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, March 31, 2010

Vary and Umberg at Jensen

Gϋnter Umberg & Elizabeth Vary: New works
Jensen Gallery
16 March - 1 May 2010

We have here a visual ‘conversation’ between a German couple using different ‘sentences’ that consist of groups of paintings - something vaguely related to the earlier interesting project Gow Langsford did with Simon Ingram and James Cousins, but not using sequences of pairings.

Umberg and Vary don’t mingle their paintings physically in clusters, or collaborate on single works, or even juxtapose them. Instead – with the help of a new temporary wall Andrew Jensen has installed in the centre of his very large gallery – they talk to each other across space, chatting through various salient similarities and contrasts and even mimicries.

Both these painters make sculptural objects that project out from the wall. In Umberg’s case he shows you from the side the supporting screws sticking out from the wall - they are not hidden inside the painted panel they hold up. He paints on solid wooden panels that present the painted rectangular front plane parallel to the wall, with the sides tilting back diagonally and hidden from the front. Vary on the other hand, tends to paint on chunky blocks or slabs made of cardboard. Occasionally her separate components lock together, like in a puzzle.

Umberg’s paint is highly light-absorbent, dark, powdered pigment, applied repeatedly on to alternating layers of sprayed on dammar varnish. In contrast Vary uses thin liquid oil glazes that dribble over the sides and which sometimes are mixed with smeared or daubed thick paint. She prefers a glossy surface with a full range of chroma and tone, often using metallic and fluorescent paint as well. He likes matt velvety monochromes: in this show, subtly varying blacks or greens. Her sides are just as important as the fronts, whereas he paints only the occasional narrow strip of the side-angled, laminated strata.

The details of their painting placements are such that Umberg occupies the centre of the long wall opposite the gallery entrance, with Vary having an unusual projecting tray-like work positioned near the righthand corner. She also occupies the two shorter end walls of the huge gallery while on the new moveable partition bisecting the gallery space, he has one side and she the other.

As you'd expect the dialogue between these two painters incorporates various lines of sight, sideways viewing of the wall reliefs, and overall vistas – as well as of course, close ups. Some of her dark planes at a distance could be muddled with his, and sometimes she has made fake Umberg bevelled panels. While he never touches block forms, she occasionally paints on little angular chunks with dark colours, and spikey angular slabs with pastel hues. She also likes to cut into the sides of thick rectangles and remove geometric shapes.

Umberg and Vary here have created an intriguing and whimsical hanging arrangement that is fun to explore. It is a visually rich and intelligent exhibition you could spend a lot of time with, moving around the five walls and zeroing in on the paintings from unusual angles. For a Jensen experience, with the new wall, it forces you to be quite mobile. One of their best.

Andrew Paul Wood tries to get provoked by Christine Webster

Provocations: The work of Christine Webster
Curated by Anne Kirker
Christchurch Art Gallery
26 March – 7 June 2010

No one could deny that the time for a Christine Webster survey and reconsideration is well and truly due – though just as one shouldn’t presume that David Bain’s acquittal equates with innocence, one shouldn’t automatically think that a big survey sets a reputation in stone. One of the difficulties in assessing the overall effect is that because in the successive decades her tropes and influences have become very familiar through the work of other artists and popular culture, and this must be taken into account when assessing Webster’s position in New Zealand (and Australian) art history.

There has, for instance, been a revival of burlesque performance, Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the Carnivalesque has become widely familiar, plastic breasts tend to make us think of Cindy Sherman, feather boas and recherché historicism have returned to fashion design and the World of Wearable Art. There are echoes of Pierre et Gilles, Cocteau and others – even Picasso. Does subversive voyeuristic and fetishistic eroticism really have any currency in a world that since the 1980s has quite honestly seen everything? In fact, we really must struggle to distance ourselves from the expectations of a mass of intervening culture in order to give Webster’s body of work its impartial worth, without larding it with second wave feminist and French post-structuralist theory.

Visually the photographic prints are not as shocking to us as they once were, and a younger audience is unlikely to experience any of the frisson the works once held, especially when the art world was smaller and the models were frequently known to us socially. Indeed, the Black Carnival aesthetic in particular has become the commonplace of advertising and marketing. But this gives us greater opportunity to interrogate the images unfettered by novelty and prurience.

