All posts by admin

The Unknown Craftsman

The Unknown Craftsman reviewed by Paul Melser at Wairarapa re-Views

By Paul Melser October 2013

I recently read a short article in the last issue of Ceramics Quarterly from an Auckland Potter raising some interesting questions about the nature and definition of domesticware. Suzy Dünser’s discussion revolved around a much-heralded exhibition at Masterworks Gallery in Ponsonby, Auckland.

Called ‘The Last Supper’, it had the ambitious aim of establishing a new 21st century ‘ethos’ for contemporary domesticware. Masterworks considered that in most other areas of the arts a 21st century approach could be seen but in handcrafted domesticware it was not.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Featherston Guerilla Gardeners

Featherston Guerilla Gardeners  October 2013 reviewed at Wairarapa re-Views

Featherston October 2013

I’m not sure the Featherston Guerilla Gardeners were attempting a piece of performance art when they clandestinely set up a garden in the vacant lot where a new supermarket is supposed to be built in the near future.

The essential events as they unfolded was that the group of activists in the dark of night planted a small garden as well as erecting a wind sock and placing a sign on the fence saying “World Seed Day.”

They invited the Wairarapa Times Age’s editor to interview them and explained that they were raising awareness of World Seed Day and being against genetic engineering.

While the photograph taken by the editor for the story showed the activists from behind, therefore maintaining their anonymity, another photo of two of the participants standing/dancing naked holding garden implements was posted on facebook and picked up and republished on the Wairarapa Times Age’s facebook page.

Ignoring any shock value, in fact the two naked people completed this piece of performance art, a play on the concept of “seed.“ The metaphor of seed (germination of life) was expressed by the naked male and female (with echoes of Adam and Eve).

The windsock, intentionally or otherwise, looked like a condom and hence was a direct reference to the seed metaphor, in this case the suppression of it (corporates forcing farmers to purchase genetically engineered seed from them, rather than using seed collected annually from their own non-genetically modified crops)

Obviously the protest was intentional, but how intentional were the added layers of metaphor? We will never know.

Featherston Guerilla Gardeners October 2013 reviewed at Wairarap re-Views –

INTERSECTING/ INTERSECTIONS: Four approaches to the landscape – Barry Ellis

Aratoi Museum of Art & History August 2013

“This exhibition is about how the painted images meet and interact with one another. It is in 4 parts, dealing with 4 different locations, Greytown, Central Queensland, The South Coast & Southern Highlands of New South Wales, and Carlisle Beach in Patea, South Taranaki.”


Barry Ellis is one New Zealand artists who has for the most part flown under the radar, at least in comparison to many of his contemporaries, for instance Rhondda Grieg of Carterton. Perhaps, this is due to his peripatetic lifestyle, never seeming to stay in one place that long.

He’s also straddled art and design, a foot in both camps, in terms of his art as well as his income. Ellis started out as an apprentice sign-writer at New Zealand Railway studios in Wellington, eventually becoming head designer. From there he went on to the Industrial Design Council, promoting design education in both schools and universities, then a design consultant and part-time Wellington Polytechnic tutor where he met graphic artist Gerad Taylor.

When Taylor moved to the Wairarapa, Ellis made the region his home for a short while with exhibitions at Gerad and Anne Taylor’s short-lived Reform Gallery in Carterton. Since then Ellis has had at least one exhibition at Aratoi Museum of Art & History which I reviewed here. In Christchurch Ellis was “an electronic entrepreneur”, producing over 250,000 posters promoting the electronics industry as a career (source: Wairarapa Times Age).

I’m not sure where Ellis lives now and what he does for a living, but judging by this exhibition, his is still a gypsy lifestyle, with some paintings inspired by the beach at Patea in South Taranaki and others parts of Australia. A few years on from his last exhibition, Ellis still displays some of the same qualities of his earlier works. There are no paintings dealing with life on the road specifically, but as always, there is a sense of restless movement.

Whether you call it an “influence” or not, there is something of the 1950s American Beat movement in Ellis’s paintings. And really, his work has more in common with the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s than any other movement. Ellis veers wildly between the semi-figurative and the pure abstract, much like the out of control boy racers in his previous show at Aratoi.

And the standard of the works veers wildly too. But at his best, Ellis achieves something that is extremely rare in contemporary New Zealand art and difficult to achieve – convincing works of pure abstraction. In this he is like Max Gimblett, however different the trajectories of their lives have been.

