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, July 31, 2009

Joys of diluted acrylic

Harrison paintings
Michael Harrison: Sun Square Saturn
Ivan Anthony
30 July - 22 August 2009

Harrison’s nine works here are characteristically small and intimate, yet varied in tonal mood. Most are works on paper, using diluted acrylic with a little pencil, though there is one work on canvas. There is not so much positive/negative interaction of form this time around.

The darker works on paper have more presence, exuding nuances of moodiness and greater spatial depth. The Devil Reversed is the exhibition’s peak, composed a little like a movie or video poster, with the male and female stars in the background and a very odd leaf-nosed bat head hovering in the middle of the foreground. This could also be mistaken for the foreshortened head of an old bearded Chinese gentleman.

Probably Harrison likes to tease his audience, so they speculate on how such an image might be connected to the main protagonists that inhabit his devised ‘theatre’. Another tonally dark work shows reflecting puddles of rain or possibly jissom, with another (much randier) couple in a clinch in the background, and a man's head below. The work is dodgy but also intensely beautiful in its surrealist ambience.

Not all the paintings on paper work. A blue naked girl with long hair hanging down over her face looks rigid and awkward. Another, with a cuddling couple shown twice in silhouette - above as a contoured roof of a sort of hollow mosque, and inside it - has hovering sky-borne birds on one side and a hill of trees on the other; but the latter's triangle of foliage and trunks seem too regularly positioned and dull.

The real surprise in this show is the single canvas work of a couple of horses, with one delicately rendered as if it could be part of a fresco. This larger animal has a rippled, slightly combed or caressed quality to its grey flank, an intricate texture that is quite different from Harrison’s more usual liquid acrylic application.

It will be interesting to see if this artist explores this tighter, more opaque form of imagery further. His work seems to be moving towards a different sort of surface, a new sort of tactility.

It's been a sad week:

the passing of Julian Dashper and Diggeress Te Kanawa. Both were innovative in their fields and both were gifted teachers. Their parting is a substantial loss to the collective creative energies of this country.


Dare. Truth. Promise
St. Paul St Gallery 3 (39 Symonds St)
29 July - 1 August 2009

This exhibition is based on the supposition that there is no separation between an art work and the contextual envelope made from the history of the artist, their inspirations, background circumstances and her or his intentions.

In fact it goes further. It says lets have six artists prepare six catalogue entries for a show, record them reading those six statements, play it in a designed space with a sound system, and make that a ‘collaborative’ sound work. Forget the original impetus being discussed - which was video, painted or collage artworks. Let the auxiliary replace the primary. The footnotes replace the essay. Descriptive spoken words are substituted for the initially envisaged art experiences.

In my view, this is hogwash. Pure piffle. That there is a state of infinite regress here where research and mental imagining becomes an ever-receding surrogate for a finite physical construction.

I’m not denying that the six recordings are a collaborative artwork because if artists choose to make such declarative claims involving ontological status, who am I to contradict them? I will say though that the work is conceptually and experientially poor. That Natalia Birgel, Alan Joy, Sam Leitch, Lee McGarva, Seilala Sini and Vaimaila Urale have wasted their energies doing this. They’ve been sidetracked when they should have concentrated on their original non-aural projects, perhaps constructing them separately in isolation.

Thank you to the artists for the images.

Mhairi-Clare Fitzpatrick on the review of

Words Fail You . Ralph Paine also on Joe Strummer and The Future is Unwritten.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

La femme à tête de chou-fleur

Mhairi-Clare Fitzpatrick and Robyn Hoonhout: Words Fail You
George Fraser Gallery
30 July - 1 August 2009

The pairing of these two Elam photographers is an interesting one because they are so different. One makes lightboxes for her images (backlit duratrans) that even when featuring living people, still in this context look like consumerable commodities for sale. The other shows pairs of women at work, in their places of employment, or in clubs, or neutral public spaces. There is no consistent pattern. The lighting conditions and the contextualising visual narrative keeps abruptly changing.

The most accessible images by Mhairi-Clare Fitzpatrick are of two young women in a freezing-works. An update of Darcy Lange perhaps, and in this show, they become positioned images of ‘authenticity’. Her other images seem overtly preoccupied with fakery, with odd smocks and wigs. They are bizarrely futuristic, as if off the set of A Clockwork Orange, but in ultra-violet light.

Robyn Hoonhout’s duratrans have pairs of objects (images of elderly women included) is if in a promotional campaign that might go in bus shelters. She seems to be contrasting human individuality with Fordist factory production - and deliberately mixing consumer with the consumed.

The essay by Lucille Holmes that goes with this show is in this context inappropriate, for like every other student theorist who has been writing over the last twenty-five years, she is obsessed with Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and his use of the term punctum. She is also keen to show her erudition with the writings of Lacan and exactly how Barthes derived punctum from Lacan’s eleventh seminar. This is precious little use for anybody trying to grapple with Hoonhout and Fitzpatrick’s imagery – and will probably send them fleeing screaming from the George Fraser, never to return.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cerebral and muted

Yuk King Tan: Drummer
Sue Crockford
21 July - 8 August 2009

This current display by Yuk King Tan at Crockford’s consists of two videos on opposite walls, a large corrugated cardboard sculpture of a drum kit resting on a trolley, and a suite of ten computer drawings (modified by ink washes and spontaneous splashes) used in making of sculpture - and eventually, the video.

