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, November 11, 2009

Mark Amery reports on the big Wayne Youle survey at Pataka

Wayne Youle: 10 Down – A Survey Exhibition
Pataka Museum of Arts and Cultures, Porirua
Until 15 November

Rather than establish and then explore an aesthetic, Wayne Youle established a character - an identity and a role - which over the ten years his survey exhibition at Pataka covers, he has continued to play-act out and play up to.

Youle has refused to let any statement become three dimensional – all his works are like signs to be pushed over – as if he were a marksman taking target practice on a cardboard dummy. In Have You Seen This Man? (Why Yes in His Studio) from 2004 as cheap poster he presents rows of bad identikit images of his face with a range of wanted statements: ‘Wanted for being a shit stirrer’, ‘ Wanted for the apparent copying of some other artists fucking style’ ‘Wanted for impersonating a Maori artist’, Wanted for impersonating a Maori’ etc.

In actual fact the only person accusing him of anything is himself – his is a self-referential game using ploys long-used up in their offence value by other artists. A fantail perches on the head of an upended Walters’ koru stick. Tiki are presented in a range of colours as lollipops (are Rangi Kipa’s brightly coloured corian tikis still the rage?), Ricky Swallow’s skulls are also represented as lollipops - brought neatly into touch with the appropriation and collection of preserved Maori heads, mokomokai. Yet Youle’s touch is often as delightful, light and musical as that of the fantail.

Youle’s work is so very noughties (this is the most of-its-time survey show I can recall seeing) – what one can build with the empty husks of what others have left you. His recent eyeball constructions are clever DNA models that suggest the only personal aesthetic he has is one of treating the work of others like lego brick building blocks. Recently he’s extended that by making family crests from assemblages of others’ icons (notably from a constant influence over ten years, Peter Robinson). In a time when familiar objects and icons have been coming at us digitally faster and more repetitively, Youle has been a man to put a spin on it. With a furious Warholian work ethic, he’s our pop artist of the decade.

His aesthetic is slick and thin – like his pop art parent Dick Frizzell he relies on impeccable design technique, and on moving with the speed and wit of the adman: unapologetically and overtly picking over others’ ideas, and spinning them into smart, flat new combinations.

He plays at being the student – imitating, mixing and matching. This survey is a room of bold experiments, with few limits on the media or style he’ll co-opt. One of his favourite motifs (borrowed from another favoured teacher Michael Parekowhai) is the brightly-coloured Cuisenaire rod, used in the Atarangi method of teaching Maori. Like a very smart secondary school art portfolio, he acknowledges others have already broken the ground and that his job is to makes stamps of identity out of the familiar. One particularly throwaway work here is entitled Parekowhai Park, and I couldn’t help muse that if you wanted to design a contemporary New Zealand art themepark (a miniput course perhaps) Youle would be your first port of call.

There’s nothing remotely deep about a Wayne Youle show. In fact he delights in being profoundly shallow – bringing the contemporary into the realm of the popular. It’s all about surface and shadows. About being able to skate quickly across a slick surface to find fresh takes on the familiar and, like Peter Pan’s shadow, connect the man with the freewheeling imaginative playfulness of the boy. Youle fiddles with things and makes toys and emblems of them.

The arrangement of this survey is smart and says a lot about Youle’s practice. The work is numerous and arranged salon-like, swarming across the walls. It’s reminiscent of the cut and paste cornucopia of the internet - Youle’s own intranet. Just as Youle flattens his sources into placemats, this arrangement refuses to give shape or order to his oeuvre. It amounts to a wall of caught, mounted and stuffed trophies of the collector (a crest mounted set of plastic antlers features in one work, a wall of mokomokai in another).

Then again it could also be the photographs on the back wall of the marae, building on one of my favourite of Youle’s works, 12 Shades of Bullshit (featured in Prospect 2004). Here cameo images of Maori and Pakeha are thrown up flattened to blank shadows on the wall, as if from as slide projector, but in varying shades of brown. Like a dozen other works in this show, this piece demonstrates Youle can step outside of himself sometimes and deliver works with more complex resonances. Some of his most successful works are the less self-referential.

Another analogy for the exhibition hang is the tattoo parlour, with Youle the tattooist appropriating designs and grounding them in popular culture. In this way at its heart Youle’s work is about what we wear as badges of identity. Another favourite of his early work (with several featured here) is a series of brightly coloured Miss Maori New Zealand sashes – Miss Kaikohe 1974, Miss Waimangaroa 1955 - laid out like kowhaiwhai and American abstractionists stripes on the wall (or perhaps the fly curtain going into the fish’n’chip shop).

Presenting quantity over quality (there must be 100 works here) feels intrinsically part of Youle’s practice. You could make a show of brilliance out of this free for all, but he’s probably elected not to be edited. The survey constantly cheekily disrupts gallery expectations – acting like a 21st century advertiser in providing pop up messages in unexpected places.

That means there’s plenty of sloppy work here too. The recent large painting Stay Still… Don’t Move is simply stencil art painted up badly large. Other works like the video work Night Crawler goes off in new directions with little strong effect beyond clever craft. Much of Youle’s dalliances with photography I find ineffectual and unoriginal – from the misty ode to his maunga (a rip off of Natalie Robertson) to action figures copulating (perhaps a reference to his birth as a kind of toy action-man artist, knocking out work based on pre-existing models). Cruising the suburban streets, you sense in the past Youle’s been too busy moving onto the next thing to look back.

A school report statement in a recent work suggests Youle also is prepared to own such an approach: “Wayne shows an interest and flair for arts and crafts. His skill with macaroni and glitter is excellent. He has papermaché ability beyond compare’. This is stenciled large on hessian canvas, with a nod in its flat dry wit to Ronnie Van Hout. Yet it has an honest intelligence and wit that continues to tickle me.

A knockout recent solo show at Suite Gallery which is well represented here and which I’ve previously reviewed suggests however he’s been hitting the mark with increasing strength, able to balance different elements and ideas with more accomplishment. It’ll be interesting to see where Youle goes in the next ten years. In that whirl of borrowed imagery and cheap shots there’s a genuine interest in the complexity of truth and what we identify in.

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