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 5, 2009

The edges of sincerity

Grant Stevens: Fazed
3 August - 29 August 2009

Sydney and LA–based artist Grant Stevens is currently having an exhibition of video and static wall works in the large downstairs space at Starkwhite. It consists of two videos (akin to earlier works he has presented upstairs in Starkwhite stock shows), three lambda prints, one lenticular work, a shaped mirror, and a sound/light piece.

Stevens is a man obsessed with the nuances of language, how it works and the emotional consequences it sets up. For this show he explores post-affair depression and the concept of a ‘brave face’, looking through a veil of tears that results from a broken heart. Words play a crucial role in elucidating this, especially in his videos.

The ambience of the room however, set by the eponymous work of blue fluorescent light and lilting but mournful pedal steel guitar, is not to be taken at face value. With these exhibits he pokes fun at the notion of sincerity in such a restrained way you are not quite sure. You thought you saw a hint of a smirk but perhaps you didn’t really.

His key video, Crushing, is a written account of a terminated relationship, with single words precisely positioned for short time periods on different sides of the screen. They hover around to be read, in groups or by themselves, and then fade away. I get a sense Stevens is informed by some Reader Response theory - ideas for example from Iser or Jauss - the way information to the reader (and their expectations) is constantly modified. He seems interested in how texts are scanned: mental imagery absorbed only to be gradually altered.

In this work Stevens begins the story with a few easy to connect words, but then makes linking the components more difficult as the vocabulary pops up on different parts of the screen. Old and new phrases start to mingle, generating confusion that matches the speaker’s torment. Then as the affair crumbles in its last stages, he restores linear clarity by simplifying the connections and providing a poignant longing – all accompanied by a lush soundtrack on stereo headphones, some deliciously moody cello and piano.

Swell is Stevens’ other video. The words are verbally spoken, mainly lists of phrases, accompanied only by a circular image of gently pulsing, fuzzy petal shapes. Daily tasks, social responsibilities, bodily beautifications and cleansings are set out and recited, but with a seething anger gradually seeping in. The work seems to be about existential resentment.

Of the failed love theme, the lambda prints include Flow, an image that has the clasped hands of two lovers, their pointing index fingers and vertical forearms making up a steeple that confirms a relationship made in heaven. Next to it is a mirror that is heart-shaped but blended with puddle forms made by fallen tears.

Looking at the non-romantic works, Blow Out depicts a long burger, with all sorts of savoury, fatty and sugary foodstuffs jammed between two slices of bread roll. It demonstrates Stevens’ characteristic ambivalence, for it is repulsive but also delectable, disgusting while causing your stomach to rumble.

Stevens’ lenticular image consists of a group of eight three-dimensional portraits of a shaggy dog, involving I think some sort of pun about perpetual narrative. Likewise his lambda print of a gridded, bottomless, electric kettle seems to be a joke about molecular motion dissolving the notion of solid mass.

This is a richly layered show where the significance of things depicted emerges slowly over time. If like me, you are constantly fascinated by the materiality of language and how different artists continue to inventively re-examine it and its structures, this show is essential viewing.

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