For me, some of the most interesting work is the earliest in the show, Albert Park (1983) and the self-portrait Devouring a Persimmon in the Back Yard (1985) with their energy and expressive camera distortions. Also of this period is Craigwell House where the artifice starts creeping in – a made up ephebe, pretty in a tawdry way, emerging from what looks like the (yellowed and cracked) tiled plunge pool of a disused hospital. The light is the rich amber of electrical light, reminiscent of Fassbinder’s film Querelle. There is a sort of Ovidian beauty to this – an inverted Narcissus picked up on a street corner or low rent Hylas abducted by the nymphs.

Then we hit the middle period, the best known series: Black Carnival, Possession and Mirth, Circus of Angels, all the way through to Serious Dolls House. I want to like them, but I can’t work up the enthusiasm. Firstly, the work suddenly becomes formulaic and repetitive: models, performers and art worlders posed stiffly in tableaux vivant, flashing their pink bits like they’ve just been mugged by a tag team of Donna Demente and Trelise Cooper, and plunged into a Caravaggio-inspired chiaroscuro. Secondly this sameness lingers on for far too long, literally decades, with only minor variations.

Possession and Mirth from the early 1990s, represented here by Vein (1992), takes up the trope drawing on historical paintings and subverting the details. Vein, for instance, would appear to be based on seventeenth century Italian painter (and one of the few women) Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes (itself in the typical chiaroscuro of the Caravaggisti – the followers of Caravaggio). But again, comparisons with Cindy Sherman are unavoidable as she also exploited the idea (as did many, many other contemporary photographers). Without wall labels it would be difficult to determine which series individual works would belong to, and the lack of any hard edge or realism (here I’m thinking of milder Mapplethorpe) leaves me feeling ambivalent about the image.

It’s a bit like a sandwich that you've put so many condiments in that you don’t notice that the meat or cheese or whatever has fallen out, and then all those ingredients give you indigestion. I am not convinced that the middle period rises to an exceptional point above the international average, however in a local context it shook things up enough to spin a number of new directions in New Zealand art – for which Webster earns her laurels. With time and a greater public jadedness, some of the lustre has been lost, but we must place things in context; something that this exhibition should have tackled more directly in the gallery space.

At the far end of the exhibition, the most recent work, things become interesting for me again – although to say that the Quiet series with its fluffy textiles counterpointed in diptych with sweaty male close-ups “addresses masculinity in a way that is counter to that promoted by media representation” (quoted from the wall text) is to suggest that someone has spent the last twenty years in a cave on Mars with their fingers in their ears and their eyes closed. Possibly this might be true if there was a harder, more shocking edge, but the reality is that particular conceit is well-tilled earth as a glance in most photography magazines will confirm. Doug Inglish and Michael Baumgarten come to mind. I could probably pick up any issue of (not only) blue at random and find something similar.

I am much more interested in the most recent work Le Dossier, a series of modestly sized images of details and nudes that have this underlying Bluebeard/120 Days of Sodom theme of sexual violence against women in a French Chateau. I love a bit of Angela Carter/Marquis de Sade tension, provided it is handled as well as it is here. These are beautifully executed as fantasy, but with that essential connection to the real world and natural light that adds the extra tremble. The images are delicate and lyrical – a full circle reminiscent of those fresh early works. After touring the show, I felt reinvigorated by this pot of gold at the end of a slightly exhausting rainbow.

And there is video work – often the last dance of the desperate for senior photographers, but here interesting, intriguing and occasionally risqué. I would have to say, however, not exceptionally so – one gets the feeling, thought, that this is quite a new medium for La Webster, and she’s still feeling it out, though judging from the credits she is keeping to a directorial role rather than getting behind the camera herself. This will be an interesting area to watch, as Webster is nobody’s fool and will fully develop this new arrow in her quiver.

None of this is to condemn the show, because interesting pieces are scattered throughout and it serves an important didactic purpose. I am left wondering, however, whether Christine Webster’s importance lies more in the precedents she set for younger (and particularly female) artists in this part of the world, rather the work as it stands today. Nonetheless it is a visual dialogue well worth having, and will be especially informative to a younger generation of artists for whom the 1980s especially are another country. This is primarily art history, but I’m itching to see where Webster goes next.