The drawings are topographical – like the well-known tramping maps - showing stratified layers from above. These particular ones have been used to computer cut corrugated cardboard that has been stacked and glued to make a drum kit and a lion. These light, three dimensional works are the key components in two ‘videoed performances’ made on the streets of Hong Kong.

One of these shows a young Hong Kong drummer using the sculpture as a real drum kit for some night-time practice, the dull thudding sound being similar (to be somewhat esoteric) to the occasion Ringo played a packing crate on Words of Love in Beatles For Sale (1965). Close inspection shows us that the drummer’s enthusiasm has left multiple indentations, crushing and tearing the paper ‘skin’ of the thin but hollow cardboard. The videoed ‘silence’ of this energetically played drum kit is a cynical comment on the communist take over of Hong Kong, the lack of public debate - and the disregard for the precious object is like King Tan’s red and green firecracker drawings (of the nineties) that were glued to gallery walls and then detonated.

The stratified cardboard drums are also interesting because of horizontal slicing of packed sections to render diagonal forms like snares or cymbals, or tilted stands, pedals and clips. The compressed forms are complex, the parallel lines relating to the vertically hanging tassels and threads of her early red and white wall masks as well.

Yuk King Tan’s second video features an elderly Chinese woman employed by the city to help keep the streets tidy by collecting waste cardboard and transporting it on a trolley to a rubbish recycling depot. Using a trolley she tows through the crowded streets the artist’s hollow, cardboard, life-size replica of one of the two bronze lions positioned by the entrance to the famous HSBC bank. The artist has asked her to take it to the rubbish depot, this action being a comment on last year’s banking crash, the plummeting of the RMB, and the superficiality of a ‘solid’ internationally reputable institution.

Of course the cardboard lion is not really abandoned in the depot to be crunched up, but neither does it find its way to New Zealand. We see it only as an image in half the drawings or as the much admired sculpture within the video. The printed and brushed drawings are intricate, surprisingly modelled and vaguely exuberant. Their graphic nature and lack of saturated colour is unusual for this artist, as is the brown cardboard in its chromatic restraint. Like the drummer’s attempts at percussion, a slightly muted exhibition. More cerebral and contemplative than visceral.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Here's a contribution from Lumiere Reader reviewer, Andy Palmer

Haruhiko Sameshima - Bold Centuries: a photographic history album
With essays by: Kyla Macfarlane, Ingrid Horrocks, John Wilson, Tim Corbalis, Aaron Lister, Damian Skinner, Fiona Amundsen and Claudia Bell
Published by Rim Books and Photoforum, with assistance from the University of Auckland and CNZ 2009

We’ve all seen the plethora of New Zealand’s scenic landscape books which present a certain skewed depiction of our nation. Even when photographers tackle this theme as a reaction to the stereotype (as shown most recently by Derek Henderson), they often just reproduce this brand, albeit with a different photographic approach.

With Bold Centuries, Haruhiko Sameshima has produced his own skewed depiction of our nation. As the subtitle suggests, this isn’t a straight photographic journal of a roadtrip a lá Derek Henderson’s The Terrible Boredom of Paradise (2005) or Robin Morrison’s The South Island of New Zealand from the Road (1981); this is a photographic history. The photos, largely made by Sameshima, include numerous historical images from various photographers from various decades, and other historical artworks.

What is both fascinating and frustrating is that many of Sameshima’s works are a knowing nod to works by other NZ photographers (Adams, Barrar, Peryer). Sometimes I did question whether I was looking at a homage, or a copy, though its not necessary to know the references to understand the images. The main frustration for me was that the captions (many of which are history lessons in themselves) are in the appendix. However, this does mean that the images are unencumbered by distracting text, allowing us to read the images as a whole.

Auckland-based Sameshima was born in Japan, and moved to New Zealand in 1973 while in his teens. He has been exploring ‘New Zealand’ for many years, looking at the “incongruous set of cultural mores called ‘this country’.” His 1996 work The Shopping mall as a place of contemplation was a series of television images and shopping mall brandings that examined our everyday reality. His more recent series Eco-Tourism, some of which appear in Bold Centuries, isn’t an investigation of ecotourism in the usual sense, but a study of the tourist industry and its relationship with the environment.

Bold Centuries continues Sameshima’s exploration of the concept that is New Zealand. The works flow from the natural environment to the urban environment and seem to be questioning not just how New Zealand has been represented in the past but how we are currently and how we will continue to be. Unsurprisingly there is an emphasis on the impact of foreign influence, historically from the British, but more recently from the US – photos of recent Central Otago developments could almost be Colorado or Montana.

Years ago a local photographer told me that all photographers are collectors – of their own images if nothing else. Sameshima, it seems, is a collector of representations of this country, whether photographed by himself or found objects (other’s photos, cigarette cards, postcards, etc.).

