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, September 30, 2009

Aqua (mass) media

Simon Denny: Starting from behind
Michael Lett
9 September - 10 October 2009

For this show the title is clever in at least three ways. First of all, the artist is using Michael Lett’s office as a display space, so Lett’s desk is now presented close to the Karangahape Road window - in the entrance space on the corner. The back room’s main contents are now in this front room and the first thing you see.

Secondly, the works in the large middle room are presented as four large trays standing vertically on the floor. In them are the backs of various TV sets - the plastic casings that enclose the tubes. The gallery visitor examines them from behind. And thirdly, the large room has four rectangular holes cut into the gib of the Edinburgh St wall – the same size as the trays - exposing the normally hidden outer wall of the gallery building; the inside plane of the double weatherboarded outer wall that is. Again, we are looking at it ‘from behind’.

The four vertical trays lined up on the floor have textured aluminium sides, mdf backs, and wrinkled or torn plastic fronts. For three of these trays, there are single, screen-printed, tropical fish on the plastic and mdf. These works are called backwards aquarium videos, and have either Grundig or Telefunken casings. The fourth has two suspended towels, each showing a screen-printed TV announcer with a monitor TV image behind him.

Denny’s dominant simile here is that of the goldfish bowl or tropical fish tank. His towels seem to allude to Marshal McLuhan‘s theory of ‘the medium is the massage’ where the tactility of various methods of mass communication has considerable physiological impact on our bodies and hence our minds.

The hermetic, watery world of the mains-stream media could perhaps be intended to parallel the ‘art world’ too. Beyond through the rectangular holes in the wall, there exists the so-called ‘life world’. Where folks like you and me fit in – in terms of these options - huddled over our various computers, I’m not quite sure.

In the end room, in a large cabinet holding a Philips television, is a DVD. Deep Sea Vaudeo is ostensibly a promotional video for selling televisions of different varieties of screen, one that extends the watery connection by having some ripples and a dark permeating tone as if immersed. We see these appliances on stands, or stacked, or on tables, about fifteen set up on a small stage in a showroom. Each screen depicts tropical fish and we see a camera crew filming the display.

Using slow pans and a background soundtrack of bubbling, bland muzak and softly spoken Japanese, it presents these televisions in the dark with glowing screens, or illuminated in a warm reddish glow. Sometimes they are lined up so we can see them in cross-section; other times we see them frontally.

With these televisions Denny includes some magazines and newspapers on stands. He seems to be making jokes about his Gambia Castle colleagues Fiona Connor and Nick Austin, the former with her exhibition of fake newspaper stands, the latter with his paintings of tropical fish on newspapers.

Late last year at Center in Berlin Denny had a small exhibition with Austin where he exhibited earlier Aquarium paintings in the same aluminium trays, but enclosing the front screens of televisions, not their backs. The properties of mass media is obviously a theme he is much preoccupied with.

As also shown by the Recent Haircuts show at Gambia Castle last year, his work is getting tighter and tighter as focussed gallery installations. And subtly funnier too in the way he alludes to the art community’s self reflexivity and sealed containment. Like Fiona Connor he is here making great use of the windowed frontage of Lett’s gallery, and the fact that it is situated on a corner like a sort of glasshouse. A structure easier to look into (like a fish tank) than look out of.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Inside this world: the limits of faith

Out of this world
Curated by Leonard Emmerling and Stephen Bambury
St. Paul St Gallery
17 September – 16 October 2009

The title of this international exhibition Out of this world refers to the well known, 1888 anonymous line engraving (made from a wood block) of a pilgrim poking his head through the bubblelike membrane that encloses the natural world , the enclosing sphere made of scientific explanation, in order to see the divine and inexplicable forces in action beyond. The experience of encountering the incomprehensible, a magnitude so vast we cannot grasp it, what we also call ‘the Sublime’, is the theme here.

The show examines artists’ attempts to capture this – some sincere, others humorous – and whether it can be upheld as proof of a Supreme Being. It also introduces unjustified belief, the notion of ‘leaps of faith’, dividing the artists into two camps: believers and sceptics.

