Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 4 Artist Run Spaces
Log 4 Artist Run Spaces

Auckland Roundup
Jon Bywater


Art that primarily references design (architecture, industrial, graphic and interior) seems to be everywhere. The unfashionability/oversubscription of 'issue' art has got many visual artists hereabouts leaning hard on the quasi-formalist, minimalism-with-the-admission-that-it-is-referential kind of strategy. Witness, for starters, a couple of those selected from Aotearoa for the Sydney Biennale. Here in Auckland, Robert Leonard's Artspace has offered us a chance to preview (and museumily re-view, in one case) two of the men called up to represent us-Jim Speers and Peter Robinson-while another selection, Denise Kum, held a solo show at Sue Crockford Gallery.

Robinson's work is, of course, issue art, loud and blaring, and was seen-it-before in several senses: re-hashed work from his last Auckland show (at the Anna Bibby Gallery) was installed for him, with work made for Australian audiences at the Seppelt Award show stirred in. The main ingredients are the now well exposed 'daringly' schoolboy textual puns that capture the bluntest, most conversationally expressed knee jerk racism (like noticing the homographic gag in the innocent German article "die" (as in "die Maori"), like you might snicker at seeing the (funny-in-English-post-WWII) "BAD" on German maps or "GROSS" on the cover of the atlas, or whatever) chalked up in tabloid/traditional Maori/Third Reich/ races and blood black, white and red. A Te Papa joke for topicality and some Australian translations (uh, "die Aborigine"...), did nothing to avoid the limitations of the German/Nazi stuff that were pointed out by Tessa Laird at cultural hasty, and these still outweigh the bold and stylishly European gallery grunge corrugated cardboard presentation.

Speers has been making work from his variety of white male positions for half a decade, often drawing on, and here and there Juddily modelling, the charmingly bland and evocative in modernist institutional architecture-hotels, hospitals, function centres-liberally strewing his constructed components with gaps, glue bulges and slight asymmetries, signs of handypersonal imperfection. The most seductive variation in his theme are his curatorially popular, quietly glowing, gapingly open-ended lightboxes, that reproduce the fluorescent corner hum of illuminated cigarette machines, drinks fridges, or the lit windows of empty offices after hours. Treated as a form unto themselves, they are resurfaced variously with a loose array of abstract designs, evoking here and there in this display, plastic tablecoth gingham, a Rorsach blot, fifties lampshades and Dick Smith kitset electronics diagrams.

Kum moved on from the 'ethnic' and the 'abject' to the slick chic domestic industrial as far back as her work for the Fusion exchange project (nearly two years ago now), and her work can also be easily read in terms of architectural interiors. Her show Pasticcio took a disco turn with '70s kitchen sparkle, gift wrapping and fashion finish. Unlike Speers' more in-situ/lived-with look, her objects are showroom fresh, tightly coordinated within a colour scheme of bright blue, chrome, white, and clear perspex, with a much less eclectic range of surface variations. Where Speers builds rectangular boxes, Kum sets up square grids, on the wall or on the floor. Most formally appealing was the grid of luminous fire-starter/toilet-cleaner waxy chemical rocks.

I didn't get a decent look at the show Span, also at Artspace, but the show's organiser has it that the work is designed for "schizy attention spans", so even my on-the-way-to-lunch look seems like grounds to comment. Two American and one Japanese artists were represented with five video-loop works, purportedly dip-in-dip-out rather than watch-right-through intended/appropriate sequences, produced over the past three years. The smooth techno sheen of Mariko Mori's geisha-shaman ritual piece, Miko No Inori, was probably the slowest moving but sank in instantly and memorably, glinting with the Yamamote flawless look of a Sony tvc. Subtly set against the limbo waiting space of an airport, it more plausibly than the rest affected my "temporal experience of narrative" (as the wall ticket said it all would). The more arty text and image stuff, like Diana Thater's chimpanzee primate-vision, and Jessica Bronson's hand-held walk-poem, revealed less of interest at a glance.