The eight texts discuss specific elements of this collection without explicitly referring to Sameshima’s work. Covering topics such as the archive, photographic practise, Manapouri, Rotorua and the representation of Maori, and shopping. By not obviously referencing the works in the book, this allows space for the reader to interpret as they choose, while giving a context in which to read, not just Bold Centuries, but Sameshima’s work in general.

This is an important book in the canon of New Zealand photographic books. Bold Centuries is not merely an artist survey book, nor just a collection of loosely related images; it is a curated exhibition placing the artist in context with his forebears and his contemporaries. A description Peter Ireland wrote about Robin Morrison can equally be applied to this work by Haruhiko Sameshima; his “work instance, intensifies, and expands our sense of place.”

If you happen to be a paid up member of PhotoForum you will receive this book as issue #77-78. PhotoForum has been around since the 1970s and has helped nurture many contemporary New Zealand photographers. They publish an irregular journal, a member’s only portfolio showcase, and the occasional book. The next one on the cards is a long overdue John Johns retrospective due next year. The membership fee will be worth it for this alone.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Ralph Paine has a warning for

Simon Esling, while Tim thinks artists thrive when it's tough.

When video was radical

Darcy Lange: Study of an Artist at Work
Edited by Mercedes Vicente, with contributions by Benjamin Buchloh, Guy Brett, Lawrence McDonald, John Miller, Geraldene Peters, Pedro Romero, Dan Graham and Mercedes Vicente.
Softcover, 208 pp. b/w and colour illustrations
Published by Ikon, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery 2008

New Zealand’s pioneer video documenter of working life, Darcy Lange (1946-2005) was often included in small group surveys of seventies practice, exhibtions that usually ended up with skimpy catalogues. He now has a substantial document about his projects, a publication that accompanies the New Zealand show (organised by Mercedes Vicente, the Govett-Brewster’s curator) presented at the Govett-Brewster and Adam Art Galleries, and the English version (curated by Helen Legg and Mercedes Vicente) at the Ikon in Birmingham. The achievement of Vicente, its editor, is that she has managed to rustle up an amazing group of authorative scholars, curators and artist /friends from around the world to contribute a suite of varied but highly informative, accessible essays; all about an artist whose videos – being in real time and unedited - many in the art world consider unwatchable. The detailed research poured into this publication impresses and the (usually Marxist) writers are shrewdly picked for their different areas of focus.

Vicente’s own essay is a comprehensive biographical and historical overview of Lange’s work in Spain, the U.K. and Aotearoa that sets up a thorough introductory context for the endeavours of the other contributors. In the preceding but illuminating preface she tells us a little about her own Spanish background and what attracted her to Lange’s work, introducing the notion that his performances as a flamenco musician were an extension of his video practice.

October co-editor, Benjamin Buchloh, is an art historian who always has a forthright point of view. His immensely interesting essay is about the history of documentary photography, in particular the period of the mid-seventies when certain ‘progressive’ artists such as Burgin, Wall, Roster and Sekula began through their practice to criticise conceptualist photography because of its prohibition against referentiality and representation and emphasis on deskilling - and open up an interest in particular historical, social and political conditions. The artists they reacted against – Ruscha, Graham, Huebler, Baldesarri and Smithson, sometimes were their friends, as was Graham with Lange – for Buchloh subtly aligns Lange to the critiquing group (though he is very different in not having an interest in theory, as Vicente points out) because of his ‘recovery of the working body’, his ‘persistent interest in the conditions of social class’, and his recognition of ‘the universal permeation and presence of skills in every member of the working collectivity.’ (p.60)

Lawrence McDonald extends this side of Lange’s thought when he points out that Lange considered Polynesians to do “everything as creatively as they can”, and that “creativity in schools is not necessarily confined to the art class (p.124).” Much of McDonald’s discussion in a superbly researched essay is taken up with the ideas of education theorist Paul Willis that he posits as parallel to Lange’s methodology. He refers to two of Willis’s books, the first being The Ethnographic Imagination (2000) which asks “..what are the consequences of viewing everyday relations as if they contained a creativity of the same order as that held to be self-evidently part of what we call the arts?”

The second Willis book, Learning To Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (1980), McDonald spends more time on - firstly in connection with Lange’s interest in middle class subjects in the UK (unlike say the New Zealand working class projects), and secondly in Lange’s move going beyond the observational to the more interactive. He and Guy Brett both write about Lange’s possibly most important project, Work Studies in Schools (1976-7), a documentation of teaching in Birmingham and Oxfordshire – important because of Lange’s process of showing his videos to the teachers and pupils later so they could separately assess their performances and behaviour (while being filmed). Intriguingly, Brett compares this work to Dan Graham’s transparent / reflective mirrored pavilions and Oiticica’s hammocks for sound and projected collages where social solitude and social interchange were fused.

McDonald is interested in the dialogical aspect of these Work Studies, how someone like Willis (who used transcribed audiotapes for his book) or Karl Heider (with his related publication Ethnographic Film [1976]) might analyse them. He points out that Lange blended his observational data collection into the interpretative process, that there was no editing or selection process separating the two - or devices like voice-over commentary, written titling or sound design. Only long takes, uninterrupted real time, and the unfolding of social processes which the viewer can work at to analyse if they wish.