Actually McCahon is the only ‘believer’ here, apart from the anonymous wood engraver, and the only New Zealander. What that suggests I’m not sure. Certainly that such mystics are outnumbered, particularly in today's art world - judging by this exhibition. However it is a great McCahon work, with impeccably handled dry paint on jute, showing the comet Kohoutek streaking across the sky in three separate, butted together, charcoal coloured hangings. The word ‘Jump’ on the far left declares McCahon's risky faith. It seems to mean let your imagination leap across the void of common sense to grasp the significance of this wondrous event. Like the kneeling man in the wood engraving, ignore the world of logic.

The prints by Vija Celmins of night skies or expanses of ocean come closest to McCahon in terms of an intimate sized work that confronts the viewer with enormity. These small works draw you in close but they could be pro-Mystic or pro-Science. The two viewpoints are not necessarily in opposition.

One artwork that implies that it is the viewer alone who is generating any mystical being ‘out there’ is the hologram by James Turrell. It alters its soft, vivid green, rectangular shape as you approach or move around it, depending on your bodily relationship to its glass slab and the illuminating spotlight.

Another particularly gorgeous work connected to the body is a deep velvety black, horizontal rectangle by Peter Rösel. He has lightly flicked specks of white toothpaste over it from a toothbrush. In this way the painting becomes an open mouth, implying God has an oral orifice and is a human creation that mimics ourselves.

Thomas Ruff plays a similar sort of game with his enormous glossy photograph of a night sky, where he states he is prone to adding one extra hand-painted star. Unlike Rösel where God imitates people, Ruff imitates God, yet giving him the human attribute of mischievousness.

Ben Rivers has a grainy five minute film of snippets made with a hand-held camera showing lines of pilgrims apparently ascending the Irish volcanic hill of Station Island on Lough Derg where St. Patrick lived. The added soundtrack plays the noise of incessantly trampled scoria, yet Catholic pilgrims are meant to go barefooted around certain shrines on the way. This hints that perhaps that the film is faked. The Purgatory pilgrims in this film keep their boots securely fastened.

Such fakery is further explored in Linda Quinlan’s two channel film of her version of McNaught's comet seen two years ago over Tasmania. Her film is a double exposure that seems to include a Milky Way of oil droplets floating on water. The main image is based on a lamp placed in a forest with a cloth thrown over it that has a circular hole cut in. This creates a diagonal beam of light amenable to being crossed by dust clouds. In the background stars are formed from the surrounding, reflecting, glossy leaves.

Modernist art history and the so-called Death of Painting is laughed at by Jorge Molder through his film of what seems to be Malevich’s famous 1913 Suprematist work, Black Square. This ‘full void’ that established a ‘supremacy of pure feeling’ representing God (‘I search for God. I search within myself for myself’) is lampooned when it becomes a trapdoor in a ceiling that opens so that a besuited gentleman can then escape.

The fleeing gent could be a Suprematist painter or he could be God. He could be a modern version of the observer poking his head through the firmament, reversing, pulling his head back out and coming down to earth. This is a wonderful, exceptionally cohesive, exhibition that is witty and light, yet absorbing in the way it counters the position of say, Natasha Conland’s Mystic Truths of two years ago, in relation to ‘outer-worldly’ states of mind. An important show to see.

Images from top to bottom: anonymous, Colin McCahon, Vija Celmins, James Turrell, Ben Rivers, and Linda Quinlan.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Cheryl Bernstein on Wadahya's mention of

a 'puzzle book.'

so you tell me on some banter

a year ago.


Ronnie van Hout: Who goes there?
Curated by Justin Paton
Christchurch Art Gallery
4 July - 18 October 2009

This Ronnie van Hout show is an updated extension of the earlier survey I’ve Abandoned Me, also put together by Justin Paton (in 2003) when he worked in Dunedin. That show when it toured, didn’t come to Christchurch, the artist’s home town. (He’d since shifted to Melbourne). This supplement (containing only one work from I.A.M.) is very focused, examining as before the artist’s exploration of interiority, weaving and ducking inside and out his Private Self (or Selves) - and its twin Public Persona. This is exemplified by the artist in an eponymous video knocking on his front door and waiting for himself to answer. Flicking backwards and forwards between public and private.

