John Hurrell – 21 September, 2011
If you expect viewers to linger in front of a painting you need to provide a bait of sorts to keep them there - especially if the art is calculatedly ‘not quite right.' If you want them to attend to the ‘awkwardness' that is also present - that you want them to think is deliberate.
Sam Rountree Williams
14 - 15 September 2011
In this two day exhibition in this rather beautiful old Kyber Pass Road church hall Sam Rountree Williams presents seven paintings, all with his characteristic Rountree Williams trademark, layers of small clam shells stuck onto thick coats of gesso - and some at times with portions later pried off. The picking off (subtractive) aspect seems significant for it leaves a distinctive patterned texture as a record of the absent shell.
Overall the paintings come across as a sort of hybrid of Marcel Broodthaers mussel shell paintings and Julian Schnabel’s broken plate works. Rountree Williams seems to be aiming at Schnabel’s calculatedly crude manual touch, but with works much much smaller.
The show’s viewing suffers badly being in the hall because of the horizontal division on the wooden panelled walls - between upper cream painted panelling and lower brown stained tongue-and-groove, separated by a line of grey trim. The hall space would look better without Rountree Williams additions, but then his work would probably never get seen. I see his dilemma. He wants an audience, but he pays an aesthetic price.
Some of his images refer specifically to the North and South Islands, blobby, lumpy green versions that seem to be weather maps and which might be satirical references to New Zealand culture especially - dare I say it? - during the period of the Rugby World Cup. Not all of Rountree Wiliams’ paintings in the past have been hamfisted. He is capable of delicate and precise mark making. So his clunkiness and rawness here is knowingly done.
The other characteristic is his incorporation of blank gessoed canvases that often bring a lopsided cack-handed composition to the work. There is an essay that goes with the show written by George Watson. She says the work pursues ‘off-ness’, ‘an iconography of the not quite right,…a painterly codification of awkwardness.’
I can grasp what she is getting at but overall I have a problem with a lot of Rountree Wiliams’ work. My contention goes like this: I can see that he can move away from crude mark making if he wishes but I am not convinced he is capable of making well-executed resolved paintings when he tries to. He does so occasionally but that might be hit and miss, a matter of luck. If you expect viewers to linger in front of a painting you need to provide a bait of sorts to keep them there - especially if the art is calculatedly ‘not quite right.’ If you want them to attend to the ‘awkwardness’ that is also present, that you want them to think is deliberate.
And indeed in this show there are two paintings where Watson is absolutely accurate. One where there are three sections: a blank square on the far left, a black square where acrylic has been applied with a palette knife, and within that black square, tucked into the bottom right-hand corner, a beautiful multi-coloured square of sprayed painted clam shells that look soft as decorations in a velvet quilt. It is sensuous on the right, and boring - and (metaphorically) about to topple off the wall - on the left.
The other work of interest features a swollen bizarrely-ugly image of the South Island in a square framed by long canvas panels of maroon purple. Curving shell lines of anti-cyclones and cyclones near the lefthand outer edges lead into a central France-shaped, mottled conglomeration that presses into the curve of the Island’s back, creating a lovely prodding tension. The ubiquitous arabesques of landform contours and cyclones just hold the whole thing together - for it is somewhat gross in its flimsy casualness. The heavyhanded frame seems a strategy to distract from the painting within it - and the slyness of this furtive method works.
Rountree William’s other paintings in my view aren’t worth bothering with. They don’t cut it. Their compositions and surfaces are too anaemic, without any effective dynamic to draw you in close and mentally engage with, or persuade you that this self-declared ‘bad’ art might in fact be good.
To read a transcript of the panel discussion “Whose Oceania?” held recently in London, and more on NZ arts abroad, CLICK HERE
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