The image is Black Carnival #18 1993. Cibachrome. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Reproduced courtesy of the artist

Georgie Hill goes mellow - with spring light

Georgie Hill: Cold Shoulder
Ivan Anthony
24 March - 17 April 2010

Georgie Hill has built up quite a following through the intensity of her tortured symbolism and claustrophobic, 3-walled enclosed spaces, as seen in her two previous shows. Those works had a particular kind of ambience with their dominant blood red and dark hues, but with this new exhibition, the mood changes.

Her new works of bedroom interiors are filled with air, more light, less intense and less Gothic. There are lots of pale blues and greys, and the manner of her highly obsessive drawing with watercolour and faint pencil has altered. There is less sense of mass – though there still remains a characteristic tension between geometric control and enclosed, churning wavelike forms.

These works technically seem to defy genres. They look like some odd printing hybrid with sugarlift blended with a lithographic process, but it is nevertheless predominantly watercolour – only more delicate than before.

That is really saying something, because this work is surprisngly much more fanatically precise now in its linear acuity of strictly positioned hair-thin lines. It is so unbelievable that you wonder if she has used computers, but no, it is all watercolour with the characteristic attendant, petal-like unfolding of blossomy gradated arabesques and tiny rivulets.

Hill’s images are also more narrative and less trope-based now. They are not the expected obscure metonymic symbols, but include more easily recognisable female forms (representing herself) with exposed spinal columns encased in what seem to be violet or sweet pea petals. These signs are less inner or private, having more outer natural–world correlations that are easier to decode. They include domestic furniture such as chests of drawers, items of clothing like plaid shirts, toppled horizontal vases, or posters of Rita Angus exhibitions.As with her earlier shows, there are often little roots wiggling skywards out of the ground, seeking sustenance out of the air.

Like Angus, Hill revels in self-portraiture – not that of facial physiognomy but solely chosen objects in a domestic space. They create a sort of declaration of personal identity, using room as metaphor - infused with a warm spring light. While this exhibition rams home Hill’s technical brilliance with tiny marks and fine lines, and I have gone on about it, that alone cannot make memorable art. Technique is only a small part of any art practice – if at all – for assistants with manual skills can be rented. With Hill the ambiguous forms which seem to change each time you briefly look away, maintain an interpretative richness. They are what keep her imagery hauntingly enigmatic and her stagey interiors compulsive viewing.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nell May on Anya Henis's

exhibition at Window.

Andrew Paul Wood on Heather Straka's photographs

Heather Straka: Do Not Resuscitate,
Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch
20 March - 17 April 2010

Familiar from manga, anime, street fashion and pop art is the Japanese concept of ero kawaii – that disturbingly paedophilic hybrid of Sanryo kitschy Hello Kitty cuteness and kinderwhore Lolita coquettishness that along with Japan’s economic power has spread throughout Asia to varying degrees. Perhaps it was an unconscious strategy for appearing non-threatening to preeminent Russian and American interests during the Cold War, or a parallel to the perverse obsession of a certain type of British Conservative with public school girls in uniform. The jury remains out.

It is an aesthetic that pervades every aspect of the photographic works making up Heather Straka’s Do Not Resuscitate at the Jonathan Smart Gallery. Straka is best known as a painter of intense detail, the canvasses worked up from carefully posed photographs. Recently the strain of the detailed brushwork has caused Straka to reconsider her process and move back a step to work on photography.

The exhibition falls naturally into two sections. The first is a wall of individual portraits of young female Japanese, Chinese and Korean models, saucily posed mid pouty puff of cigarette smoke like a shoddy faded Pat Pong advertisement for sexual services, dressed in immaculate and slightly tacky uniform of a manicurist, hairdresser or train attendant. Their perfect, exaggerated makeup, hair, poreless skin and the Preraphaelite sharpness of image emphasise the natural tendency of young Asian women toward a kind of porcelain doll neoteny (retention of childlike features, such as those exaggerated in manga and anime).