Lydia Elliot at the George Fraser made a clear and simple variation on the cosmetic re-working of minimalism thing under the title Make, presenting a glittering nail polish monochrome painting (à la Dwyer), and a cluster of minimalist wooden blocks, also painted with nail polish and the right size to be boxes for a dresser's worth of product (reminiscent of the art-mag favourite-lipstick remake of Serra's One Ton Prop by Rachel Lachowicz.) Alongside her, Donald Fraser pared things right back to some kind of photocopy zen state, scanning, enlarging and framing two found photos of earlier century shipping and ship building, perhaps with a Boys Encyclopedia/Popular Mechanics/Serra-ted eye to appreciating the physical spectacle of all that modern engineering, now, like big art, languishing under the threat of obsolescence (his title: The Baltic).

At Ivan Anthony, Isobelle Thom continued her pleasing painting of puns on volume and liquid, not pushing it all too much further, with works hung skew-wiff to make their as-if fluid horizons parallel the ground, settled and still rather than splashing. In the back room, the celebrated, George-Hubbard-launched re-worker of '70s building-tweaking, site-specific minimalism, Dion Workman made an uncompelling visit. A not-slick-enough-to-be-domestic/not-scruffy-enough-to-be-'artistic' mushroom paint job to the walls and an uninterestingly uninteresting monotone 'noise' soundtrack-an ascetically thin and boring monotone played through a rather obtrusively presented home stereo-added up to much more or much less than the catalogue essayist's poetic and polemic references to profound modesty and spiritual mysticism might have led you to hope for.

Also at Ivan Anthony, the colourful group show Peep lacked, mainly for limiting each artist to a token of their work. Saskia Leek's bad job story and Simon Cumming, with his table-top scaled lino/formica-esque Bad Techno wonky pattern painting, in particular looked like they needed more room to show what they're about. Perhaps Howard Matil did, too, but his vividly generic looking doodly internationalism was a disappointing first glimpse of the young star as-also-touted-by-George-Hubbard. By contrast, Anton Parson's conceptualist deadpan degree zero colour photography (more neo-minimalism, more large prints of blank film) was confidently self-contained. Amidst more needles and tools, Tony de Latour's largest canvas was encrypted with the calling card "decorator of hate", which brings us to the place where he was last seen up here: As is often remarked, Brian O'Doherty's 'white cube' risks becoming a 'white living room' at the Anna Bibby Gallery. Jude Rae's new work, still lives of an elegant harlequin tea set (a Poole? a Wedgewood? a Crown Lynn?), painted like tidier Morandis in an untitled series, combined with the white walls and natural wood floor to evoke only further cream expanses, stainless steel kitchenware and corkscrews. In this gallery and in this selection, at least, the work disappointingly follows the objects represented within them into the role of tasteful furnishings for this sort of room.

No less tasteful a company than the Louis Vuitton-sponsored Orientalism at the Auckland Art Gallery. I wasn't there for the businessmen-in-their-wives'-clothes, tea-towel-turbans and fifty dollar tickets opening at which the Vuitton rep was due to be present, but as far as garish trappings go, the very un-tasteful "enter the harem" posters were hard to avoid around town. I liked the Ingres, the incongruously effortless, unvoyeuristic, Klee watercolours, the dry-ice-and-diamante Moreau and the as-seen-on-the-cover-of-Said's book Gerôme. (A gallery worker passed on the story that the latter is under glass because too many people were attracted to stroke the painting at the point where the young boy's buttocks are represented.) The photos are good, too. Other big names, Delacroix, Renoir and Matisse, were much less exciting than I'd've hoped.

Also trafficking in Other culture, the eye Bogle-ing spectacle of the thoroughly merchandised Ndbelle show at the New at least allowed representatives of this South African tribal grouping to represent themselves to some extent, though somewhat dubiously on display themselves, painting under the public gaze in the gallery, and under the curatorial frame of a white architect from whose private collection most of the pieces on display were drawn.