Gimblett arrived in New York just in time to connect directly with the last flourishes of the Abstract Expressionism and some of the movement’s leading proponents in the early 1970s (in this Gimblett has a bit in common with Billy Apple vis a vis Pop Art). Ellis never escaped Regionalism, physically, nor in his painting, and this sense of localised place is imprinted on his art, where Gimblett’s is High Art Internationalism, and so belongs firmly in the Modernist tradition.

Ellis has been forever been driving the back roads of the art world. Given that he has undoubtedly moved into his later decades, the fact that he has managed to continue producing successful shows is to Ellis’ credit, whereas others in a similar position within the New Zealand art hierarchy have creatively withered.

Ellis’ works in this show are full of restless energy, but the abstracts succeed because the have a calming centre. They also have a brighteness and warmth to them that makes me wonder if they might have been inspired more by the Australian landscape.

The figurative works, which largely revolve around coastal scenes such as the stunning coastline at Patea, are first interpreted as abstracts until their title and some time spent looking at them, reveal the paintings to be essentially figurative works done with some of the gestural paint strokes one might associate with De Kooning, for example. They pull the eye in different directions but don’t quite hold the soul.

I like the fact that Ellis interprets the coastal scenes in his own unique style which in some ways matches the wildness of South Taranaki coastline, but there’s also a cold, hard edge to his painting technique that always evokes more of an urban experience (to the point where the wreck on Patea’s beach above resembles high rise buildings).

Few artists are equally convincing in both the figurative and abstract, Vera Jamieson being one local an example. As far as I know Ellis has oriented more towards the former, but based on this show, I think abstraction is where he really shines, at least in this show.

NB I also noticed that the prices being asked were in no ways excessive, a reflection no doubt of Ellis’ limited recognition and pragmatism around this







Shane Cotton – The Hanging Sky

Shane Cotton : The Hanging Sky City Gallery Wellington July 2013 reviewed by Paul Melser at Wairarapa re-Views

City Gallery Wellington July 2013

The Hanging Sky is a survey exhibition of the work of one of the country’s most critically acclaimed artists. It is currently showing at the City Gallery Wellington having already been seen in Christchurch and Melbourne. The exhibition occupies all four galleries on the ground floor of the City Gallery. You can read the rest of the review here


Look at us Now: Tirohai Mai

Look at us Now. Tirohia Mai. National Library July 2013 reviewed by Paul Melser at Wairarapa re-Views

National Library Wellington July 2013

By Paul Melser

Two of the posters on one wall recalling the poster campaign through the 120 year period. The Katherine Mansfield poster on the right claims that behind every great woman is a man who tried to stop her.

Look at us Now. Tirohia Mai is an exhibition about the slow, 120 year, progress in NZ towards gender equality.

You can read the review here

ICAN: We are all transistors: Carla Cescon, Scott Donovan and Alex Gawronski

ICAN: We are all transistors: Carla Cescon, Scott Donovan and Alex Gawronski

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, February 2012

The spin on this exhibition which you can find on the Aratoi website here is that We Are All Transistors revisits Modernism, with Centrepoint, designed by Roger Walker and erected in Masterton’s shopping centre, its centre point.

As some of the photographs printed in the Wairarapa Times Age at the time of its construction attest, Walker with his long curling hair and youthful countenance was the “l’enfant terrible” of the New Zealand architectural scene.

And it’s true, Centrepoint was constructed at the tail end of the Modernist movement which was still making its presence felt in New Zealand.

But here’s the funny thing. Centrepoint really strikes me as more Postmodern than Modern. Architectural Modernism was all about truth to materials, simplicity, a repudiation of all historical precedents etc.

The architectural plans for Centrepoint (which are presented in the show as an installation in themselves, reminiscent of the hieroglyphics of an Egyptian tomb) reveal a design more akin to the Romanesque, with peaked tower, cluster of “cottages,” exposed wooden beams and white columns.

In my memory, there were two Centrepoints – the one that was opened while the Wairarapa, along with the rest of New Zealand, was experiencing one of the most prosperous periods in its history.

“According to government statistics Masterton one of the nation’s top retail towns per head of population, and per annum spending amongst the highest in New Zealand,” the exhibition quotes.

The other was the down-in-the-dumps Centrepoint, suffering along with the rest of the town the recession of the early 1980s which was felt particularly hard in provincial regions like the Wairarapa.

I have to say that I associate Centrepoint more with the latter. Indeed, I can remember regularly walking through when barely three or four of its 21 shops were leased, one of them being the town’s record store.

The 75 metre tower had been closed to the public for many years by then, after being a magnet for misbehaviour such as urination.

The decline of Centrepoint is accidently mirrored in the photographs in the exhibition – the warm orange tinged Kodak colours of the early 1970s replaced by the cooler blue tinged Agfa colours of the early 1980s.

