Warren Feeney – 23 February, 2018
It is near impossible to ignore the feeling that Poppelwell wants us to know that we are in on his game. Jerusalem III is the largest painting in the exhibition and it cannot help but be considered with an awareness that it knows of its own self-importance. Yet, on closer inspection, it might appear to have no good reason to hold such an attitude. It is a word painting in which phrases are cut short, words are spelt in reverse, and where fragments and grouping of words in its comic-book calligraphy promise to reveal their significance but refrain from doing so.
1 February - 4 March, 2018
EFG is Martin Poppelwell’s first solo exhibition in Christchurch and is representative of one of the more positive aspects of the visual arts, as they fully recover in the post-quake city.
The opening of The Central in March 2017 in the Arts Centre of Christchurch has seen a strong representation of artists from the Jonathan Smart Gallery (as would be expected with Jonathan as one of four directors overseeing the programme), but the new gallery is also among a number of galleries (new and existing) that have cultivated a more diverse experience of contemporary art in the city. Today, in 2018, there is an unprecedented number of commercial galleries and, as a result, we are now getting a more comprehensive overview of what is happening in the visual arts nationally than prior to February 2011.
As part of this—although well-known in Auckland and Wellington—Poppelwell is essentially new to Christchurch and EFG (as in a pun on ‘effigy’) feels like a breath of new life. The exhibition brings together paintings, ceramics pots, vessels, tiles and works on paper to act as a comprehensive introduction to his practice. There is a casual/slacker intellect and aestheticism to Poppelwell’s work that shares something with the spirit of Philip Guston’s paintings (both make use of comic book aesthetics as a kind of user-friendly way of engaging), a deceptive lyricism that persistently understates the seriousness of his intent and fuels the complexity of our responses.
It is near impossible to ignore the feeling that Poppelwell wants us to know that we are in on his game. Jerusalem III is the largest painting in the exhibition and it cannot help but be considered with an awareness that it knows of its own self-importance. Yet, on closer inspection, it might appear to have no good reason to hold such an attitude. It is a word painting in which phrases are cut short, words are spelt in reverse, and where fragments and grouping of words in its comic book calligraphy promise to reveal their significance but refrain from doing so. Nevertheless, Jerusalem III delivers a mischievous beauty. Where the use of words by New Zealand artists is often couched in soap-box stoicism, Poppelwell’s words are more like loose-canons—there to announce the good news of their presence in paint on canvas, and pleased to be with you, sharing the space of the gallery.
There is an equal pleasure and humour in his Grid Series, in the titles of the paintings and their experience. Whether it be Grid Series The Sewing Machine, or Grid Series The Cement Mixer, or Grid Series The Grandma boogie (Wodehouse), these abstracted images all lay claim to a history of pure abstraction that is both announced and denied by their titles. The absence of the immediate evidence of the objects that they describe, shifts our attention to the painting itself as line, form, colour and materials.
However the formal weighting and measure of Poppelwell’s line across the surface of the picture plane similarly refuses to resolve this visual dilemma. As paint on canvas, they are a subject in themselves to behold, (one that it would not be unreasonable to describe as abstraction), yet the grids that form the essential content in these works appear as much like torn and frayed fence lines as they are a casually-offhand Mondrian experience about pure abstraction.
Then there are those three large ‘working drawings’ for the ceramic vessel, Russian Ham (Jar). The subjects, imagery and mark making in Mr Tom, Diagram + Diagram Tile and Russian Ham are similarly the content for the ceramic vessel adjacent to them. But are they working drawings? Poppelwell provides evidence to suggest that they are, yet the collage that assumingly alters and corrects a line in Russian Ham seems to also resolve the work as an end in itself. In the same way, the overlaying of paint beside and around the calligraphic gestures of Diagram + Diagram Tile, rather than draw attention to Poppelwell’s lettering, makes the spaces in between its subject. It is these and numerous other visual double-takes that makes EFG such a visual pleasure.