Hot on the heels of William Dart's infomercial for the gallery, the Gow Langsford show that it's always possible to go further up that market with three genuine, original, hand crafted Pablo Picassos. I didn't actually see them, but someone did read out to me the poetry they inspired in TJ Macnamara for his piece in the NZ Herald (something about "the artist's penis"). The pertinent question seems to me to be: who will get there first-the new Auckland incarnation of the Andrew Jensen, or Fiat Lux-in the race for the local Salvador Dali franchise?

To people for whom 'popular culture' is something you need to spice up your lectures or maybe just something to list on your cv as an 'interest', Fiat Lux is pegged as a 'grunge' space, or maybe a 'rock 'n' roll' thing, but in the wake of Boogie Nights, their opening show this year was Stayin' Alive. A boutique display of colourful souvenirs from "the vanguard of the avant-garde", the fundraiser looked more like Iko Iko or Askew than even Signs of the Times, and had more good keyring ideas than Pictura Britannica. Tired and tested formulae for determining art's worth (dealer-tenure or simply fame) obtained even at the blanket charge of $75 a throw, had those most convinced of such measures eagerly phoning ahead for such conceptual wonders as Billy Apple's signed and framed Fiat Lux newsletter. An impressive mix of Lux faithful, the most interesting dealer painters and some semi-retired art makers (education and film workers) made for a satisfying hang.

At the George Fraser, Bland banded together six recent art school graduates who've been studying in the South Island. Amongst them, blank industries easily discovered perversity in Jenny Shippley's Code of Social Responsibility, merely etching it into tiny plastic marble plaques as tablets inscribed with eleven commandments of post-socialist coercion. Read from miniature veneer monumental masonry, such ominous sentences as "People will do all they can to keep themselves physically and mentally healthy" seemed blackly loaded with implicit norms and social positions, evoking an amusingly small, depressingly tortured Christian view of life as an unending toil and inner struggle for self-control. A possible Cantabrian organicism stood out, from Jemma Upritchard and Michelle Wise. Upritchard's McCahonesque landscapes miniaturised things further than even the smallest railway-set, to fit the hills of six days and nights in Canterbury and Marlborough into eyeglass cases, one suggesting that to renew tradition, "have your eyes examined every two years". Wise made specimens of shed latex skins, presumably painted over furniture-sloughed membranes that had the look of mummified under-the-house cat corpses (Furniture Pelts). Wearing a more urban sense of place, Emma Bugden and Warren Olds both staked out their ground with nods to graffiti. Bugden's ventilated candy-apple green box, reminiscent of an air filter or high voltage transformer, cutting a dash against the gallery's gunmetal gloss floor, chanted a robot mantra of "Emma Bugden woz hair". Olds' laser cut 'tag' showed up (just) on K Rd as well as on the gallery window. He projected a slide of an indistinct wall nook that cast a white plastic shadow over the floor, repeating something of the indecipherable elements of commercial graphic design that can intrigue in an art-like way. Happily wandering around this corner of the room, Jonathan Nicol's headphones looked as though they might provide a soundtrack to Olds' slide projector, but instead seemed to work best as a commentary on the gallery (or galleries) as a whole: "Is there anybody out there..?", "Is there anybody still here..?" This funny and suggestive collage of horror movie suspense sequenced ahoys and halloos spun on its frightened heels from hopeful-playful to fearful-desperate without anything ever happening. A vividly transparent background of rattlesnake maracas, supernaturally creaking doors and upper register key twinkles chopped and changed behind a roll call of the missing-presumed-hideously-butchered: "Andy?", "Rick?", "Mark?", "Sam?", "Rose?", "Craig?", "Lisa?", "Sandra?", "Geoff?", "You guys?...." The Tree/Fruit of the Loom t-shirt stripes painted onto a patch of the wall were an element of this piece (The Final Chapter), along with the laser cut "22:22" on the toilet door, suggesting a bedside digital clock witching-hour of possible numerological significance, but mostly just 'looking good' in a lightly allusive way.

Jon Bywater
Winter 1998



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room