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, August 12, 2009

The bowels of the 'burbs

From the depths of suburbia: Photo-media from Auckland
Curated by Serena Bentley
Te Tuhi
25 July - 27 September 2009

These seven Auckland artists work in photo-media with suburban content as a theme. They were chosen by Serena Bentley for an exhibition that was initially presented in Queensland at Griffith University last May.

Many of their works have been recently shown in inner city Auckland (namely City Art Rooms and Anna Miles) or the K’ Rd art circuit (Michael Lett and Ivan Anthony), but not of course in Pakuranga. And it is intriguing to see them assembled this way. Edith Amituanai, Steve Carr, Conor Clarke, Sam Hartnett, Geoffrey Heath, Ava Seymour and Yvonne Todd make an unexpected but interesting combination.

Why is that? Well firstly, it reconnoitres the topic of the home, dealing with the fenced off street, the lawn, the outer walls of the house, and then zeroing into the intimate living spaces. Dwellings and backyards only, not dairies or shopping centres.

Secondly, there is a lot of humour. Even the creepy stuff is amusing. For example there is a hint that within Ava Seymour’s photographed collages of rubber fetish couples these unorthodox people are just as dreary and unimaginative as the rest of us – maybe more so. Her state housing images though are offensive to many viewers brought up in such homes. They regularly make her audience furious – but that in itself for others is a source of hilarity. After all it is art, and need not be taken at face value. Provocation is commonplace.

Yvonne Todd’s large single Frenzy is funny too, but really deadpan with her impeccably made up model wearing an inordinately large, flouncy, voluminous dress and ludicrous rabbitlike teeth. She reclines elegantly on a concrete floor surrounded concrete blocks, beams of building timber, and straggly strips of filthy carpet.

Steve Carr’s suite of photos of granddads wearing Dracula teeth are just as silly, but more restrained. Only the mouths give the game away. However it is his videos that tend to dominate the exhibition, even though of the four, only one has sound. He makes wonderful studies of children (and himself) having fun playing, often revealing their anxieties simultaneously.

For example, when three little boy ‘Indians’ jump on Steve the ‘cowboy’ in order to tie him to the clothesline and squirt him with the hose, the fourth ‘Indian’, a girl, is apprehensive and reluctant to participate. (She is either very shy, or thinks the male behaviour too absurd to bother with.) Likewise in another work, when Carr is distributing free snow freezes one or two don’t want them, or if they do, eat with such intense (almost fearful) concentration that you wonder if they are getting any pleasure at all.

Sam Hartnett has an impressive array of entertaining outdoor images: a giant concrete teapot with a large red and yellow Choysa label; road cones, spin-driers and televisions in treetops; a bizarre, elongated, homemade tricycle; two fox furs draped over a clothesline in a sun porch next to a suspended potted cactus. You laugh out loud and wonder how he found these odd subject matters.

Likewise the more formal, but just as gut-wrenching, images by Conor Clarke – especially her three shots of fan trellises fastened to brick houses in Grey Lynn. One, with a heavily cut back punga, looks disturbing like a crushed or deformed bird with compacted feathery frills. It looks like a boa sprouting out of some sort of squat fungus.

The images of Edith Amituanai and Geoffrey Heath, the obviously successful ones that is, differ from the above in that they don’t emphasise humour but focus on composition. Heath’s lightjet print of a young man in his skants on a couch working the remote control is beautifully organised, with the vertical slants of the background Venetian blind offsetting the furniture’s spiralling fabric patterns and drooping parabola of the remote’s lead.

The best Amituanai photograph is the oldest and smallest, a coloured framed work (Fipe’s Lounge) that is six years old. Various family photographs and religious reproductions are hung on two walls that meet in a corner. They bob up and down in a line near the image’s top, while an assortment of small objects, vases and lamps create counter-rhythms on the card-table, television, stereo and little coffee table below.

This is an excellent exhibition that allows you to re-examine and reconsider some works you might like a second look at. It would be interesting if Bentley did a similar show of Queensland photography dealing with the same theme – to see how different (if at all) that would be.

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