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, October 23, 2009


Richard Orjis
12 October - 7 November 2009

Richard Orjis is well known for his luscious coloured photographs that with their botanical props and oil-stained faces, are half portraits, half still lives. This show has the orchids as images, but it is in essence an installation, and the photographs are black and white.

The exhibition shows Orjis moving away from the overt theatricality and chromatic and tactile sensuality of his earlier photography to attempt something new. It is comparatively austere in its lack of colour and more about process as an image, rather than process as content or an ongoing sequence of events. It is a sort of contemplative tableau, an arrangement of symbolic props to be pondered over.

Central to the display is a circular podium on which is presented a fake gym with a weight-lifting bench, a stand for bodybuilding gear, and assorted barbells on the floor. These are all made of wood, painted white and on the night of the opening they served as supports for burning candles. Molten white wax has therefore poured down their sides and set hard.

On the nearby Starkwhite walls are three black and white photographs. One is of dispersing wisps of smoke, and the two others are of orchids – as young, unflowered, leafy bulbs in rows in a nursery, and later as fully developed blooms. On another wall is a large disc painted gold that is slightly smaller than the circular stand for the mock gym.

So what is Orjis up to with this array of symbols that he clearly wants the visitor to decode. In this puzzle, how do the various components interconnect?

First of all the photographed smoke could be candle derived, as an evaporating or disappearing gaseous substance, and the two discs some sort of alchemical process, with the smaller one ending up as condensed gold – residue from some sort of distillation perhaps?

The presence of the candle wax implies stasis and inertia over a fixed period of time. So with the gym symbolism, the implied ‘no pain no gain’ ethos is thwarted. The gold is not attainable. Unlike the orchid bulbs that eventually over time reach a state of bloom, the process necessary to reach that goal has not begun. The sequential chain of causal events has not been kick started.

Orjis here seems to be thinking about human agency and drive. The fact that the candle flame could incinerate the gym implies perhaps that ambition is useless and that maybe passivity (even fatalism) is a good thing. There is a strange conceptual oscillation going on in this work where a certain path is embraced, rejected, and then advocated again, then re-rejected.

While this wavering idea is intriguing, this show is missing something visually. It doesn’t have that necessary finish that Orjis normally has to resolve the whole project in a compelling way. This could be because there is a tackiness about the wooden gym that extends to the golden disc. It might be deliberate, but even his black and white photographs (especially the orchids) lack memorable impact.

Here I’m guessing, but Orjis seems to be resisting his natural inclinations for full throttle sensuality – as if by wanting his work to be ‘conceptual’ he is frightened of being too visually seductive. Yet many conceptualists, from Kosuth to Apple, don’t hesitate to use visual seduction to draw their audiences in towards their ideas.

It’s an odd show, disappointingly anaemic but admittedly adventurous with the tropes which were always in his colour photography anyway. It’s clever but dry. It doesn’t thrill.

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