Ngapuhi land rights activist John Miller, a friend and collaborator of Lange’s, with Media Studies lecturer Geraldene Peters writes a thorough account of his Maori Land Project (1977-80) a set of documentaries examining the Ngatihine Block and Bastion Point land claim disputes, of which a short 25 min version was shown on Dutch television in 1980 (but without Maori participation in the editing - due to travel funding difficulties). Miller and Peters’ impressively detailed account also covers some of the early eighties, and in it you get a sense of Lange’s personality and life style, his characteristic traits while working - such as his restless energy and political commitment, an ad hoc interview style, the fragmented, ongoing, unfinished nature of many of his projects and his financial hardships.

Pedro G. Romero’s contribution is the biggest surprise of the publication. It folds Lange’s musical passions into the fabric of his video documentations. In particular he elaborates on Lange’s flamenco discipleship of the legendary Diego del Gastor, and amusingly (as a touch of authorial wish-fulfilment) makes comparisons between certain guitar styles and Lange’s camera rhythms (p.172-3). He also points out the tragedy of Lange’s failure to complete a proposed Art of Flamenco As Work as a form of resistance to the commercial banalisation of consumer culture.

Dan Graham’s contribution about his friendship with Lange is brief but moving, and works well with the commentaries by Brett, Vicente, Romero and Buchloch that spasmodically allude to similarities and oppositions between the two artists.

This diverse set of writers clearly see Lange as using video as a means of social activism, yet whilst his imagery is loaded with historical, technological and political information about the seventies, and intimately connected to the different communities he worked with, it is hard to imagine contemporary audiences showing much empathy for its real time methodology, even when displayed in sophisticated gallery installations. However while I’m thus not sure about the efficacy of Lange’s practice as strategy (does it provide more than what any observant person would see walking round a city watching working people; or is it really about fetishizing video as a medium?) I did find this book an informative, thoughtful and very pleasurable read. Well designed and easy to scan (its font doesn’t make readers over forty have to squint) and packed with surprises, it deserves a wide international readership.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Simon Esling responds to

Forget Watercolour. Gnute also has some observations on his show.

Rushed job

The Man in the Hat
Directed by Luit Bieringa
Produced by Jan Bieringa
Photography by Leon Narbey
73 minutes

There must surely be no more revered contemporary art personality living in this country than the historically pivotal art dealer, Peter McLeavey. There has been some brilliant journalism about him and his hugely significant contribution to our visual culture (by Bryan Staff, Grant Smithies and others) but so far - until this year - no movie documentation. So when Luit and Jan Bieringa’s film about him was announced as being included in this year’s International Film Festival, there was considerable excitement. Yet my impression after seeing it is that it is a bit of fizzer. Lovely to hear the man talk, but as art docos go, not as appalling as Merata Mita’s Hotere, but nowhere near as good as Leanne Pooley’s Being Billy Apple or Judy Rymer’s Victory Over Death. Just so so.

So what went wrong? Why wasn’t it as good as those last two? With the co-operation of a tirelessly loquacious, charismatic personality like McLeavey, and an esteemed cinematographer like Leon Narbey it should have been superb. Why wasn’t it?

First of all only three days were spent filming. Somebody like McLeavey, whom everyone knows is a complex individual, will always tell great stories (even to strangers) about his childhood, family and friendships with certain key artists - but that is just the surface. He needs to be gently prodded so that he is continually recorded at length to make a substantial document. Something over a couple of hours with real depth. He is so engaging he is always watchable.

There are many unpresented questions that could have been asked: I’d like to know what was it like to fill a Morris Minor up with paintings (as I’ve heard he used to do in the sixties) to take them to motel rooms in distant cities to try and sell them? Why and how did he persuade Woollaston to make the wonderful panoramic landscapes? Where did he learn to become a salesman? Did he ever consider that the role of spiritual themes might be over-rated in this country? Why did Hammond’s prices go up after the Auckland Island trip and not before? (What was it about the imagery?) Why did he get upset with L. Budd ‘blonding’ his chaise longue? And most importantly, when did he start wearing a hat? The McLeavey brand is actually his silvery (Warholesque) hair, his round ruddy (babylike) face, and those alert blue eyes behind stylish glasses. Always instantly recognisable. No hat.

Much of the film, as you’d expect, is fascinating, especially when our subject is talking about his nomadic childhood, his Catholic education, Freudian psycho-therapy and his bouts of depression. Or his passionate collecting of internationally sourced photography or publications of New Zealand poetry. The excerpts of letters from or to him from McCahon, Woollaston and Walters are the highlights.

The film’s photography though is disappointing. Some of the interviews were held when he was slumped in a chair and filmed from below, making him look facially a bit squat or froglike. He should have been filmed at eye height. After all, he is a salesman of infinite persuasion and charm, a great communicator who is very expressive and direct. Show him as he is normally seen.

