Three events coincided recently which raised the perennial question of ‘What is Art?’. The first was the death at age 89 of the renowned art theorist and philosopher Arthur Danto in October; the second was the appearance in news media of an oversize rubber duck which had so far visited 14 international ports (including Auckland in 2011); the third was a very amusing interview with Charles Firth who, as director of the Sydney Museum of Words convened an exhibition of ‘donated’ words.
Lennox Design Studio and Gallery, Masterton November 2013
Reviewed by David Famularo
As Grant Muir points out in his text for this show, the past seven years of his life have been very much filled with goings-on on his small farm located in hill country of the rural district Hinakura, east of Martinborough.
And more specifically the Hinakura River, a medium sized river that meanders through his property, and which Muir has been fighting to protect from degradation by stock effluent and grazing, as documented by the short environmental film River Dog, produced by his son James Muir, which has won numerous international awards since it was made in 2010.
But Muir has been a committed artist for a long time as well, and much of his work has been at some level or other autobiographical in nature.
Not surprisingly, the Hinakura River is the subject of many of these paintings, but any environmental messages are implied rather than overt – not withstanding some of the titles – for example “Another Dead River” and “Green River”.
Muir’s chief artistic influences in the past have been Expressionist, so Modern Landscapes is a new departure which he has labelled “New Impressionism.”
Where one might have instead expected more anger, the works have a softer, more positive spirit than some of his previous work which tended to be on the dark side,
Perhaps by taking practical steps – Muir has recently teamed up Victoria University’s School of Engineering and Computer Sciences to design drones to patrol rivers like the Hinakura for pollution – Muir has been converting anger into energy.
Expressionism is much more readily associated with anger than Impressionism, which conjures up images of tranquillity and beauty – the river most associated with the movement being the Seine in Paris.
However, one has to remember that the Impressionist artists lived through a period of social turmoil, belied by their most famous images – France was rapidly industrialising with accompanying social upheaval, while France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was followed by the Paris Commune the following year.
Camille Pissarro, for instance, lost almost his entire life’s work when the rapidly advancing German army took over his house on the outskirts of Paris and turned it into a butchery, wrapping the meat in his painted canvases.
There’s tranquillity and beauty in Muir’s landscapes too, just as in the plethora of Wairarapa landscapes painted by the voluminous number of artists now living in the region.
But whereas they, for the most part, accept at face value what rural beauty as exists, Muir understands and implicitly recognises that these landscapes are a mere shadow of the beauty that once was and potentially could again be.
This is most ominously portrayed in the brooding grey greens of the works made with oil and inkjet on sculptured hardboard.
Rather than reminding me of typical Impressionist landscapes, they are more reminiscent of conventional European landscape painting of the mid-nineteenth century.
The first series of works you meet when you enter the show, made mostly using pencil, beeswax and oil on canvas, capture more the Impressionist’s love of life and beauty, as if Muir can’t help but simply appreciate what is still there.
Or is he simply pumping up the irony, especially given titles like “Crimson River”, “Discharge” and “River Bloom.”
The title of the exhibition itself – “Modern Landscapes” – suggests that these landscapes are typical of the Wairarapa and much of rural New Zealand.
The other feature of the show is Muir’s unconventional use of materials with the afore-mentioned oil and inkjet on sculptured board which he has for the most part successfully transformed through illusion into something approximating a traditional landscape work (when seen from a distance).
The overall effect definitely works best when Muir so manipulates the inkjet process to make it almost unrecognisable. Where the inkjet print remains quite obvious the inescapable dowdiness of this technique is simply inescapable.
That said, Muir’s ability to convincingly represent landscapes in three dimensions through both traditional techniques (such as perspective), as well as sculptural form through carving into the hardboard and then painting over it, is original and accomplished.
Meanwhile, Muir’s painterly skills, especially his colour, as shown to best effect by the pencil, beeswax and oil on canvas works, have totally matured.
Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History December 2013
Tina Rae Carter essentially belongs to the Symbolist tradition in painting. Although this movement officially began and ended in the late nineteenth century, it’s one of those tendencies that re-emerges in various epochs and individual artists, just as you can see Expressionist tendencies in some Byzantine paintings as much as twentieth century art.
