A camera obscura metaphor dominated They Show Ponies Dont They, Nicholas Spratts new show in the little back room of Rm 401 (where he is a committee member). Buildings outside refracted into miniature versions which lurked upside-down under the they-came-with-the-joint- hope-they-fit-in-with-yer-show shelving there. The shows conceit was that it was to be derived materially and conceptually from objects found on the streets surrounding the gallery. Plainly constructed from cardboard and with a dour monochromatic paintjob, the buildings were modest (shabby even) signifiers in a show content to act as a kind of local gazette. For instance, a photo and a record player turning a home-made barbershop pole with blue and red glitter attested to Spratts original desire to open the gallery in a disused barbers near the stripclubs Showgirls and Showboys - the gallerys name: Showponies.
Other gestures invoking the super-local were Spratts playing up against a T-beam in the space to form a McCahonian "I" - followed by a cardboard cut-out: "was here". Yuk yuk, indeed - and perhaps we should find fault with this kind of (apologetic?) art that so readily limits itself to the parameters of its own (for itself?) existence. Alternatively, what was nice about the show was the way it gave new consideration to the ARS phenomenon, which so much has been said about in the last few years. Spratt situates the ARS (and of course this too is nothing new) as contingent on a locality - intersecting with a community in various ways and in multiple directions. They Show Ponies demonstrated this by literalising it as content - if only to lead the viewer to the conclusion that Rm 401s position in an area of town defined as equal parts scheduled-for-demolition and sex-industry-district points to the marginal nature of what it is that artists of this kind do.
Swiss artist Olaf Breunings video art stands in marked contrast to Spratts careful concerns for turangawaewae. King (George Fraser Gallery) and Group (Artspace) exploit our fluency in the language of Hollywood and MTV stereotype. The two shows were an entertaining hybrid of music-video and fantasy epic, featuring short loosely linear narratives without dialogue. The strength of this kind or work could lie in its powerful sense of inevitability. With his anachronistic suits-of-armour, Nevada landscapes, Cali-dude, SUV, vikings and Maui camper-van, Breunning is really producing Xena: Warrior Princess reductio ad absurdum. And to his credit he did apparently try to hook up a cameo from Lucy Lawless for the Artspace piece. Breunings work is actually incredibly satisfying, it is intelligent and witty and it has that DIY ethic; it takes the most basic and expoitative elements of Big Media and runs off into the wilderness with them yelling and laughing.
Ive surprised myself for a couple of years running with my reaction to the Wallace Art Awards. Basically, I felt physically sick, and really, its only art - Im shocked I even care. This emotionalism is cause for a celebration of sorts, but it is upsetting that that much money is given away in a sweepstake to find the biggest (usually literally the biggest) one line joke. Winner Peter Gibson-Smith has cunningly articulated the judges desires with XXXXXX , a giant palate board constructed of larger than life mock books. Providing a canonical library for anyone still wrestling with the spectre of modernist painting, the titles ranged from ****** to the simple yet portentious "Bacon". Its a pun geddit? The palate of a great artist is so much more than paint - its ideas. If only Mr. Wallace could get used to that idea.
Purangiaho (Seeing Clearly) - the major Auckland Art Gallery show addressing tradition in contemporary Maori art is an interesting mix of styles and strategies. By tracing whakapapa (genealogy, ancestry) Purangiaho could arguably aspire to a Maori world-view or philosophy. Distinct from merely being objects of a Pakeha tradition made by Maori, the show might have delineated a history that was uniquely Maori. In the way that whakapapa is not simply equivalent to a family tree, this might have followed lines that didnt necessarily have anything to do with art. By following an art whakapapa, read as influence (tradition), Purangiaho seems to have largely eliminated qualitative judgement. The exhibition is, roundly, a survey-show: it collects (apparently) any work which fits its argument. But rather than this providing a radical critique of Western aesthetic traditions and museum culture it tends toward a collection of some of the worse elements of precisely those things. Having deigned all the Maori crafts that do not need art status to justify their existence as outside its parameters, Purangiaho is left with so much anaemic post-modernism. Take Reuben Patersons Wharenui That Dad Built paintings for example. Kowhaiwhai based designs in glitterdust typify a strategy prevalent with several artists in the show: updating a traditional form by executing it with modern materials. But this seldom achieves any meaningful interrogation of either tradition or modernity, rather, it is pastiche for the sake of it.
Purangiaho is a large and worthwhile show and these arguments definitely do not fit for all the works here. A line of broadly post-colonial work runs from the eighties (Kahukiwa, Jahnke, Karaka etc.) to contemporary takes such as Gina Matchetts jewellery which appropriates corporate icons such as McDonalds and Lion Red which have a negative effect on Maori culture. These works take ideas from contemporary art and use them to address specifically Maori issues. That was one strength of the show, the way it allowed a discussion of the changes in strategy and interest through the generations of artists represented; from, say, the ultimately ghetto-ising language of expressionism and polemic to the irony and self-reflexivity of the later artists. Peter Robinson, Michael Parekowhai, Lisa Reihana and others here stand out as problematising the role of the Maori artist. Through their use of international art world language or utilising digital media to tell the old stories some of the younger Maori artists are pushing the limits of what is considered Maori art. Purangiaho could have made more room for this discussion, as it seems to be one of the obvious areas for continued contestation of what it means to be Maori and making art today.
Dylan Rainforth is an artist of Te Ati Hau Nui-A-Paparangi descent. He lives in Auckland.