The similes in this display are quite tight (literally and figuratively). As coverers (or containers) of the van Hout body there are lots of buildings, kennels, doorways, cupboards, box-shaped robots, igloo–shaped museum dioramas, gallery walls and coffins. They have one thing in common. They all use flat wooden sheets that are thin and vulnerable, and that 'skin' provides physical and psychic protection from the invasive machinations of aliens, hostile creatures dwelling inside speaking animals, other van Houts, or perhaps the art public.

Some of most memorable images feature parts of finely detailed, Ronnie van Hout dolls, initially produced for an edition at The Physics Room. Two small robots sitting on giant beds, seem to be waiting for Goldilocks and The Three Bears, while another display of ten identical Ronnies stashed in coffins appears to reference the story of Dracula invading England in a ship.

That’s the wonderful thing about these projects, that nursery-tales, old movies, inner anxieties and prosaic imagery all get jumbled up together. The most normally forgettable event suddenly acquires meaning by being recontextualised.

Sometimes inner and outer elements are not jumbled up but only juxtaposed – like in the Antarctica project where a sculpture of the seated artist makes him look withdrawn and self conscious, similar to a forlorn animal gazed upon in a zoo, whereas the nearby videos show him as gregarious and outgoing, taking an interest in what other people in Scott Base are up to.

Then there is the complicated matrix of various sub-themes, like his digging of escape tunnels as if to get away from his Self, to avoid being spied upon, to also avoid being the subject matter of art and its nosy audience.

A lot of the show makes jokes about gallery strategies of viewer manipulation, and how to thwart the gallery visitor (such as when a electric-eye activated voice warns them not to touch certain exhibits), or perversely to tease her or him with intimate peepshows.

More pronounced are jokes about the activities of gallery education officers striving to get children involved with the exhibits. Many of the wall works and certainly the show’s catalogue duplicate the questions and puzzles teachers give classes when they visit galleries. The enthusiastic art lover is deliberately treated like a child in a manner that just stops short of being insulting.

This aspect ties in nicely with van Hout’s interest in his own education, specifically at Mairehau High in Christchurch. He has a large wooden model of the main classroom, with wee videos of himself peering out the windows restless and irritable as if being a prisoner – while the curious gallery visitor is in turn watched by a surveillance camera (a form of artist’s revenge). Photographs of smaller models of the school and his family home (there is also a bigger wooden model of that) are positioned nearby.

Who goes there? is not as impressive as I’ve Abandoned Me which was much wider in scope (for example it had great embroidery and concrete paintings), and had a superb catalogue of writing from Paton - but it is immensely interesting all the same. It is unusual in the way it examines the art institution from the point of view of an artist normally associated with jokes stemming from a brooding anxiety, who despite his successful career has gnawing reservations about what he is doing there.

The title thus applies to himself. Who goes there? also applies to the gallery visitor whom he treats like an invader. The title asks you to declare your identity, if you are confident you have one, and why have you come. What on earth are you doing in this building?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Amazing drawing

et al: That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!
Curated by Jennifer Hay
Christchurch Art Gallery
23 July - 22 November 2009

Andrew Paul Wood has already contributed a review of this show that has sparked off some excellent discussion involving myself and Ralph Paine – over his comparison of et al. with Richard Rorty. I said that et al. are not extreme antifoundationalists like Rorty, and Ralph replied that Andrew was covered by his discussion of irony.

Irony is not part of et al.’s current game-plan in my view.
Look at the title of this show. I think it is dead straight. No smirks or bulging cheeks anywhere - it is earnest. Why is that? Because though it seems to be a classic et al. installation display it really is about the old-timey skills of drawing. It is a fantastic, virtuoso drawing exhibition – albeit an unusual one. None of the art commentators have noticed this yet.

So the point of that title? What is so damned obvious, correct and truthful? A large suite of framed images - captions pertaining to the global crisis and state of suffering humanity in general – that’s what. Hung from clunky grey screens, these incorporate faked sociological and statistical charts or graphs, culled from enlarged text book pages. Made with a wide range of traditional media, including collage, paint, pencil, ink, tape, charcoal and crayon, they look like very odd archaic posters from some very peculiar ranting institution.