There is, too, a tacit dig at the cliché of many Westerners being unable to tell people of Asian descent apart either as discrete ethnic groupings or individuals. Straka makes a fetish of this with the consistent styling of these individual portraits, but at the same time goading us with subtle differences in pose, hair and features to recognise the distinct personalities striving for a kind of kinky mass-produced and standardised uniformity one might expect from the commercialisation of the erotic. Such subversion is the bread and butter of Straka’s oeuvre.

On the opposite wall is a tableau vivant reminiscent of the work of advertising-inspired neo-Baroque photographers like Jeff Wall. The same girls are gathered, still smoking, around a blonde and decidedly western (female, but boyish) half-draped nude ‘corpse’ on a gurney in a shabby, nondescript room. Is this the behind the scenes at a downmarket funeral parlour, some bizarre Third World hospital, a backroom organ-legging chopshop, or what? The air of neglect and decay is further enhanced by the ropey, leggy ivy strategically winding through the scene, which along with the draped sheet/shroud, strongly suggests the tropes of nineteenth century Academic painting – something that Straka has long delighted in playing naughty games with.

Is it a sort of self-conscious ironic revision of Orientalism? Perhaps that is going too far. The visual pleasure of the retinal candy is more than sufficient without trying to draw out readings. Yummy.

Thomas Ruff in Auckland

Thomas Ruff: Photographs
Gow Langsford
26 March – 24 April 2010

Internationally acclaimed German photographer Thomas Ruff rarely has his work exhibited in New Zealand though he gets a lot of coverage in the international art press, and so most art lovers here know of him. This Gow Langsford exhibition brings eight examples from his back and more recent catalogue. They demonstrate in a limited way (because you don’t see each series for background context) not only his interest in strict procedural method, but also for the viewer, the value of direct experience in a gallery. What the works have to offer because of their scale and (in some cases) acuity simply doesn’t transmit to reproductions in magazines or online.

Despite the inclusion of three recently treated images of partially clad women that Ruff has taken from porn sites and digitally treated to become blurred as if the camera has been furiously shaken, it is the 1997 portraits that are pornographic, not the nudes.

What am I getting at here? Well, because of their size (2010 x 1650 mm), you are free to really look at these faces. You can linger and dwell on their detail in a way that you never could with a living human being standing in front of you – unless you don’t care about being rude. Here your voyeuristic intrusion is welcomed, with the end result that you can’t help but notice that these people up close and enlarged are not pretty.

You can see inflamed red patches of skin, mottled blemishes, epidermal bristles, infected striations and tiny pustules. It is like reading Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver describing the bodies of the giant people of Brobdingnag, or in turn, the Lilliputians’ previous description of him. The human physiognomy magnified becomes repulsive. There seems to be a malicious glee behind Ruff’s ‘objective’ honesty and the fact you will keep coming back to zero in for another look.

In terms of impact and sheer ocular escapism however, it is Ruff’s very large (2600 x 1880 mm) picture of a night sky, borrowed from an observatory archive, that is the star (so to speak) of this exhibition. It is mesmerising in its evocation of the infinite, even with a few fake stars the artist has mischievously added. You can really immerse yourself in its ambiguous tunnelling space of thousands of glowing pin points.

The appropriated images from erotic web sites amuse because of their vibrating edges – from a deliberately placed tremulous arousal on the part of the artist; a digitally induced fibrillation within the mechanism of the camera. Ruff’s ‘nudes’ look like overlapping double exposures where the smudged movement is that of the shaking photographer more that that of the cavorting models.

His initially crisp found images now go beyond blurring. It is not just a matter of vague, soft edges, as if vaseline has been smeared on the lenses; the quiver is horizontal, a slight shadowy aura – a calculated overreaction where Ruff seems to be laughing at the fickle vagaries of desire, and his attempts to capture it. With digital technology altering the acuity he sends up priapic-lensed photographers like say, Thomas, the leading David Hemmings character in Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up.'

Oddly the most interesting works in the show are small, some blurry 1994 portraits that are halfway between the above two extremes. They were created using a pre-computer Minolta montaging technology where hybrid ‘identikits’ were developed by the German police so that ethereally blurry portraits of new identities were constructed out of old ones (a ‘magic mirrors’ system of blending) with strange ghostly auras - like genealogies with children replicating the individual features of their same-gender parents. There is an appealing mix of antiquated (Flash Gordonish) sci-fi in this primitive portrait cloning.