Furthermore, in this film, too much is made of Wellington and its inhabitants. McLeavey, perceived by many as a national treasure, is admired everywhere in this country and beyond, but Bieringa, in my view, wastes too much time showing life on the streets of the capital, and his subject’s daily wanderings between home and gallery. Such subject matter is consistent with Bieringa’s earlier film on Ans Westra, and as director it is natural he follow his own creative humanistic impulses – though his agenda is not overbearing to the cost of his subject as Mita’s was in her Hotere. Yet despite his comparative restraint, for documenting such a significant player in our visual heritage it is regrettable that he did not play ‘David Sylvester’ to McLeavey’s ‘Francis Bacon,’ and develop some extended, really pithy conversations over three whole months, instead of only three short days.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

This insidious wraparound…this seamless scroll

Gary Hill, James Casebere, Jude Rae: The Estrangement of Judgement
21 July - 22 August 2009

Site recite (a prologue) was one of the highlights of Gary Hill’s wonderful exhibition held at St. Paul St earlier this year but you could only see it on Fridays. Whilst you can see a diminished version online here, that is obviously inferior in image and sound quality. Therefore Andrew Jensen is re-presenting this work in Auckland, as well as shrewdly curating a show from his other artists around it. Rae and Casebere’s rendered images (bird skulls, things on tables, and skull-shaped rooms) resonate with the videoed objects that come in and out of focus on Hill’s jerkily revolving (but constantly filmed) table.

The voice-over is a text written by Hill himself, a superb prose poem about the reflexive nature of consciousness that riffs on aspects of Beckett, Blanchot, Jabès and others in its deliberations. Like Hill’s assorted bones, shells and papers that come in and out of focus, patches are hard to hear, but sonorous with a stagey actor’s delivery (imagine Anthony Hopkins) – superbly recited by Lou Hetler. He has a bit of Irish brogue in his enunciation of Hill’s finely crafted cadences.

In Jensen’s space there is a sense of a homunculus peering out through the eyes of an invisible skull, the outside world (Hill’s video) on one wall (Hetler reads: this insidious wraparound, tied to the notion “I have eyes in the back of my head”, binds me to my double…), and on the opposite back wall Casabere and Rae provide approximate mental simulacra: Rae with assorted industrial objects on a table, Casebere with his skull-domed room symbolising the mind itself - and the space within which it dwells.

Hill’s possibly over-wrought language may seem to be impenetrable but it is not. It perfectly matches the camera work which to and froes between objects, sharpening on their forms for a second or two only to dissolve and then flick on to another. This happening while we hear:

A seamless scroll weaves my view back into place – back to back with itself – the boomerang effect, decapitates any and all hallucinations leaving (lo and behold) the naked eye, stalking each and every utterance that breaks and enters the dormitories of perception.

It celebrates the pleasures of looking at the world with a relish that comes close to voyeurism, creating a parallel internal monologue that takes pleasure in its own existence, gazing at itself and revelling in its own constantly reperpetuated commentary.

Okay, this is heavily cerebral work for sure, but it also is highly sensual, and engaging, as a visit to Jensen’s will easily confirm.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Forget watercolour

Simon Esling: Constructs
Anna Bibby
8 July - 2 August 2009

The ten A4 sized watercolour works Esling presents here (occasionally with collage) could be illustrations on pages for a book, they seem so consistent, so purposeful and loaded with intent – and not open in interpretative possibility, or surrealist. The presence of sinews or bone in most implies the artist has a narrative in mind, some sort of reading involving bodily, muscular sensations.

If this is so, perhaps making delicate illustrative watercolours is not the bravest way of approaching a phenomenological content, to think about the mover’s prioperception. Why not consider Robert Morris, or Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and make an installation an audience can directly experience? Make a practice that embodies a theory (literally and viscerally incorporating movement), rather than trying to picture it. Something working with agency, and not passive or detached.

About half of these works on paper are framed and under glass. The rest are positioned under suspended clip-boards, with no logic distinguishing the two. The artist is sending out contradictory signals because frames and glass mean 'hands off' and clip-boards imply you can remove from the clip if you so wish.

There are also two sorts of image. One is collage-based and integrated spatially so that the picture plane and different depths of field lock in well together. The other has shallow and deep spaces awkwardly juxtaposed so that the transitions across edges are abrupt and jarring. Often there are images of trucks or planes as symbols for human bodily motion.

I don’t think this show is an aesthetic success but I admire its consistency and quality of exploration. There is a sense of a mind at work testing different symbols or codes with different illusory spaces. However the work is hampered by the restrictions of illustration, which it needs to abandon in order to be much more immersive. If only artist and audience could start wallowing in real space, to be consciously considering that, and aware of itself consciously considering that.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Malone lives

Daniel Malone: The English Teacher (exhibition)
The Dead Class
(performance - 17 July)
Gambia Castle
18 July - 8 August 2009

Daniel Malone’s performance on Friday evening began with him being dressed in a worker's cloth cap (under which his hair was tucked into a stocking), with shirt, waist-coat, jeans, and shoes - and his face in pale stage make-up. There were six main props: an apple placed on a portable table near the window opposite the entrance to the room; a black, hard–covered photocopy of a Polish translation of Beckett’s Malone Dies on a white shelf; a hexagonal mirror on the opposite wall; and on the floor scattered posters positioned under a solitary light-bulb suspended on a long lead. The audience stood or sat close to the walls.