Here are some headings et al. use in the drawings, strung together in a line:

Recent events and the state of the world. Example of continuing conflict. Common misunderstandings, motives and choice. Conflict induced outcomes. One world: keys to the immediate future of humanity. Assimilation: ideology, social position and disposition. Will the matters on hand delay or hasten the process of responsibility and human love?

Not a belly laugh anywhere amidst the dark shadows and lumbering screens. It is an unabashedly community-oriented project. One obviously unorthodox. And in its centre is a small stage on which are stacked free copies of et al.’s publishing venture: The New Zealand Altruism Review (June 2009), designed to encourage constructive and positive social change. In other words, political reform without satire.

One of the ways the show is impressive is its use of height, the way the stud of the exhibition space has been exploited. Signs on towering metal poles like lampposts on street corners, dismantled ventilation chutes, the small stage, four odd projection screens that are a little like flimsy urinals made of canvas: they all condense the cavelike atmosphere to make it intimate and less sprawling. Less like a hangar.

Around the corner far away from the central downstairs CAG corridor, in a row of alphabet-coded fish tanks on trolleys, are cardboard models of rooms. Their rectangular shapes reflect the lifesize floorplan drawn on the gallery floor with thick white tape. These roofless toy sheds seem to be metaphors for individual selves. In isolation and exposed in full view, they are cut off from community links indicated by the joined up tape lines on the floor and the content of the drawings.

Great as That’s Obvious! That’s Right! That’s True! is, it is perhaps too successful – for the drawings are technically too subtle and conceptually welded to the installation to get noticed. That is an odd thing to say I know, and it is perhaps wearingly trivial to suggest that their sophistication will only really be grasped when they are removed from their contextualising project and examined in isolation. Still, the seemingly casual effortlessness of their production I think ensures they will attract a following of new et al. enthusiasts who previously found the work too raw or confrontational. Like Bill Hammond’s practice when his work changed after the Auckland Islands trip, there is a new manual dexterity in this work – an unforseen confidence – matched perhaps by a new optimism in the missionlike subject matter. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination but there seems to be some kind of turning point.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Paula Booker on eyeCONTACT and the

Richard Bryant review.

Peter Madden on APW's take on Pessoa, and the

winning TWNCAA Mitchell work

Restrained, even for watercolours

Richard Bryant’s watercolours
Martyn and Rose’s living room
30 August - 20 September 2009 (visits were by appointment)

Both Richard Bryant and Martyn Reynolds are part of the ACFA group, so as Bryant is currently living in London, it made good sense to me when I heard about it, that he was showing some work in Reynold’s Newton flat. Previously I had only seen his paintings in Jan Bryant's section of the PX St. Paul St. painting show, three oil paintings exploring the materiality of collage, with sections of each painting copying pages torn from fashion mags.

After hearing from Martyn that collage still underpins the structure of his friend’s work, these recent, seemingly unrelated, extremely understated watercolours became pretty interesting. In fact preferable to the oil works. The connection though was certainly not obvious.

They were shown pinned up by their corners on the austere lounge walls, or lying flat on a varnished wooden table. Because they were more delicate than delicate, if you happened to own one it would have to be float-mounted. Kept well away from its frame.

There seemed to be two types. One had regularly patterned rhythms on a flat picture plane. The other had a deeper, receding space, using perspective and a vanishing point. Bryant’s project seemed to be all about qualities of edge where the liquid colour and minute granules interacted with shapes formed by the untouched A4 sized w/c paper – particularly with the patterned works. The perspectival pieces often had fields of descending mist where there was less density towards the bottom edge.

This private (semi-public) show is over now, but if you are curious about seeing these minimal but nevertheless intriguing works, you can always yak to Martyn, contactable via the ACFA.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Andrew Clifford on institutional documentation and

eyeCONTACT's grant.And artandmylife.

