Megan Dunn – 16 December, 2011
Prospect is an exhibition with nerve. The overarching theme or mode is abstraction, not just in the visual sense, but also in terms of thought. Everywhere there is the space of the gallery, surrounding and holding the art in its limbic system. The recurring echo seems to be emptiness and the afterlife of the object; the vacuum and the vacuum packed.
Prospect: New Zealand Art Now
Curated by Kate Montgomery
26 November - 12 February 2011
Prospect is a brainy show, or an austere show, or perhaps both in equal measures. It’s an exhibition that’s confidently curated, a strong sense of restraint evident in both the practice of the artists and the juxtapositions of their work on display. The tone is set in the foyer. John Ward Knox‘s sculpture runs from wall to wall like a washing line. The line of this sculpture contains a wave, a swivel as the piece of tensile steel meets a linked stainless steel chain. This is a bold curatorial display that suits the sculpture, the void of the gallery punctuated by just one work of art, like an exclamation mark on an empty page.
Montgomery knows how to edit, she appreciates the maxim ‘less is more.’ Prospect contains just 16 artists, the smallest selection so far in the series, but this isn’t a skimpy exhibition. Each artist’s work is showcased well. Most of the artists in Prospect were born in the early eighties or late seventies, they are the curator’s generation and there’s that synergy, that sense of closeness, in ideals and aesthetics.
The exhibition doesn’t have plaques on the wall naming the artists or their works. Several people commented on this at the opening and I noticed a complaint in the gallery comments book saying the show was difficult to navigate and the print in the catalogue was too small for ‘senior citizens.’ These are valid points for an exhibition at a public gallery that has as part of its agenda, ‘the creation of space for shared conversation and debate…’ about contemporary art. However, I can also imagine this was a calculated decision not to disturb the aesthetic of the work on display.
Prospect is an exhibition with nerve. The overarching theme or mode is abstraction, not just in the visual sense although the only ‘painters’ on display, Foote and Lundberg are working in abstraction, but also in terms of thought. Everywhere there is the space of the gallery, surrounding and holding the art in its limbic system. The recurring echo seems to be emptiness and the afterlife of the object; the vacuum and the vacuum packed. Several artists, particularly Newby, Mitchell and Buchanan also deal (perhaps at times subconsciously) with the neuroses of contemporary art and our relationship to it. Where is it? What is it? What does it smell like? How do we read it?
Downstairs, the colours of the exhibition are taupe, grey, tan, beige. Transparency and plastic are placed centre stage. Eve Armstrong’s Taking Stock spills out from one wall of the East gallery, an avalanche of clear containers, plastic sandwich boxes, liquid soap pumps, a Frappucino cup, without straw.This work reminded me of the epic cascade of the white terrace. On my gallery visits there was always a viewer skirting its edge, sometimes looking down into the mirrors that form part of its overflow. Armstrong’s nearby collages continue to fetishise discarded objects, including the kitchen sink. Her colour palette is acute, her work always recognisable. Yet despite the social relevance of recycling in-organic rubbish, Armstrong’s installation didn’t grow in the mind for me when I went away. Like Selina Foote’s abstract geometric paintings displayed in the same room, Taking Stock works best in person, but both remain well worth seeing.
In the adjacent gallery Fiona Connor displays a multitude of empty news stands, local and international, giving us the opportunity to take the pulse of print media. Meanwhile Fiona Jack’s nearby black and white photograph Election Day In New Plymouth captures the first women voters in New Zealand, as the current general election plays out its death throws. The architecture of each news stand is interesting from an anthropological point of view and the skeletal frames complimented Trevelyan’s pencil point sculptures round the corner.
Trevelyan‘s work is impressive, an easy win with the public. His small graphite sculptures are placed along a ledge, each depicting a different theory about perspective. In the gallery comments book before I left I read, ‘Really, Really loved the pencil work!’ On my second viewing there were more comments in the book specifically complimenting the ‘pencil sculptures’ and I overheard a man asking the gallery assistant if he could take a photograph of Node. Sometimes it’s just enjoyable when ‘the others’ (the non-art insiders!) are able to appreciate a work of contemporary art. Trevelyan’s sculptures have achieved that synthesis between the medium and the message. People get the point.