Standing behind the desk the artist addressed his audience as if he was gong to give a language teaching lesson, and pass around a book to be read aloud. However instead he began to talk of his interaction with the artist Billy Apple, by whose name he was officially known in Poland - as he has a New Zealand passport legally stating that name as his identity.

Elucidating further, Malone spoke of Apple’s contributions to the lighting of the TestStrip space (the same room as Gambia Castle) when it was first established, and then mentioned me by name, mentioning briefly our later conversations when he legally changed his name to Billy Apple. This was as an artwork contributing to the (Sharp and Shiny) fetishism exhibition I curated for the Govett-Brewster in 1997. He then spoke of a performance he did at the Polytechnic in New Plymouth that had similarities with the current work we were then witnessing.

The artist spoke concisely and with purpose, showing his considerable experience as a teacher, yet often interrupting his flow with retractions such as ‘that wasn’t what I meant to say, I should have said ...’ The overall content was a bit like a tentative ongoing newsletter to family and friends, like what some people send out yearly with Christmas cards. He began by telling us about his life in Poland where he now works and lives as ‘Billy Apple.’

Malone’s gallery invitation for this performance contained four informative sentences (reproduced below) that elaborated on four types of object in the gallery space: exhibition posters illustrated with death notices, a Polish translation of Beckett, a coffin shaped mirror, a single light bulb.

A klepsydra is a kind of death notice, a standard format published in Polish newspapers and pasted around appropriate sites - like the apartment building, local church, and workplace - of the deceased.

Malone Umiera is a Warsaw City Library copy of a book written in French by Samuel Beckett in 1951, translated by him into English and published as Malone Dies in 1956.

Portret Trumienny are portraits dating from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 17th and 18th centuries that were hexagonal in shape and placed on the head-end of a coffin during elaborate funerals of the time which also included actors playing the part of the deceased and extravagant constructions known as castrum doloris (castles of grief).

The Dead Class, 1975, is the best known play by Tadeusz Kantor, one of Poland’s most esteemed neo-avant-garde artists and most internationally celebrated dramaturge. Malone explained that Kantor’s plays are often illuminated by a single light bulb.

Malone then told us he was happily in love and about to return to Poland in his original ‘Daniel Malone’ identity to marry a Polish woman. This ultimately explained his long sequence of actions in the performance, starting with his moving the table so it was positioned under the coffin-cross-sectioned mirror, taking off his clothes and lying on it for a few minutes in a ‘shroud’ of exhibition ‘death’ posters he had scooped up from the floor.

After getting up and redressing, the artist then discussed the publication Malone Dies, how in Beckett’s play Malone does not in fact expire, and how he (D. M.) borrowed and photocopied the Polish translation using his ‘Apple’ identity.

Using the single light bulb, Malone then moved around the audience with the mirror, showing them the presence of three documents hidden behind the reflective glass - but detectable if illuminated at the right angle. They were his ‘Billy Apple’ library card with photo, a written application to take the book out on loan and out of the country, and an application for photocopying it.

There was a clever layering of parallel tropes in all this, between original and copy, between the two ‘Billy Apples’, between one 'Malone' identity dying and another being born, between Malone’s reflected talking face disappearing and his photographed ‘Apple’ ID variation appearing in the evanescent glass.

To underscore these aspects he removed all superfluous ‘residue’ from The Dead Class performance site – like apple, bulb, bed and posters - leaving just mirror and book to make up The English Teacher exhibition. Other crucial information was still apparent embedded contextually, such as the death notice of the invitation, and Kantor’s play (‘reflecting’ Beckett’s) having its name in Malone’s performance title.

Malone’s skill is to make a series of casually interconnected actions seem ad hoc, almost accidental. It is only when you start analysing his procedures by letting the resulting austere exhibition serve as a memory guide, that the various conceptual strata and cleverly placed, linking poetic threads become apparent.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Compelling paintings

John Pule: Nothing must remain
Gow Langsford
22 July - 15 August 2009

This presentation of twenty illustrated poems on paper and eight grey painted canvases continues the themes of earlier Pule shows. The hiapo canvases (their structures based on Niuean barkcloth) now have portions of polyurethane varnish mixed with enamel paint. The densely ornamental, gridded images are becoming more complicated, with the graphic linear areas contrasting with painterly sections of swirling honey coloured resin.

The interaction of land and sea - bays and estuaries around North Auckland, with cloud dotted skies – enrich these composite paintings that are also laden with sailing ships and sea monsters, octopuses, serpents, and copulating Gods. It is a rich panorama that includes chopped up beached whales and narwhals - and crowds of bystanders that might include the ghosts of whalers. Historic and contemporary time (before the Europeans came to the Pacific, and after) are happily mixed together.

With Pule’s drawing the thin, weedy pen and ink lines don’t work as well as the thick, smoky, oil-sticked configurations. The lines are too spidery and anaemic - for he is not a skilled draughtsperson: his shapes are often casually trite and cack-handed. This lack of drawing ability is easily hidden within the complex canvases (that from a distance look like huge prints) but not with the pages of handwritten poems. Their pen and ink and watercolour drawings reveal a great deal.