Printed media metaphor

Pauline Rhodes: Fluid connections 1980/2009
Jonathan Smart,Christchurch
25 September – 11 October 2009

Pauline Rhodes is a senior figure in the history of this country’s installation art, an artist known for resisting any commodification of her work by constantly reusing the materials of earlier projects – she has been exhibiting regularly since 1977 – and for exploring the phenomenology of the experience of landscape. Though she is highly regarded in her home town of Christchurch, Rhodes is comparatively unknown in Auckland – especially to a lot of younger artists and curators. This despite the fact she has had a major survey (2002) at the Adam (curated by Christina Barton, who also prepared a book on her practice).

Though Rhodes is often associated with the creation of forms and surfaces covered with rust stains (made by sandwiching canvas or paper between watered sheets of iron), or for activating open spaces through rows of diagonally aligned rods painted fluorescent green or draped rags of intense red, this exhibition in the inner Smart gallery is quite different. It features collaged surfaces that appear to be taken from the pages of The Guardian Weekly, the international journal that combines material from several European newspapers.

Using this fine type-covered tissue that bears stories of calamitous global events usually far away from Aotearoa, Rhodes has covered various items such as the skeletal frames of deckchairs, collapsible picnic tables, down piping, sawhorses, bowls and branches - as if they were detritus washed up from an ocean of print media language. Interspersed around them on the floor are cables wrapped in black velvety fabric, budles of green cord and red bandages, ventilation tubing and tumbling seaweedlike tarpaper.

The show’s theme seems to be that of community and geographic connectivity, that separateness and isolation are not possible, that even outside is really inside. Indoors no longer can have a membrane or protective barrier separating it from outdoors – the two cannot be divided.

'Flowing' or 'fluid' in Rhodes’ hands becomes a metaphor beyond landscape elements, now standing for the spread of information. River-like pencil lines drawn on suspended sheets of rusted flecked canvas don’t seem to be alluding to nature anymore in this collage smothered context. Landscape is a structure now submerged in something else, locality an element overwhelmed by much bigger forces. Ethical global responsibilities have become a more overt ‘spatial’ preoccupation.

Above images: Overall shot by the artist, separate details by Mark Gore

Eight plus one painters

Cloud 9
Curated by Jennifer Hay
Christchurch Art Gallery
29 August - 29 November 2009

This is a very odd selection of new painters picked from up and down the country, nine as the title says, all apparently sharing a common state of euphoria. Yet Elliot Collins, Mike Cooke, Ruth Thomas Edmond, Georgie Hill, Eileen Leung, Marie Le Lievre, Tim Thatcher, Telly Tu’u and Pete Wheeler collectively make up a very mixed bag. There is little stylistic cohesion.

Looking at the nine artists: Pete Wheeler contributes two vultures whirling in space, snapping at each other in a frenzied duel; Elliot Collins has a large text suspended over a cloudy backdrop; Eileen Leung, some multi-component, coloured Perspex and delicately paint-drawn wall reliefs; and Mike Cooke, pop-arty faces of humans and animals oddly positioned against a top edge. Marie le Lievre has ‘baggage’ paintings of glazed surfaces; Telly Tu’u, abstractions of mechanical shapes and contours floating in fluffy space; Georgie Hill, large drawings of ornate botanical motifs fixed on stark walls; Ruth Thomas Edmond, butted together coloured fields of feathery brush strokes; and Tim Thatcher, vaguely cubist hybrids of architectural and pastoral folk elements.

Of these Marie Le Lievre is probably the most well known, because of her extraordinary ability to manipulate liquid paint into mesmerising sensual surfaces on canvas. Her highly textured, darkly glazed forms are obviously remarkable but she seems compelled to supply a narrative component to her paintings, turning all images to handbags or suitcases, as if obliged to supply a story. To make the identifiable shape she blocks around its edges with a much lighter tone, creating a different sort of surface from the rest of the painting, one that is chromatically comparatively unmodulated. The jump between the two sorts of ‘paint zone’, the lack of integration, seems to be a result of an easy option, rather than resolving compositional problems early on.