This show is a good introduction to Ruff’s practice but it really barely scratches the surface. There is one photograph of a building included I haven’t discussed, while not shown are themes such as his schematic abstract ‘drawings’ of mathematical parabolas, profiles of the rings of Saturn, and swirling images of intensely saturated coloured light on what seems to be the surface of rippling water. Ruff’s curiosity in unexpected subjects is part of his appeal, but even a genre as traditional as the portrait he has succeeded in transforming.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Don Peebles (1922 - 2010)

eyeCONTACT mourns the loss of this great New Zealand pioneer: a wonderful artist and teacher who was an inspiration to many. Our thoughts are with Prue and the family.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hot vertiginous pleasures

Amber Wilson: The Bends
Anna Miles
3 March - 1 April 2010

A couple of months ago I visited a group show out at Unitec’s Snowwhite gallery and commented on the watercolours of Amber Wilson. The year is passing quickly and her new oil paintings – now showing at Anna Miles – are understandably quite different, though still very much preoccupied with pattern and rhythm.

Whereas the watercolours were restrained, Wilson’s eight oil paintings are, in contrast, as you might expect, ‘full on’. They revel in loud garish organic patterns, yet when you study them, there is a lot of nuance. First impressions can be deceptive, and the colour is not as saturated as you might suppose - though it certainly is heated. In fact it is not shrill, but highly insistent and at times muted. More importantly, Wilson’s use of shape is extremely inventive.

These richly patterned canvases look like they are a hybrid of Ed Paschke and Elizabeth Murray, or made by Howard Hodgkin on acid. Their backgrounds seem to also allude to Victorian book marbling, fabric design, underwater sponges and lush beds of rampant tropical flowers. The inner shapes floating in front, containing plain or swirling colours in silhouette, hint of items as varied as animal parts, Moorish architecture or rubber stamps. There seems to be no embracing logic, but appear to have evolved through intuition.

If anything they are linked by humour that plays across the figure - ground relationship. There pervades a nutty ambiguity so that shape is always generating multiple interpretations. It is always loaded and rarely ‘pure’ abstraction. The vertiginous psychedelic wackiness is tempered by meticulous control of tone and a subtly serrated edge, especially when rendered by tiny multiple brushstrokes.

Wilson’s inventively decorative paintings are rich heady concoctions that celebrate ocular pleasure. They might overwhelm, but with their very considered placement and knowing pattern alignment, they are not out of control.

Superb paintings

Johl Dwyer & Schaeffer Lemalu: Milk waterfall
A Centre for Art
16 March - 3 April 2010

Here we have five paintings by two very different artists in a somewhat small space. Two textured and gestural panels are by Dwyer, one of which is much much bigger than all the others. Lemalu’s works on the other hand are ‘minimal’, and all about delicate and faintly detectable colour fields.

Lemalu’s three small ‘white’ canvases emphasise concentrated perception, and are subtle indeed. So much so that the degree of soft natural light through the Wellesley St window in the afternoon seems to be crucial to grasping the processes behind their production, as does where you stand to one side. He has applied gouache to their surfaces and later washed it off. In fact he has soaked it in water, scrubbed it off and then restretched the canvas. Sometimes he has put a more paint on its surface a second time, and left it.

His colour is so understated that you wonder if it is an afterimage you are looking at. Some floating yellow blur, a hint of a chromatic smudge that comes perhaps from you looking at something dark or saturated. A couple of the gallery walls are a wooden ochre brown, and that affects your perception of the two works’ overall rectangular surface. They seem tonally at odds with the work on a white wall.

Dwyer’s paintings are extremely different from Lemalu’s in their wild tactility and traces of dramatic hand movement. They incorporate glued-on rectangles of painted canvas or plastic vinyl, and lots of scraped on modeling paste that has left ripped horizontal ‘gashes’ as you might often see in a Gerhard Richter painting. The work is very physically layered, with tiny dark Christopher Woolish squiggles, sweeps of sprayed colour and intricate David Reed smears. One work is quite sculptural, with thick zigzagging lines of solid blue paint squeezed straight out of the tube.