For this reason, the gridded canvases with their differently sized comic-like frames containing internal narratives, and unusual blending of different media, hold your interest. The looseness and spontaneity of Pule’s graphic and painting style works well mixed with changing grid modules and inserts of runny, oozy enamel-streaked varnish and smudgy paint stick. When he avoids delicate inked lines in bald isolation, his images stay compelling.

Architectural drawings

From perfumery to radio station: The evolution of an Auckland architectural practice
(Plus) New Zealand architecture in perspective: 150 years of architectural drawing
Gus Fisher
3 July - 12 August 2009

These two shows examine the role of drawing – nondigital in this point of architectural history – in building design. One looks at one firm close up, using the plans and elevations it submitted to clients. The other looks at rendered building proposals from several, using perspectival drawing methods.

The ‘perfumery show’ is the better one, having a tighter focus and a site specific installation using the inlaid marquetry toolbox owned by Henry Greensmith Wade. He was a partner in Wade & Bartley who in 1934 designed 1YA which later became the Kenneth Myers Centre in which the Gus Fisher is now housed. The exhibition features many delicate, detailed, ink and wash working drawings for that project, plus others from the 130 year history of Matthews and Matthews into which Wade & Bartley become incorporated.

For the other exhibition Canterbury art historian Ian Lockhead has selected an assortment of perspectival drawings created using various media. The drawings are quality artworks in themselves, especially the looser Scott and Pascoe ones which I particularly enjoyed. There are however too many, and the display is completely upstaged by the works in the adjacent rooms next door.

Even though the drawing structure there is different planarly, the similarities with line and wash, and the presence of each proposed building’s unity of concept and interlocking drawn graphic components, make the Matthews and Matthews show much much richer. Plus – as in the case of the beautiful Kenneth Myers Centre - you are actually in the building under scrutiny. You can wonder at the imaginative use of drawing as an essential aid to its construction, and enjoy the textures, forms, and prioperceptive bodily sensations of the final spatial result.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sweeping painting

Alberto Garcia-Alvarez
Curated by Leonard Emmerling and Alan Joy
St. Paul St.
16 July - 11 August 2009

Alberto Garcia–Alvarez is a Spanish painter who taught at Elam between 1972 and 95, a lecturer held in particularly high esteem by students and colleagues alike, and whose work I can remember a friend from the North Island raving about when I lived in Christchurch during the eighties. Despite this, his profile since his retirement has been virtually non-existent. Consequently this show is an important event.

This painter works all the time, every day. For him praxis is a spiritual, philosophical, ever-continuing intellectual search where theory and action are one. So what have the curators done with the results of all this activity?

For a start this is not a chronological survey, sampling all the varieties of visual investigation he has explored over the years. It is highly selective. Joy and Emmerling have basically picked seven kinds of work that they find interesting. Some of it overlaps so that at first glance it looks like three or four types.

First of all there are the painted assemblages of angled wooden batons where the colour on the side planes of the timber differ according whether you are positioned on the right or the left. Mostly made in the seventies they have similarities with the metal sculptures of John Panting and Polynesian navigation grids made of bound slivers of wood and shells. Their use of side planes and colour is derived I suspect from Don Peeble’s Victor Pasmore-influenced constructions of the mid sixties.

Second there are the large expressionistic works on heavy paper: vigorous, gestural interwoven marks made with what seem to be brooms with stiff straw bristles that create parallel lines. The surface is matt, with the richly tactile, striated and flicked paint consisting of ground pigment mixed with latex. Made in the nineties, these contain glimpses of Richter, but with earthier, more organic colour, and wilder wider vectors.

Third there are more large works on paper but with rectangular (black) or triangular (white) shapes created with narrow housepainting brushes or the occasional squeegee and with the paint a little more fluid and puddled than with the ‘broom’ works.

Fourth, photolitho metal panels with brushed on lines of paint. Hints of Polke but a lot smaller.

Fifth, folded cardboard rectangles with brushed on or sprayed paint. Clever ideas with form, folding and direction - alluding perhaps to Dorothea Rockburne.

Sixth, small panels on board with dripped on, poured glossy paint.

Seventh, pinned up canvases of brushed on perpendicular black rectangles or receding corners of right-angled lines.

I have numbered them in order of their success as paintings. (In my opinion, obviously). Nos. 1-2 categories are by far the most successful. 6-7 in turn are disasters but useful because they provide links between other series. They are ‘duds’ which help unify the whole project. They don’t work as composed paintings but as ciphers loaded with formalist and processual information they provide clues to Garcia-Alvarez’s thinking.

For the two St. Paul galleries Emmerling and Joy have mixed up the different varieties of work and different scales in their hang. This is a mistake. Gallery Two should have a long wall down its centre and that space only used for small works – so that the two scales can be kept apart. That way they can be analysed as sets and the degree of appropriate spatial intimacy consistently sustained throughout. However the hang does draw out connecting threads between different experiments.

The wooden wall reliefs show Garcia-Alvarez’s ability as an innovator trying to manipulate the movements of the viewer as they examine the planes, unlike the large paintings on paper that are flush with the wall and which although wonderful as providers of a bodily experience, are not ground-breaking. They are too reminiscent of Richter, Kline and de Kooning.