The question of a different sort of integration arises with Elliot Collins’ painting, The sparrows. It is really a sort of short story as told by a thinking living canvas, a musing, an address superimposed over images of fluffy clouds in a blue sky. Collins’ text is very long, and when quoted in a blog like this its awkwardness becomes really obvious - but in a painting the words can only be read in short bursts. Reader behaviour is quite different. Thoughts are piecemeal and slowly assembled. Lines get disconnected and mistaken flow-ons occur, creating accidental meanings.

Processes of integration is quite different too, oscillating between mental picturing and ocular picturing – trying to blend the two together, merging imagination with the 'outside' physical environment.

The painting’s rambly but somewhat sweet text says this:

This painting is really very good but only because it loves you and is proud of everything you have achieved so far, and it can’t wait to see what you’ll do next. It’s been hovering over you with the sparrows and dust and oxygen molecules your whole life. It has watched in awe while you were courageous and brave and kind when necessary, and sometimes it is necessary even when difficult. It has seen you reach the outer limits of yourself and watched in wondrous amazement as you fell from the greatest of heights loving you all the more. This painting pines for your love in return. Not in that desperate needy way but in the way you want to be pined for, like the wind for the clouds. Sadly I am the only one who can know this because of my unfortunate ability to see such things. Others will fail to see what I have time to observe, because as you know I will outlive them all and the future seems unsure and distant. But still, I suppose all is not lost, at least we’ll always have each other.

Now you can tell by its earnest, sensitive tone it is the writing of a young person. And of course it does go on far too long. I mean I almost toppled out of my zimmer frame trying to laboriously transcribe the damn thing, but it interests me in the way mental images replace physical ones – outside of its elucidation of the properties of states of mind like love. There is some sort of deferral going on; a delayed anticipation.

Perhaps though, the work might have been better not painted at all. Instead it could have been a typed sheet pinned to the wall, with the above text prefaced by a detailed description of a large canvas covered with clouds on a blue sky, onto which the prepared words were then to be positioned. Or even better, an audio recording of a voice describing a typed piece of paper….

Image by Tim Thatcher.

eyeCONTACT is pleased to announce it is in the process of receiving substantial financial assistance from Creative New Zealand. The money will be used for the following three purposes:

Firstly to enable me to carry on reviewing several Auckland exhibitions each week over the next year by paying me for my work.

Secondly to help soon place the project within a website format in order to make it more reader-friendly and interactive, make its archives more accessible, and eventually to put ads on so it can become financially self-sustaining.

Thirdly to make it more national in focus by (along with other financial supporters) paying other writers in Dunedin, Christchurch and Wellington in order to circulate information and views - and also in Auckland to get more opinions into the pool of examined discussion.

eyeCONTACT is immensely grateful to Creative New Zealand for this valuable help.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Andrew Clifford on Adam Art Gallery images

Thursday night's Art & Object Hotere auction has just been

cancelled - due to an ownership dispute.

On Adam's walls

Wall Works
Curated by Christina Barton
Adam Art Gallery, University of Victoria, Wellington
8 September – 4 October 2009

The notion of drawing or painting directly onto the gallery wall has been with us for at least forty years now, probably becoming most well known with the practice of Sol Lewitt. For this method, Tina Barton has picked an unusual group of artists to work on the Adam Art Gallery walls, eight individuals some of which you and I would be unlikely to predict: David Cauchi, Michael Harrison, Patrick Lundberg, Julia Morison, Simon Morris, Reuben Paterson, Kim Pieters, and Jeena Shin.

For the first half of the show the gallery was opened so that the visiting public could observe the artists constructing their artworks. If you click on the link here you can examine nineteen slides showing samples of the processes involved. (Put your cursor on one image and lefthand click halfway down the righthand edge to change it).

Barton has come up with a terrifically inventive eight-unit combination. The big surprises are Cauchi to install graffiti in the two toilets, Paterson to screen a DVD loop in the dark walled, rubber-floored ‘dungeon’, and Harrison to paint on a large moveable wall by the entrance. Inspired choices.

David Cauchi’s contribution is a revelation – far funnier and classier than what you’d pick up from his blogsite. His use of the orange and green planar surfaces of the Ladies and Gents on which to place withering (often appropriated) comments on idealism, art world participants, liberal democracy and our meaningless lives in general make him a sort of Aztec-obsessed Keith Haring–meets-Emil Cioran, and are so entertaining (though he’s serious in his unrelenting scorn of anything and everything, not trying to get laughs) that his incessant but earnest quips could turn you into a compulsive dunny loiterer.