This was certainly not the vision developers Brierly–Jones Investments (NZ) Ltd had in mind when Walker was given virtually carte blanche to come up with his design, the only specific request being that there should be an arcade.

As far as the directors were concerned, it was “a desirable investment with excellent prospects of capital appreciation and consequent increase in income.”

Of course, Masterton being a conservative town, Centrepoint had its critics, with the noticeable absence of the town’s mayor and councillors at the official opening.

And the truth is, the town never really took the building to its heart. Even when Centrepoint was demolished in 1997, there were few tears and definitely no outcry as had regularly accompanied the destruction of other historic buildings in Masterton’s CBD (all of the protests, I should point out, failed to stop a single demolition).

In fact, one small portion of Centrepoint still stands, home to a jewellery shop after the tenant, whom I suspect had a long term lease, refused to cave in.

We Are All Transistors is one half historical recollection and one half re-interpretation, the latter referencing the past for fresh perspective which does make it all the more stimulating and original, although the link between Centrepoint, Modernism and socio-political thought is paper-thin at times.

I enjoy the quirky juxtaposition of such elements as a bust of Carl Marx, a rude approximation of the capsule of Apollo 11, and references to Dresden and Hiroshima.

But I don’t sense any of those qualities which the artists rightfully claim underpinned Modernism – its inherent utopianism and optimism – which was also informed the spirit of the 1960s counter-culture generation of which Walker was a part.

Instead I feel the show has more of an affinity with the mood of Centrepoint in the 1980s – the post party downer when the conservative movement checked (but have not yet checkmated) the counter revolution as the dominant ideology.

All the artists involved in this collaboration seem to be channelling the 1980s more than the 1970s, as exemplified by the Dresden Café installation with its rubber pot plant that to my mind dates more to the early 1980s, as does the container pot it sits in.

It’s not that the artists don’t attempt to acknowledge the Modernist ethos. It’s just that they can’t recapture its spirit, probably due to being members of either Generation X or Y.

Centrepoint’s replacement, a rather pathetic building housing a bank, is not aligned to any movement or spirit whatsoever, and it shows. Its only attempt at visual appeal being a sad toupee of an embellishment in the top corner of the building.

Whatever one’s views on Centrepoint, it was at least memorable. Where it failed had probably little to do with how it looked, and more to do with the generic failure of arcades with shopping off the main street.

What remains of the former Centrepoint Shopping Centre in Masterton
What remains of the former Centrepoint Shopping Centre in Masterton

Bohemians of the Brush – Pumpkin Cottage Impressionists

Bohemians of the Brush – Pumpkin Cottage Impressionists at Aratoi November 2011 reviewed at Wairarapa re-Views –

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History November 2011

By David Famularo

I had always thought Pumpkin Cottage might have been a bit of a myth, or more accurately an exaggeration – a New Zealand version of the romantic notion of an artistic clique rebelling against the mainstream with a radical approach to painting.

But after viewing Bohemians of the Brush, I’m inclined towards the opinion that the reputation which has accrued around this tiny settler’s cottage at Silverstream is well and truly worthy.

Pumpkin Cottage had an interesting history even before Scottish émigré James Nairn made it his summer holiday hang out from teaching duties at Wellington Technical School in the 1890s, attracting a coterie of mostly young art rebels impressed (excuse the pun) by the new way of painting which Nairn and others like the Italian Girolamo Nerli brought from Europe.

The cottage, not much more than a small rectangular box with a veranda, and lean-to added later, had been the residence of Ngati Tama chief Te Kaeaea when he visited Whirinaki Pa from the 1850s.

Least we be too hard on this collective of artists by seeing them as isolated and well behind what was going on in Europe, it is worth remembering that Impressionism was just as foreign to the English art establishment as it was in New Zealand, and New Zealand’s first wave of Impressionist-influenced artists were being elected on to the boards of New Zealand art societies as early as 1891.

Nor should it be thought that the different regions of New Zealand were artistically isolated from each other.

There seems to have been an exciting dissemination of ideas from Dunedin to Nelson to Wellington to Christchurch etc, with Pumpkin Cottage acting as a yeast in this bake.

Radical shifts in art are usually accompanied by radical shifts in philosophy, and one of the things that makes this exhibition so interesting is the picture it paints of a social schism running through the artistic community.

Many of the personalities represented in the show embraced bohemia to the fullest extent, with sections of society following suit to the point where “lovers of the weed” were allowed to smoke at exhibitions between 12.30pm and 2.30pm every day.

