Category Archives: visual arts

Look at us Now: Tirohai Mai

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

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 –www.wairarapareviews.kiwi.nz

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 –www.wairarapareviews.kiwi.nz

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 www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz

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 www.wairarapareviews.kiwi.nz
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.

Paul Melser – 45 Pictures of the Body

Paul Melser - 45 Pictures of the Body at Aratoi Museum of Art & History Masterton July 2010 reviewed at www.wairarapareviews.kiwi.nz

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History July 2010

By David Famularo

This exhibition follows hard on the heels of rugby photographer Peter Bush’s exhibition Hard on the Heels.
The two shows are complementary but not necessarily complimentary, given that some of the images in Melser’s montage of paintings, which cover most of one wall of the gallery, have been taken directly from rugby matches and virtually all the images in Melser’s show depict violence.
Then again, Bush would probably admit that rugby is mostly built upon controlled violence, intimidation and aggression.
But it would be a mistake to assume that Melser is making any sort of political statement.
In fact, by choosing an almost Pop Art ethos – one of the characteristics of which was to remove almost all meaning from any image it appropriated by repetition (Warhol’s car accident prints being echoed in this show) – Melser has removed almost all the original context and meaning out of what will be faintly recognisable media images to most viewers.
However, I would not put 45 Pictures of the Body in the same category as Pop Art as its concerns are quite different to that movement’s reduction of any image to nothing more than consumerist iconography.
This one work, made out of many, is more like a meditation.
I love the title, but what is the “body” Melser is referring to?
Is it the individuals in the images (and the cars they die in and the weapons they kill with)?
Rather, perhaps, the body in question is “an aggregate of persons, things or substance” (Oxford Dictionary).
In other words, it’s the corporate “forming one body of many individuals” which interestingly, is a near neighbour in the dictionary of “corpse” which is, of course, a dead body.
Perhaps these images depict the individual body’s relationship to the dysfunctional corporate entities of which they are a part – these images being violent tears in the corporate whole which strives to maintain itself as a living entity, but which is permanently shadowed by the threat of disintegration and death.