Reuben Paterson’s black and white film on a pearlescent glittery screen celebrates a queer politic in its furtive, bunkerlike space and bombarding central-state imagery. The flashing, pulsing sequences of kaleidoscopic patterns expand and contract, spin and tilt; hurling you through the screen at unexpected speeds - via different jarring scales - to explore delicate geometric snowflakes and dotty asymmetrical Brownian motion. It is difficult to leave the space because you keep discovering new shapes and tumbling axial alignments you had never previously noticed.

The tunnelling physicality of Paterson’s project has similarities with Kim Pieters’ towering and shimmering wall paintings of cascading pale blue and creamy dribbles on the staircase. These gorgeous surfaces evoke the Sublime and force your eye to rush to the ceiling and its corners, seeking out strategically positioned, negatively-shaped drip-free zones that allow planar respite.

Similarly vertical linear qualities, but much finer and graphic – not overtly painted - are also apparent in Julia Morison’s multi-panelled Myriorama mural that descends down the wall under the Adam’s infamous Athfield-designed floor/ceiling slot. Her columns of 106 portable and reusable panels, each with a gently mottled background overlayed with one of thirty-two repeatable permutations of entangled or parallel lines, drop down or traverse three linked walls, and play off against two thick black parallel bands that bisect the high planes.

Simon Morris and Jeena Shin use only one wall each. With Morris’ looping grid of pale yellow ochre lines you can see where the tone and saturation levels vary, and how – using templates not pencil – the artist has gradually built up the horizontal structure. You can also see how in the first half he has added extra lines, doubling back in reverse to create a denser complexity. The occasional ball within the transparent trajectories indicates where the tips of adjacent lines have overlapped, providing clues to where certain sections of pathway have shared common routes.

Jeena Shin’s large mural features tumbling tangram-like forms of overlapping rectangles and triangles in glossy grey on a matt white plane. The occasional fine ridge shows traces of her process as she modifies the angular geometric rhythms and descending negative gaps. The evanescent forms are getting larger for this artist, becoming more robust, more strident and less delicate.

Michael Harrison’s work on a movable rectangular wall is a comparatively simple composition that shows a small red cat suspended within the larger negative silhouette of an open-mouthed Alsatian where the curved arabesqued contours of the feline tail and canine jaws play off amusingly against each other. It is fascinating to see Harrison deal with this uncharacteristic scale and successfully resolve any formal or technical problems.

Patrick Lundberg’s project involves thinking about the site specific peculiarities of the wall fittings and architectural fittings around the top of the stairs, using a repertoire of generic pencil lines (repeatable with tracing paper) similar to those used by Sol Lewitt. You have to look closely to see them and how Lundberg refers to various wall edges, ceiling planes, bookcase corners, light fittings and banisters.

This show looks excellent now, but I saw it last weekend at the time of the Adam’s Tenth Anniversary Party. For that event Barton had commissioned temporary structures designed and built by second year students of Victoria University’s School of Architecture and Design to be placed inside or next to the installations by the eight artists I’ve just discussed. The result was a political, aesthetic and conceptual disaster, making many of the artists furious that their projects were interfered with at a time when many out-of–town visitors had come to see the show. It was sad to see such curatorial blundering - though thankfully, only short-term.

Cheryl Bernstein on the Pick exhibition review

And a response by David Cauchi, and conjecture by Andrew Clifford.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Understated restraint to histrionic excess

Séraphine Pick
Curated by Felicity Milburn
Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu
23 July - 22 November 2009

Seraphine Pick is a popular and much loved narrative /surrealist painter who reaches a large audience often befuddled by the intellectual complexities of other varieties of contemporary art. A large selection of her varied images, made from the mid-nineties on, has been assembled by Felicity Milburn for this touring survey.

The material is sorted into four large rooms. The first space, an L-shaped gallery, has the oldest examples and contains her best work in my view – scratched or pencilled images on green or buttery-brown monochromatic fields.