And before we belittle such radicalism as quaint and mere art school affectation, one should remember artists like Frances Hodgkins went on to make huge personal sacrifices for their art.

The longevity of Pumpkin Cottage as a significant artistic retreat is also interesting.

Long after Nairn died of a perforating bowel ulcer in 1904 at the age of 44, Pumpkin Cottage continued to attract significant talent.

Bohemians of the Brush – Pumpkin Cottage Impressionists at Aratoi November 2011 reviewed at Wairarapa re-Views –

An oil painting by Sydney Higgs from 1934 (pictured) shows a still charming interior with a changing gallery above the fireplace of works by resident artists.

Aside from the interesting history, how do the works themselves stand the test of time – pretty well, really.

All of the artists represented seem to have settled into a reputation more or less deserving of the standard of their work.

Along with the better known artists, it’s good to see lesser-known artists of the era remembered and represented, along with some of the other personalities of the era such as the art critics who are most often largely forgotten.

Nick Banks – Mrs Edwards British Paints

Nick Banks - Mrs Edwards British Paints

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History August 2011

To a large degree Nick Banks deals in the obscure. He doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to know what he is on about, but there’s always a certain substance that rewards patience and confusion.

As far as I can make out, Mrs Edwards is not an alter-ego but an entity which develops from one exhibition to the next. This is the latest episode in her/its evolution.

This fluidity and laissez-aller attitude works in Bank’s favour in that it allows him the freedom to go to the edge, without ever tipping over it.

The show has a little bit of a Dada flavour, from the descriptive text on the Aratoi website, to the fact that it is hard to find your way into the home-made theatre – an asymmetrical tube constructed from corrugated cardboard, tape and plywood – to watch the video. In the end I had to ask at reception.

It turns out you pop your head up a protuberance at one side of the construction.

After that, all the passer-by sees of you is your torso, as if you head has been swallowed by the construction. The viewer essentially becomes part of the sculpture.

Inside, it is rather cosy and cocoon-like, and like Dr Who’s Tardus, feels much bigger on the inside.

The film itself is a montage, re-edited by Banks from an 8mm film found in a Greytown second-hand shop.

The subject is a woman with a still camera who appears to be on an expedition to photograph passing trains. The landscape looks suspiciously like the Hutt Valley, and the period is early 1960s.

The video has almost no narrative, except for a vague beginning and end, and to be honest, the subject matter itself is not deeply engrossing.

But Banks is not attempting to draw the viewer into a storyline or take them on a journey into the past.

The project is architectural and aesthetic, creating an experience that envelops the viewer and leaves an impression.

The multi-media exhibition includes a large “boys own” painting more typical of Bank’s previous work displayed at Aratoi, plus a small selection of photos taken by him of railway tracks which have their own enigmatic quality, reminiscent of the film, along with a framed still of the woman from the 8mm film.

The accompanying booklet of mostly still images from the film must be considered a part of the exhibition as well.

Through repetition and echo, Banks achieves a subtle sense of infinity – eg the artistic woman being creative through still photography, becomes the subject of a film maker being creative by filming her, and Nick Banks uses the film as the material for his own creativity, framing a still from the film as his own artwork.

All this back and forth creates a subtly dynamic effect.

The only flat note is struck by a photograph in the booklet of the old four storey flour mill in the centre of Carterton.

I think the problem here might be that historic and picturesque subjects in the Wairarapa have become devalued through overuse by every person with a digital camera.

Which just goes to show that Banks’ work is at its most interesting when he is working at the more obscure end of the spectrum.

Wairarapa Moana – Stories about a lake and its people

Wairarapa Moana - Stories about a lake and its people

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History May 2011

By David Famularo

It’s been a watershed year for Maori in the Wairarapa, chiefly because in June the Waitangi Tribunal released its report on the Treaty claims of iwi and hapu of the Wairarapa ki Tararua district.

While the timing of the report and this exhibition is largely co-incidental, the connection between the two is non-the-less profound.

While local Maori lost ownership of nearly all the land stretching from Palliser Bay (Kawa Kawa) to southern Hawkes Bay, the spiritual values associated with Wairarapa Moana remained close to their heart.

The report and exhibition will undoubtedly be the first time many non-Maori will have encountered the rather painful facts behind the sale of Lake Wairarapa to the New Zealand government.

I personally was unaware of even the remotest facts regarding Maori attempts to maintain its historical rights to the rich food sources provided by Wairarapa Moana till very recently.

While this exhibition is not just about the relationship between Maori and non-Maori in regards to Wairarapa Moana, this relationship is as impossible to ignore as the 14.4 metre waka taua (war canoe) Te Heke Rangatira, the centrepiece of the exhibition.