This exhibition also exhibits a sympathy with science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. By this, I don’t mean fantastical stories of deep space and far into the future, but the vision scientists and artists had of the ocean, and space, just as they were beginning to explore both.
You can see this in the colour photography of strange deep sea creatures , television series like Stingray, and the voyage of Kon-tiki, and voyages of Jacque Cousteau’s Calypso. There’s a sense the Earth’s oceans, like space, offer worlds yet to be discovered, with boundless possibilities.
Fast forward to 2013 and there is a growing dread (amongst those who care), that this limitless expectation has been replaced by a finiteness, and accelerating consumption of the oceans’ resources. With this comes a melancholy, and sense of loss, that can be felt when viewing these paintings.
Carter has layered symbols and meanings amongst and over each other – turtle backs, opaque membranes, eels, kowhai trees, small fish, all co-habitat within the same environments. The intense but recessive colours accentuate the dreamlike qualities, the mood helped along by the sound track from Vincent Ward’s nearby installation playing nearby.
For the most part, Carter’s environmental themes play out very subtlety, but one of the best works, Anadarko, by its name alone baldly states the fact of deep sea drilling off New Zealand and what it forebodes. Like all Symbolists, Carter hides hundreds of elements within the paintings that you don’t notice at first, such as the face on the body of a seal, and the a fish who looks directly at the viewer.
The Kermadec Necklace, a sequential arrangement of paintings and framed photograms, takes its name from one of the deepest places on Earth, only just now being explored, location of a suggested marine reserve, and undoubtedly under threat, as are all the world’s oceans. The small paintings are perhaps creatures found in the Kermadec trench, and the photograms various symbols of human exploration of the deep from periscopes, to an old fashioned diving suit, to an astronaut on the moon.
Carter ultimately takes the exhibition to level of the psyche.
When sound vibrations are applied to salt, it forms mandala-like patterns. Salt is about Epic journeys, and the exploration, whether environmental or just human desire for change. Sometimes the best journeys are driven by a primal urge, with nothing but a notion of identity, and the push and pull of the tides. Everything seems to fall into place, and whatever is needed seems to appear just at the right moment, as if it was there all along.
With this statement, Carter builds a metaphorical bridge between the personal inner world and the oceans. We are moved by currents but we are also one part of them. When we let ourselves go to them, they take us home, just as New Zealand’s long finned eels in Carter’s paintings let the ocean’s currents to take them to a secret spawning area somewhere near Tonga where they mingle (providing there are still enough of them left) with the elvins then letting the currents bring them home to New Zealand’s rivers again.
Matiu Te Huki, Warren Maxwell, Electric Wire Hustle
By David Famularo
Spiritual is how I would describe White Ribbon Live, which may seem ironical, given the reason for the concert was something so worldly and harsh. But then again, the nature of the event was a rising up of spirit.
And that message came out loud and clear throughout the night, in the music and two striking speeches by Brian Gardner, Senior Programme Advisor Family Violence Unit, and Judge Peter Boshier.
First up was Matiu Te Huki whom Warren Maxwell had many positive words for in the interview I conducted with him before the show. By the end of Te Huki’s set, you could understand why. I arrived well into it, and wasn’t connecting in any serious way while I bought my gin and tonic at the bar.
But whether the music went up another level or I was just more concentrated (I suspect the former as I tend to pick up on things when they are happening), Matiu was on fire by the last few numbers. I liked the way he set up a playback with his guitar and then accompanied it with a poiawhiowhio (gourds with holes twirled on a string, this instrument imitates various bird songs depending on size and shape of the gourd).
His final number was as soulful and melodic as anything I’ve heard live in quite some time. Really, an electrifying performance. He’s a musician with a rare stage charisma that encompasses leadership qualities that were appropriate to the evening – a genuine musical voice. Matiu set the bar high for those who followed.