These graffiti-style canvases are like Twombly or Beuys or much fifties French painting, and exploit tremulous clusters of scribbled or drawn pencil line that are hard to see. They often portray daily tasks around the house,fantasies of hetero female horniness, and little textual snippets. Pick’s use of scratchy pencil on airily expansive fields brings an affective intestinal nervousness to these paintings, especially when combined with the occasional hovering black silhouette. There are also slightly earlier paintings of rendered items of clothing or objects floating in space at regularly positioned intervals. They hint of other projects to come.

Things get more complicated in later periods with a wider range of painting styles (a lot of portraits) that often mimic influential international role models such as Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans or New Zealand art historical figures, Raymond McIntyre and Rita Angus.

The worst of these are dark or Fauvishly garish, and hammily theatrical in their sense of Gothic melodrama. They are akin to Ashley Bickerton’s painting in the first Auckland Triennial, or Phil Judd’s famous Split Enz ‘Mental Notes’ LP sleeve, in their histrionic, highly emotive use of exaggerated gesture or facial expression; and are unabashedly corny – pitched to viewers of X-Files who long to shudder and twitch.

As Pick’s figure drawing is generally weak (human forms tend to look stiff and bodily inflexible) her real talent lies in fantasy portraiture where she is not twee or fey, and doesn’t have to cram entertainingly peculiar props into the background, but can concentrate on a single face – be that human or animal. Her dog visages are remarkable, though you won’t be able to tell from this show because Milburn has hung them too high on an end wall. Pick is a far more interesting animal painter than say Joanna Braithwaite. The canine physiognomies she creates have unnervingly vibrant personalities.

Pick’s liquid acrylic works on paper are also a treat, having an appealing looseness that contrasts with the swoony Pre-Raphaelite rigidity of many of her oil paintings. As an artist she is versatile, while also inconsistent (awful figure posture but extraordinary fabric or clothing detail), so while a show of just portraits would more successfully hide her weaknesses, the range of her work here exposes them. Though I’m not convinced she has the talent or experience to deserve a touring exhibition of this type, it is good to have had the opportunity to think about the pros and cons of her practice in this large, thoughtfully arranged and surprisingly varied, display.

Early Hotere works on paper

Ralph Hotere: This Land
Art & Object
18 September - 24 September

This is a preview exhibition for an auction of sixty Hotere items that make up a collection of work he gifted to Annette Ferguson. They are mostly works on paper, namely drawings and prints, with a couple of very early shaped canvases. The earliest work is 1957, the latest 1968.

1969 was his Frances Hodgkins year and his career really too took off after that – especially with the glossy black lacquer, minimalist panels with glowing lines (they are the peak of his career), and the wonderful textual collaborations with Tuwhare and Manhire. However he did do the Sangro (1962-3) and the Polaris and Algerie series during the earlier period of these about-to–be-auctioned works.

The trouble with Hotere is you have pick really carefully through his work to get to the good stuff. Over the years he has produced an awful lot of dross, particularly on paper, and in that way this collection is typical - especially with works that owe a lot to his friend McCahon. However you can tell he is experimenting to find a voice, indeed struggling - testing out ideas, looking at Kelly, Pasmore, Frost and others. So although most of the work here does not age well – it looks like shabby design - it is interesting to see it as samples of a process (some unsigned) that did occasionally lead to brilliance.

Art & Object’s little catalogue of essays is useful for a group of short texts by David Eggleton, Kriselle Baker, Oliver Stead and house staff that elucidate the context, especially the different series of protest paintings. Yet looking at larger survey publications like the recent Baker/O’Sullivan tome is also a good way to supplement this material, examining the non-paper paintings that developed at the same time and seeing where Hotere’s testing of new formal and political ideas led him.

However that approach denies the unique qualities that a handful of these paper works possess. Their surface properties are not found on soft canvas or hardboard or metal panel, especially those sheets with light and feathery, painted brush marks, scumbled monoprinting, or deliberately out of register screenprinting. You have to go to the Art & Object space yourself, zero in on what catches your eye, ignore the copious rubbish and look closely.