The history of this canoe is as complicated and in parts as controversial as ownership of Wairarapa Moana itself, starting with questions over the origins of its name and ending with its long term future.

The tension between commerce and ecology is the other primary subtext of the exhibition, Lake Wairarapa being described as “verging on being an ecological disaster.”

Each “story” in the exhibition is a doorway into a whole other field of exploration, such as the significance of Cape Palliser as one of the sites of earliest human settlement in New Zealand, and diversion of the Ruamahunga River away from Lake Wairarapa in the 1960s, reducing its size considerably.

The introduction to the Waitangi Tribunal Report highlights a number of moments in the nineteenth century when the Wairarapa offered an alternative approach to development that left the report’s researchers pondering what might have been.

Perhaps a new alternative is once again in its germination phase with what appears to be a strong desire on the part of all parties with an interest in the future of Wairarapa Moana to work together for the greater good.

Last night I enjoyed a lovely view of Lake Wairarapa at dusk. It’s one of many views one can enjoy of the lake.

Similarly this exhibition provides multiple views of Wairarapa Moana. Each view is different but there’s nothing to stop the visitor from appreciating them all.

As an adjunct to this exhibition I would recommend the Waitangi Tribunal report Wairarapa ki Tararua which is available from Masterton Library and online at

Far from being a dry read, it’s very reader-friendly and undoubtedly will be a massively important resource in years to come.

James Bragge & Christopher Aubrey


James Bragge : Eighty Mile Bush (1878) Wairarapa re-Views
James Bragge: Eighty Mile Bush (1878)


Christopher Aubrey: View of Eketahuna (1891/2) Wairarapa re-Views
Christopher Aubrey: View of Eketahuna (1891/2)

James Bragge’s Wairarapa 1876 – 1878/ Christopher Aubrey: Three Views of EketahunaAratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History October 2010

Currently showing at Aratoi is a set of exquisite photographs printed from the original glass plate negatives which nineteenth century photographer James Bragge used to capture the Wairarapa at the moment of its modern genesis in two journey’s he made to the region from Wellington in 1876 and 1878.
For those journeys Bragge, who originally came from Durham, England and had a photography business in Wellington, hitched up a horse to a mobile darkroom and made what would must have been a challenging journey as far as Masterton, in 1876 and Eketahuna in 1878.
The photographs would be invaluable as an historic record alone, but it seems that Bragge was a bohemian at heart with an artistic eye who has delivered for posterity an extremely rare insight into the lives of the Wairarapa’s early settlers.
While his subjects are posed, there remains an air of informality which allows the viewer to read deeper into the personalities of the sitters, as they go about their daily business of felling the forests and establishing the towns.
The exhibition is also fascinating in providing some inkling of what the landscape of the Wairarapa was like before it was massively transformed in just a matter of years.
Some things remain the same to this day – the moods and energies one might experience looking south from Masterton’s Lansdowne hill are still the same, even if the views themselves have changed completely.
The words of praise heaped on Bragge by the reviewer of the Evening Argyle when these images were first exhibited remain as true now as they were then.
Recently purchased by Aratoi, this collection is undoubtedly one of its most valuable possessions.
The Bragge exhibition raises interesting questions (by comparison) about the three watercolours by Christopher Aubrey, owned by Tararua District Council and on longterm loan at Aratoi, which have been on display in the gallery.
Where Bragge’s life is well-recorded, little is known about Aubrey who seems to have lived an itinerant life.
Where Bragge was using state-of-the-art technology (not withstanding the fact that he could only manage a few photographs a day) – Aubrey paints his watercolours in a naïve style typical of surveyors, explorers and military men (often all one and the same) decades earlier, who painted not primarily to capture the picturesque but for more practical purposes. Indeed, it is speculated that Aubrey had an engineering background.
Beyond employing simple painting skills, Aubrey seems to have added a touch of English bucolic romanticism as exemplified by the swift stagecoach making its way into Eketahuna.
While Eketahuna was probably slower to develop than towns on the plains, by the time these works were completed in the early 1890s it would have been a reasonably well-established colonial town rather than in the process of being settled, which is not the impression you get, due to this somewhat dated painting style.
I’d speculate that Aubrey was a journeyman painter, who made a modest living painting landscapes aimed to please conservative middle class tastes, not so different to some modern day painters who might exhibit at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, for instance.
The point of this is not to consign Aubrey to the dustbin of history but to note how a painting’s style can influence how we read it, and paintings which appear to be an accurate description of their time may not necessarily be so, after all.