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 23, 2009

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.


artfromspace said...

Some more finished images would be great. It is quite interesting but still frustrating to see only process images on their website.

John Hurrell said...

I quite agree but the idea seems to be for the process of installation to be examined in the first half of the show and the final end result looked at in the second. So they prob need a week for that, though they should have got onto it at the end of last week.

After all the Gus Fisher rarely has good instalation shots online, does it? Most municipal institutions are just pitiful,eh? Interestingly, a lot of dealer galleries are really well organised in getting good documentation for their sites.

artfromspace said...

Of course, how impatient of me! I do love all the scaffolding shots. I just really wish I could have been there for this show. And being there, I expect, is everything with a show like this where artists like Shin need to be experienced in space. I'm glad I eventually made an effort to catch John Ward-Knox's show at Tim Melville, which had so much more than the images suggested.

Yes, we public galleries could do a lot better with making the work available online and I suspect dealer galleries having the incentive of trying to sell the work by any means necessary has given them a headstart. When audience is more of a concern, there could be a fear that people won't bother to come in if they've seen too much already. However, Gus Fisher now has a Facebook presence so we'll be experimenting with using that as a vehicle for an ongoing image bank - the website structure we have inherented doesn't lend itself so readily to this.

John Hurrell said...

Similarly eyeCONTACT is now using twitter to keep readers informed of new posts. In terms of discussion I prefer this site to used - so its content can be examined in depth within each post's threads.

John Hurrell said...

Andrew, your comment that dealers or public galleries often worry about giving out too much information or too many images - is a common syndrome. They are concerned that people will not get off their chuffs and examine the work at first hand. It is a bit insulting (I mean, are art audiences really that stupid?), but it explains why often the documentation includes very general shots with little detail of the actual work. As an example - look at the CAG site. Say Pick or Cloud 9: no details of the actual paintings are there. I find this very odd. They are not baiting their lines properly.

s. said...

Your approach to this "review" (if I may call it that) is quite disappointing. You seem content to restrict yourself to cataloguing your own understanding of the process of the making of the work, in one case going as far as referring the result to the artist's former work (Harrison). You barely acknowledge your own reaction to the work -- Paterson, and to a lesser extent Cauchi, and when you use adjectives they are almost exclusively employed in such a way that they impart only a dry, non-committal, sentiment. (e.g. "more robust, more strident and less delicate" could be praise. Or could it? Who knows.)

Okay. Kim Pieters' work was gorgeous, Michael Harrison's amused you, and Cauchi's demonstrated an unexpected humour and classiness. Yet despite the faux-objectivity of your reserve, apparently the show was "terrifically inventive" and "looks excellent". Was it really? If I experienced such a show and my only overwhelming reaction was "Oh, yup.. I can see how they did that", I think I would describe it somewhat differently.

So, did you really like the show? I'm unconvinced.

John Hurrell said...

First of all Stephen, in a lot of my writing I am ambivalent - and I do my best to elucidate the reasons why. A review doesn't have to be brickbats or bouquets. Both extremes are rare.

In this show, one that is about process, I try to get across what is it that intrigues about these works. I do praise it (I particularly like the surprises I described) but my enthusiasm was dampened by the student work that ruined the whole thing over the weekend i was there. I explained that pretty succinctly I thought in the last paragraph.

s. said...

"In a lot of my writing I am ambivalent"

Do you mean: you write about a lot of art to which your reaction is ambivalence? Fair enough, there's a lot of it about. Or, do you mean: in your writing you try not to offer any opinion about anything? If the latter, then I can't see the point.

"and I do my best to elucidate the reasons why"

I'm sorry, if your intention was to convey that your reaction to the show was ambivalence, you didn't pull it off -- unless there is some kind of codified art review sub-text going on that I am not familiar with.

"A review doesn't have to be brickbats or bouquets. Both extremes are rare."

Sure, but it's not particularly interesting to read unless you commit yourself to an opinion here and there. I apologise that in my earlier reading, your positive sentiment about Cauchi, Paterson and Harrison was obscured by your praise for the curator's "inspired choices". I still feel that you are hiding your lamp under a bushel.

"In this show, one that is about process"

Is the show about process? Who decided? Did you? Is that what the curator said? Was it written on the brochure? And irregardless of whether it was all about process, or not, you really reviewed the static fixed works as you experienced them during the 'opening' party, granting only passing comment if any on the process of only 6 of 8 artists. Simon Morris and Jeena Shin were the lucky exceptions.