It would be an interesting exercise to bring to St. Paul St the Ilam Honours exhibition of another painter, Philip Trusttum, presented in 1964. It was reshown in the Mair gallery in Christchurch’s CSA in the late seventies - that was when I saw it. These huge works (well over 3 metres high) were panels layered with sweeping slashes of oil paint mixed with shaped sections of corrugated cardboard that had been doused in turps and set on fire. You could see the influence of his teacher Rudolf Gopas with the collage, but they were extraordinarily raw – with a hint of the apocalyptic. They almost make Garcia-Alvarez’s nineties work here look timidly genteel in comparison – because of their brutal physicality.

With that national art-historical context in mind, Garcia-Alvarez’s is nevertheless a refreshing show, one that is very unusual in the current art climate. His works remind us of how exciting paint can be as an applied, modulated, thoroughly integrated substance, and how nuances of bodily empathy can flicker through our minds recreating the artist’s movements. They stir us physically in a way that merely analysing say, spatial depth of tone or hue can’t. Like watching Len Lye films or kinetics or listening to rock and roll.

[Of the above three images, only the centre one is in the exhibition.]

Friday, July 17, 2009

Repression or indulgence?

Clara Chon: Repression Revisited
A Centre For Art
16 July - 1 August 2009

Let’s start by having me set the scene, for this is one of those ‘conceptual’ projects where the imagination is the main material. Chon’s ‘work’ consists of ‘sketches’ for a One Act play called Photoshop Layaz: an ongoing and partly fictitious play in many episodes, written by Tim Coster and Ash Kilmartin.

In the ACFA exhibiting space the props are strictly minimal. Only three.

On one wall there is an unfolded sheet of blank brown paper. A grid of nine sections demarcated by creases. On the floor is a bare foam mattress on a beat up divan frame with castors. It is in a pink cover that matches the pink underpainting around the entrance to the ACFA studio/office. And on the opposite wall is a pinned up painted canvas depicting the back of a head of strawberry blonde hair. No face, neck or shoulders. Could be a wig. Could be a fetishist’s fantasy.

More important than any of these is a transcript of the play on the window ledge that you can help yourself to. It's jumbled. Scenes are printed in random order, Scene Four is split between the action and the description of the set, as is another with no number at all that has two alternative stage directions. And there is no dialogue - only laughter.

The dozen characters (some of which are intact families, romantic couples, and groups within the audience) act out a ‘plot’ which as the title implies, focuses on innuendo, aided by the presence of course of the mattress. Most of them are easily identifiable Auckland artists – visual and sound, or art writers – interacting in various Auckland clubs, bars and restaurants.

What of Chon’s psychoanalytic title? It tells us that these aren’t in fact sketches at all, but the remnants of a play once completed - but now with the embarrassing meaty bits pushed into hiding, leaving only the acceptable shuffled bones of a skeleton. The content pertaining to the handful of props in the ACFA space has been collectively censored. Those meagre props were once part of a larger, more lavish stage production.

Or ignoring that possibility, what if a work could be developed beyond these putative ‘sketches’ - by mentally correcting the sequencing and putting in dialogue? I can’t imagine it being particularly interesting as an ‘unrepressed’ project. Would it be less insular and giggly, less an inhouse clique of pals - all twenty-somethings - absorbed only with themselves?

Not that older generations of artists would be any different. It’s the nature of so much art practice right now to be preoccupied with its own social matrix. Celebrating its own perpetuation. Occasionally also critiquing it.

It is possible Coster, Kilmartin and Chon have a satirical intention - that they are lampooning a certain art coterie, or the idea of repression itself. Hard to say; they could also be boasting. Whatever the case the short transcript is a visually attractive little document, and fun to think about – up to a point. It’s probably not worth an arduous hike up to ACFA solely to retrieve a copy, but if you are going to the Civic or to SKYCITY for a Festival movie, and happen to be passing, you can always drop in.

For Auckland readers who like me, are film nuts

(hey, most art lovers are) Saturday afternoon (1.00) is your last chance to see Albert Serra's brilliant Birdsong. It's part of the International Film Festival, and I think critic/curator Richard Dale lobbied for its inclusion. Thank God he did.

Steve Garden (a wonderful film writer on The Lumiere Reader) also loves it. It's easy to see why. It's exceptional. The best of the eight I've seen so far. A mysterious, moody, yet hilarious, spectacularly beautiful movie about three bumbling Kings traipsing across the barren Icelandic landscape in search of the baby J. It has overtones of Pasolini, Rossellini and others. It also includes superb night-time photography. It's b/w and digital, transferred to film. And the Catalan director is at the screenings to answer questions. Very special.

Also being screened on Saturday (3.30) is Mark Peranson's movie about Birdsong's making, Waiting For Sancho. Peranson is in Auckland with Serra. They came to Daniel Malone's performance on Friday night at Gambia Castle.

The Festival seems quite remarkable this year and is well supported. Lots of packed houses. In times of recession, films are a substitute for travel perhaps? It's also good for the imagination and you don't screw up the ozone layer or waste global resources. More importantly, some of it is great art. Stuff to think about for years to come, that often will never get to your local video/DVD library. A great opportunity.