These two artists make a great combination because the juxtaposition of such opposite methodologies is so refreshing. This dynamic creates an exceptionally exciting painting show, and probably the best show I’ve seen at ACFA. It may be one of the best ever local painting shows in Auckland as well.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

4th Auckland Triennial -1

Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon: (Looking at the themes - Part One) Bodies at Risk
Mike Parr, Alicia Frankovich, Robert Hood, Martin Boyce, Laresa Kosloff, Richard Bell
28 artists in various Auckland venues.
12 March - 20 June 2010

The 4th Auckland Triennial curated by Natasha Conland has been with us for over a couple of weeks now, so what does one make of it? It has a great poetic and metaphorically loaded title, a superb hardcover catalogue with three excellent essays, and a new large downtown venue, but what of the art? Is it memorable? Does it provide examples that stick in the mind like say – to look at the earlier exhibitions – Ashley Bickerton and Roni Horn did in Bright Paradise, or Ilya and Emilia Kabakov and William Kentridge in Public / Private, or Willie Doherty and Issac Julian in Turbulence?

The show is less overtly finger-waggy than Turbulence, but you still sense Conland is very much a schoolmarm – only more circumspect. She has a lighter touch than Victoria Lynn, allowing more whimsy and humour to mix with her didacticism. (Comparing the two titles shows that.) Yet for my money, that side of her intelligence, her appreciation of wit and irony, came out much more in Mystic Truths, a much smaller, non-Triennial show than say Earth Matters, a Triennial warm-up. Nevertheless Last Ride in a Hot Air Balloon is impressively focused. It doesn’t feel sprawling or scattered in its content. There are about five themes that reveal themselves (often several overlapping) in all of the works, but which may not be at first obvious. They are Bodies at Risk; The Journey; The Imagination; The Economy; and Dialogue.

Therefore I want to take a look at the Triennial in a manner that ignores the placing of the twenty-eight artists within the separate venues and elaborate on these five overarching themes instead. I want to briefly provide some interpretive possibilities, putting five or six artists in each category, and then looking at each in turn.

The first theme is 'Bodies at Risk’. Although the theme of risk is discussed constantly throughout the essays and catalogue entries, it is more global economic vulnerability (Conland’s essay), or explorative navigational risk (Doryun Chong’s text), or linked to the artist’s body (Leonhard Emmerling’s discussion) – not that of the viewer. While artists like Mike Parr and Alex Monteith have made films or performances where the viewer empathises with the artist’s or film-maker’s body in pain or in danger, there is no sense of implied audience peril anywhere in this exhibition. None of the sculpture for example is menacing in its ambience in the way that sculpture, like say the kinetic works of Len Lye or Peter Roche, can be.

With Parr’s work at George Fraser the outside windowed gallery is the site of a very early (1970) text work where he describes in a hundred vinyl-cut sentences attached to the wall, the properties of a room, its space and what is seen through the windows. At his artist’s talk this work was linked to a film of his 'Hundred Breaths' (Breathless) performance of sucking self-portrait prints to his face one by one till on each occasion, his oxygen runs out. The room becomes a trope for his interiority, his ruminating self enclosed within his body as he looks out its windows. This in turn is paralleled in one of the films he shows in the darkened inner gallery, where he is rolling a recording movie camera up and over a hill. The camera lens swishing through blurs of long grass could be Parr’s decapitated head.

Alicia Frankovich’s AAG installation shows a hospital ‘drip’ made out of two end-to-end Martini bottles pouring orange liquid into a small swimming pool, to be then repumped up and recycled. The fluid could be a cocktail of blood, urine, sweat and tears, and seems to be alluding to artists recycling earlier art. In a corner is a Duchampian rack holding orange shopping bags from the Pergomon Museum in Berlin, on one wall is a neon that seems to allude to very early Richard Serra, and a ball suspended in a ‘testicular’ harness refers to her own history and mindset. With the rack of shopping bags entitled Woman, and a pinned up skirt displayed with a found drawing of graphite traces, Frankovich has with her installation and bodily absence created one of the more witty and visually compelling works in the Triennial.