At this point there were two stunning koreros from Peter Gardner and Peter Boshier, the first speaking personally from his own journey away from abusive behaviour to encouraging others to stop. The second adding a note of optimism that society is recognising the issues and taking steps to deal with them, at the same time as reminding the audience that just the day before a woman in Wellington had been killed by her partner, an all too familiar event.
Warren Maxwell is nothing, if not laidback, and he drew the music back inside again. Typically sensitive and focused. I’m a fan of Maxwell’s music but more through his band Little Bushman. He starts off with a couple of their numbers, after the first displaying his talent for connecting with even a large audience in a very personal manner, with a paean to the pleasures of life in Featherston. Nice to hear, especially as it is the town people in the Wairarapa seem to find most pleasure in putting down.
He followed that with another Little Bushman song from their latest album Te Oranga. I remember Nick Bollinger reviewing it on The Sampler on Nights on National Radio where he highlighted its unusual bringing together of American roots music and Te Reo. Nothing felt incongruous about the hillbilly banjo accompaniment and bluesy Te Reo vocals on the album’s title song Te Oranga, instead the two feeling as harmonious as my gin & tonic.
I think its an example of Maxwell’s philosophy of using musical arrangements as a means to share the spirit, rather than just musical virtuosity. Typically, he then travelled a few thousand kilometres south of the border for his next Tango flavoured tune where he mimicked the accompanying instruments from his New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performance of it.
Maxwell finished the set off with his best song of the night – Little Things – which through a bit of synchronicity, a colleague had brought up in a conversation at work only a few days before – “It’s all those little things that build up ……when you feel your blood boiling, talk to your partner.”
At this point I should mention that the stage arrangement was simple but very effective – a White Ribbon banner in the background and various lamps with almost 1890s deco shades working to beautiful and homely effect. The only flaw as such was that there was no space reserved for dancing at the front of the stage, instead tables and chairs, which deflated any chance of giving the next band – Electric Wire Hustle – the compliment and complement of rhythmic bodies.
Electric Wire Hustle, who found time in the middle of touring to donate one of their nights off to the cause, started off with a slow number before cranking things up a notch with a groove that was almost a cross between Steve Winwood and Hall & Oats. Like Winwood, Mara TK has a very soulful voice. Winwood is also a very soulful organ/keyboard player. In that gig his organ lifted up the music like air pressure gives lift to the wings of a plane. Sadly, Taay Ninh’s keyboard was a bit lost in the mix at some moments when hearing it stand out would have been perfect.
The song ended with Mara TK saying he had forgotten to use his expensive monitor – “I got lost in the spirit” – I could understand that. Likewise his korero on the White Ribbon theme (men speaking out against violence toward women) was highly inspiring and personal. The band was proud to fly its political colours too, with a plea for the audience to do everything it can before the next election to get a change of government.
Electric Wire Hustle’s musical arrangements are highly complex, to the point at times of challenging, although they never lose their essential groove as a band you can dance to, and it was when their music flowed that I enjoyed them best. Bass player Myele Manzana takes a highly melodic approach to his craft. Drummer Philadelphia’s Mario Crew has the professionalism of your mainstream drummer but an edge that makes him a great partner for the more raggedy character of the band. I’ve had many year’s of pleasure pillaring drum solos, but his was totally engaging.
I mentioned Mara TK has some of the soul of Winwood but he is a closer companion to early 1980s British soul, aka some of the New Romantics vocalists, and there is more than a passing resemblance to mid-1980s Paul Weller. Unlike is dad Billy TK, Mara uses his guitar more as a lyrical element of the overall structure of the songs than an axe to solo with.
Towards the end of the set Maxwell comes on with his saxophone which initiates a good long boogie on a more simple chord structure than hitherto during the set, with a lot of intuitive sympathy between Maxwell and the other musicians to the point where he seems like part of the band.
Maxwell’s runs display his jazz schooling but he never crosses the line into pure showmanship. A couple of encores, and the night is over, after an evening of music that really did its cause proud.
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.
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.
“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
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
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.
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.
Wairarapa re-Views is an editorial based reviews and views site. You can contact its editor David Famularo at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can receive notifications of new reviews by liking Wairarapa re-Views on Facebook.