Lundberg’s practice is intentionally oblique - the endgame of an elaborate process with fellow artist, Roman Mitch. The works are small in dimension, sanded back, layered, abstract, the colours muted, white, grey and blue. A piece of broken glass is taped onto the gallery wall. The incised paintings are on rectangular pieces of board the works flow around a corner, opening up to lines of scribble - again - directly applied to the gallery wall. More sanding. One painting on chipboard dangles from the ceiling: art on a rope. Lundberg’s coveted ‘shoelace’ works were noticeably absent from Prospect.
Visiting the show on the first day I wandered up to the gallery assistant standing next to Lundberg’s work.
‘What have people been asking you about today?’ I said.
‘Not very much,’ she said. ‘But they’re meant to be approaching me, because I have an artwork in my pocket.’
The gallery assistant opened her palm to reveal a small collection of stones, a tiny brass hand, a button, the ring pull from a can of soft-drink. This collection of trinkets is one of Kate Newby’s works in Prospect. I stumbled upon this work by accident but the viewer is meant to be searching for it: the exhibition map reads in tiny font, ‘Please ask a gallery host.’ This artwork made me think about Jack and his handful of magic beans, once flung out the window the beans grow into a beanstalk. However I’m charmed but not convinced by Newby’s offering of trinkets. Is she expanding or contracting the perimeters of our art experience? The reality is sometimes she’s probably doing neither.
Without the framing device of the gallery Newby’s two outdoor sculptures in Civic square are also incognito. One work is effectively a puddle, a dip in the pavement where the brick work has been cut up. Newby has set golden stones, an Allen key, another soft drink seal into the concrete. On top of the ‘art’, rainwater has collected, cigarette butts, the red loop of a discarded ‘Aids’ ribbon, pin still attached. I wouldn’t have known this puddle was part of Prospect. However, it endears me more than the slope of ‘water permeable’ pebbles nearby, an artwork that frankly, just doesn’t seem suggestive enough of anything in particular. It might be the small scale. Newby is an artist much respected by her peers, yet I find her titles a trifle whimsical for my liking. Just enough to feel stronger and a little bit fond - these sentence fragments can seem tacked on to the works, at worst an affectation.
Buchanan has three multimedia pieces in Prospect, all clearly demonstrate her interest in the intersection of art and writing and offer plenty of ‘smarts.’ However her best realised work Older Lovers etc is on display in the auditorium. I was in the position of being perhaps the ideal person to see it. I studied art history when the slide show was in full throttle, I’ve made art videos and now have a Masters in writing. The intersection of the text and the ‘slides’ is sophisticated, the adjacencies are not literal and the work is full of wry humour and surprise. From the opening frame of the video its apparent that Buchanan is telling us a story about the complications of making and viewing art, slides of representational landscapes (Mt Cook, Toss Woollaston) wobble in and out of focus, sometimes Buchanan shows us just the white fuzzy blur, the empty slide, the glitch in the carousel, like the horror of the blank page!
I suspect this video won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. I watched a young couple enter the empty auditorium as I was leaving. Barely a minute later I saw them wander blank faced through the news stands. The couple were probably born in the eighties, like many of these artists. At the after party, I’d also spoken to a guy at Mighty Mighty who was non-plussed about Prospect, conceding maybe he just wasn’t smart enough to understand most of the work. That’s always the risk with the brainy show, the art that alerts us to its own world of signs and signifiers.
But does art have to reach out and hold the audience’s hand? Is the artist even responsible for producing a work that is engaging? How do we measure the success or failure of an art work? These are old questions, but they remain perennially relevant, Duchamp’s fountain is still in full flow. The text of Older Lovers etc became my preferred catalogue to the overall exhibition. I could stop and pause at virtually any artwork and ponder lines like…
The object can become arrogant giving little signal if any as to how to behave towards it.
Each generation has something different at which they are looking…
One must allow the object its private life.
Enough pontificating for now. On Monday we go upstairs to look more closely at the work of Robert Hood, Dane Mitchell, Ava Seymour, Sriwhana Spong and Jacqueline Fraser …
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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