Inanimate objects representing the human body are explored further with Robert Hood driving his Cortina from Christchurch up to Auckland earlier this year where it was taken to a shredder and ‘atomised’. The remnants are laid out on the gallery floor like a large bed. A real time audio recording of the trip is provided alongside Hood’s appropriated (and inserted) self-portrait version of Yves Klein’s famous ‘leap into the void’ photograph. In such a grouping, driver and vehicle symbolically merge.

With Martin Boyce we have the large gallery at St. Paul St blindingly illuminated by a weblike structure of white fluorescent tubes suspended from the ceiling. A black construction of broken wooden chair parts hangs like a Calder mobile, but seems to also reference (perhaps be a substitute for) Bruce Nauman’s turning wax dog corpses and decapitated white male heads. On a remote wall is a black, wire-mesh cubist/tribal mask watching in silence.

Aboriginal activist Richard Bell may smile sweetly during his videoed games of free association, but his critique of white Australia, with its youthful blonde representatives attired in gold laméd bikinied splendour, is excoriating. He is of course, deeply body conscious – as they are too of him, though he is fully dressed. With his dangerous charm he coaxes out a series of racist jokes for our delectation. If in the normally dismal Shed 6 we stay and listen, we become complicit – especially if we laugh: as Bell himself does. If we walk away, we (physically, hopefully not mentally) desert the artwork.

Fellow Australian Laresa Kosloff films bodies in action, airborne as a clowning trapeze act, or climbing over public sculptures in a park as bored children, or groups of adults exercising. Like Mike Parr’s rolling camera, Kosloff also films as if the camera were a moving figure – in her case while ascending and descending in a lift, looking out through a tall building’s windows. Her subject matter is contemporary for the looping footage we see at ARTSPACE is recent, yet the super 8 black and white film makes it look much older. You wonder if these people are still alive now, but of course probably they are, very much so.

It is difficult, naturally, to separate the human body from the activity of travel. ‘The Journey’ - and the Triennial's title - will be the subject of Part Two.

Jennifer French’s documentary photographs and DVD stills are of works by Robert Hood, Martin Boyce, Richard Bell and Laresa Kosloff.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Locked-down black; floating white

Jonathan Jones
Tim Melville
10 March - 10 April 2010

Jonathan Jones, an Aboriginal artist (Kamilaroi / Wiradjuri) who works in light with bulbs and neon tubes in a manner vaguely related to Bill Culbert (to set a New Zealand context), has exhibited in Auckland before. He was in Good Company Flash Lights - curated by Jim Vivieaere - which a few years ago came to Bath Street.

Jones currently presents at Tim Melville’s a suite of geometric, linear, graphite (pencil) drawings and a wall installation of glowing neon tubes arranged in a pattern of repeated diamonds.

The neon formation alludes to carved patterns on weapons and trees, painted body decorations, or configurations put on the inside of possum-skin coats. You could read these as stacked up spread-eagled (or star-jumping) figures. However if you wish to ignore such symbolic narrative, even on a formal level Jones is extremely inventive. His diamonds are rendered in single, double or triple parallel lines to create odd lopsided tensions and a curious asymmetric geometry. Just when diagonal, horizontal or vertical rhythms start to become a pulse, they abruptly tease by switching to a new sort of line that is attractively irregular.

The austere drawings of black angular and straight lines seem to reference Mondrian and van Doesberg. Apparently however they are based on desiccated riverbeds Jones has seen in India that sparkle with incrustations of dried salt. Like the neon work they subvert repetition with an odd wonky tension that dissipates at the paper edges.

Jones’s tightly executed drawings remind me of the time-based (and encoded) painted works on paper by Simon Morris, but Jones seems not interested in systems or transparent process. His images vary in their use of space: some deep, others flat and schematic; some with skimpy cursory description, others apparently fully resolved. Their peculiar inconsistency comes from their source as found lines seen from the air.

These drawings are all beautifully made but viewer preferences will inevitably be subjective, a form of free association. It’s an interesting show with the precise sharp black edges providing a vivid contrast to the blurry glare of the bright white tubes. Two opposite senses of spatial location – dark and crisp (but locked down) with light and soft (but floating) - placed side by side. A delicately understated political metaphor.