"I try to get across what is it that intrigues about these works."

Really? I'm sorry, it just comes across as "yep, I can see how he did that".

All I'm looking for is "I liked such and such because", or "I thought this failed because of that", and so on. Perhaps that is a too non-sophisticated approach for you and your readers. But it kills me to think of any of the artists reading your piece, and interpreting it (as I did) thus:

"Oh, crap. I gotta write-up that Adam show. Umm.. what am I gonna say? Better not upset anybody!"

... the inference that it was bad, boring, or worse: irrelevant, and you're only being nice to avoid offending the curator.

John Hurrell said...

Tenacious fellow aren't you?

1.) Okay, by ambivalent I mean I often have really mixed feelings about shows. A combination of positive and negative reactions. I try to express those responses clearly and to somehow justify them. (Might not always succeed of course). It's not drudgery, least of all this show which is an unusual and exciting event.

2.)Process is stated as part of the show's design - esp. for the first half which was opened so that the public could observe the artists. Look at the website.

3.)I respond to different artworks in different ways. I don't have a clipboard I carry round with little boxes to tick off as I write.

4.)I imagine I might have offended the curator with the last paragraph and pleased her with the easlier ones. She, like me, is used to speaking her mind and I'd be very surprised (and annoyed) if she thought I was insincere.'s not bland writing. Stephen. It's hard hitting and also balanced and fair. Did you nod off or something?

s. said...

Sorry, John, I think your review is insipid, bland, non-committal bollocks. I'm disappointed that CNZ is giving you money to write like this. Try saying something interesting.

John Hurrell said...

Well you've seen the show, and so can measure my writing against that. Whatever your take, you are free to provide another review here. Come on, expose my neglect. Why don't you tell us what it is in the show that is so dammned interesting that you think I've missed.

s. said...

Dear me, you're missing the point and HOW. Your 'neglect' is that you've written 900 words and none of them convinced me that the show is worth making the effort of seeing; or, conversely that it is not and why not. I don't think you've missed anything per se: I just want more from an art review than "You can also see how in the first half he has added extra lines, doubling back in reverse to create a denser complexity". Those are the words of a textiles nerd or an engineer. (No offense intended to either 'profession').

Stop being so defensive. You're writing in the public realm, about art which is happening in the now, and you're being paid for it too. "Who will babysit the babysitters" sang Jello Biafra once; well, likewise, who's gonna review the art-reviewers? I am, for one. Is it too much to ask that I and your other readers -- for there must be more than just me -- come to an appreciation of what John Hurrell likes and doesn't like, and WHY? Engage us.

For what it's worth:

"Tenacious fellow aren't you?"

Patronising; defensive.

"A combination of positive and negative reactions. I try to express those responses clearly and to somehow justify them."

You haven't expressed those responses clearly, nor have you managed to adequately justify them.

"Process is stated as part of the show's design - esp. for the first half which was opened so that the public could observe the artists. Look at the website."

As you're well aware, we're talking about two different processes here. In addition, if the website and the manifesto re. the show are so interesting and/or provide so much context, mention it in the review and link to it.

"I respond to different artworks in different ways. I don't have a clipboard I carry round with little boxes to tick off as I write."

Defensive; frankly, beneath you.

"It's hard hitting and also balanced and fair."

Hard-hitting it is not. Balanced and fair? Only by default.

"Did you nod off or something?"

Play the ball, not the man, John.

John Hurrell said...

I think you have some other beef with the Adam or Barton that has nothing to do with me, and you expect me to fight your battles for you. I've chatted about some of the qualities of the show that I find interesting (and you obviously don't) and so we reach a stalemate situation where you beat me over the head with the CNZ grant because you want a firefight written about the show instead.

Reviewing is a serious business where one is attempting to assess each exhibition on its merits. It is only partially about entertainment of readers.I've looked at the work, described and discussed it I think fairly, and enthused over cetain qualities accordingly - but you somehow resent that. Okay I didn't succeed in effectively communicating with you, but well, there's plenty more to come. Hopefully I'll do better next time.

s. said...

Hi John, I don't see the point in prolonging this, since you seem unwilling or unable to see my point. For the record, I have no beef with anyone, I like the show, I don't want a firefight, and I resent nothing.

I too have failed, for I was actually trying to encourage you -- to write passionately and personally about the art. Leave the striving for the (unobtainable, anyway) goal of (faux-)objectivity to the institutions, who are required to give at least an impression of it. Sure you'd be putting your neck out, but you are already, so.. where's the danger in that?

