetic, for the significance of the individual colours is their part in an evolving continuum. The process is not so much about turning the base and putrid into glistening gold (or the acquisition of prosperity) but more about intellectual growth and self-realization.

Derek Jarman, a film-maker and painter who collected Alchemical Treatises, explains it like this:

It was believed matter was animated by the soul. It took science to do away with that. Lead, for instance, was saturnine and melancholic. Mercury, quicksilver and the mirror of life itself….Sol the sun, masculine and gold. Gold was the aim of the pursuit, fired by learning rather than greed. In this universe, everything had its place though no one quite agreed on the order. The quest for the philosophic and incorruptible gold was a journey of the mind, mirror of the saviour. (Chroma p.75-76)

I think Mrkusich is a formalist, despite his denial of that in various catalogues over the years. He is a formalist to be much admired. You don’t need to grasp the early history of science and philosophy to appreciate the elegance and contemplative serenity of these works. The symbolic content is a footnote, not the main essay.