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.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Multi purpose

Benjamin McManus: In search of lost time
23 September – 10 October 2009

Ben McManus is one of the initial founding artists of Newcall. His studio is one of those adjacent to the venue. For that collective, his is an unusual show in that there is no writing about it available at all on the premises. (Sometimes Newcall have two essays.) However the artist’s comments on his emailed invitation provide this function – and an exhibition that might initially seem minimal and austere actually is not so.

Look at this quotation he includes from Li Po, the eighth century Chinese poet:

The natural world provides all things with temporary residences. Time is a wayfarer for hundreds of generations traveling among temporary residences.

Suddenly work that in the gallery looks akin to early Richard Serra, Bruce Nauman or Richard Tuttle seems functional and isn’t just formalist or process–oriented at all. Some of it doubles as architecture; providing possible homes for little creatures - insects, spiders or rodents perhaps - but isn’t being cute. More a Taoist awareness.

The main work on the floor is a baked ‘rock’ made of clay and chalk dust, created to be kicked around on a polished concrete surface. Where that has happened it has left a snail-like trail, or delicate wobbly white lines like those traces the foamy sea leaves at the high-water zone.

There is also a cluster of glued together shells - from Cockle shellfish – that form the basis of an improvised sculpture on a plinth that looks a little like a Futurist marching figure. The reference to portable houses with shellfish, and snails with the rock on the floor, seems calculated.

The wooden plinth here is made of four vertical pyramids glued tightly together, and on the floor nearby the artist has stacked eight similar wooden wedges, of two widths, so they form a ramp with the splayed flat tips overlapping together. This creates diagonal ledges and little jutting roofs and seems set aside for some much larger engineering purpose.

Over by the large window, tucked into a corner on the floor, McManus has placed a right-angular shaped piece of silver aluminum piping that little critters might investigate for accommodation. Around one end he has wrapped a page from the Herald’s racing supplement, suggesting it is part of a track.

On the other side of the main room is a clever sculpture made of three vertically positioned, leaning rectangles of clear glass. Two shorter sheets are directly against the wall, with one placed on top of the upper, very narrow edge of the other so that it looks like one very long sheet that is buckled. The third rectangle leans against the top inside one so it doesn’t topple over or slide off. With the plane of the wall they become shelters.

McManus’s last work is a vellum sheet hanging loosely on a far wall so that it covers a large dinner-plate sized, circular hole. From a distance the deeply cut aperture looks like a disc in shallow relief, but as the bending vellum shifts in the breeze, the edges of the background circle move in and out of focus. The sculpture looks as if it could also be a nesting box.

When you first encounter this show it seems too minimal, too underwhelming, for one large area looks quite unused, but when you realize the function of the ‘kickable rock’ in relation to the floor-plan it makes more sense. The floor, after all, is here a sort of community drawing board.

This under-stated exhibition rewards patience with its gentle, low key humour and restrained, very considered use of industrial or construction site materials. Looking forward to seeing what this artist does next.

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