I don't really agree with your comments about reviewing. Sure it's a serious business, and of course you have to assess each exhibition (or in my case, album) on its own merits. But don't take it THAT seriously. Sure it's only partially about entertainment, but for my money its a lot more about engagement. It's a relationship, a learning and growing process, and you don't get that with reviews that are the equivalent of, as my friend said to me this morning, "writing a film or book review which consists mostly of describing the plot".

John Hurrell said...

Though I was a little bristly I do value your contributions to this site. Such conversations are very important.

Cheryl Bernstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cheryl Bernstein said...

Ahem. I only have a small point to make, which is probably just like a little flick to the nose compared to the volley of verbal biff which has preceded it, but: you speak about the 'student works' commissioned for the opening of the show, and complain that these were a 'disaster' which interfered with your viewing of the show.

I haven't seen the show; I may well agree with your summation; but I do think it's also important, as a critic, to look at the context in which the work you're reviewing is placed. It's the role of a university art gallery to take curatorial and artistic risks, and to research new ways of doing things, some of which will be successful in terms of their public/intellectual impact, and some of which will not. A university gallery is a laboratory for artistic research, and this is the context in which this show was put together; it's not a 'public gallery' exhibition, as such, and I think it's important to make that clear in any critical review. You consider that the intervention of the student works was unsuccessful, which was fair enough, but I think it's also important to state the context and to give the curator credit for taking risks and trying something different. Don't you?

John Hurrell said...

Nonsense. When a curator approaches artists to participate in an exhibition they have an ethical responsibility to look after the interests of those artists so that their endeavours are seen under the best circumstances possible. If they wish to turn the gallery into a laboratory for students then they need to negotiate with those invited artists first.

This is a very similar situation to what happened in the last Telecom Prospect when incompatible displays were presented together. To avoid conflict it is essential in such sensitive circumstances that the artists concerned be consulted. I have a huge amount of personal admiration for both curators in these examples - but they slipped up. It's easy to do, especially when they are trying to balance out all sorts of political contingencies. However it is also important that artists be more assertive. If they forsee problems, they should speak their minds so that no-one is shocked if they pull out.It's all about communication.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

In relation to the Adam show, you are talking, in your comment above, about specific process. I've got no comment about this; I don't know who was consulted about what, though I do know that consulation doesn't necessarily result in an avoidance of conflict.

I'm talking about a fundamental principle of criticism which suggests that the context in which a work is produced has significance for the critique. You wouldn't expect Dan Brown's latest to be a literary masterpiece: it's designed to shift millions of units, and it would be futile to criticise it for not being Proust. That's not the context in which the work is being produced. Likewise here I'm suggesting that the relative bravery, and the experimentation, of the curator should be acknowledged by the critic as appropriate within the context of a university gallery, whatever the success of the outcome or the process of delivery; the latter of which, I'd suggest, is anyway hardly the subject of art criticism.

John Hurrell said...

Well what you call 'bravery' I call 'irresponsible.' Just because it is a university gallery doesn't mean curators should let student work interfere with the projects of invited artists. I state that the 'problem' existed for one weekend only, and that the show overall was/is very good - so I do provide a wider context.

This 'brave experimentation' was done I'd say to increase numbers for the tenth anniversary opening. I think on that level it worked - to attract a student audience for at least one visit. However we are talking ultimately about political priorities aren't we? What are the advantages gained, and what are the potentially damaging consequences?

I imagine Tina thought all that though and decided Option A was preferable to Option B.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Thank you Mr Obtuse.

My point is that -- among other things -- responsible criticism considers the work within the context for which it was made. The work here is an exhibition. Its context is a university gallery: a research laboratory for curatorial thinking and artistic practice.

I say: the responsible critic in this context gives full credit to the curator for pursuing an experimental model. And then goes on to consider whether or not it worked.

Just saying.

John Hurrell said...

Firstly when did this 'experimental model' you speak of occur? The whole duration of the show or one particular weekend with a special opening?

Secondly, what is the 'contextually sensitive work' you speak of? That of the initially invited artists or the second year architecture students? Or both, for one weekend?

Thirdly, surely any 'experimental' project can be examined and not automatically be accepted blindly by virtue of it being within a university. There is nothing wrong with raising issues about what curators do, is there?

Anyway, I think I'm crystal clear in my discussion, but there probably is not much more we can draw out of this topic - we are both getting repetitive. It is terrific to have your participation. Many thanks, Cheryl, for your energy and expertly articulated point of view.