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Terror in the Letterbox

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Nick Austin, Shark Envelope, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 970 x 1940 mm Nick Austin's Total Dread at Hopkinson Mossman Nick Austin's Total Dread at Hopkinson Mossman Nick Austin's Total Dread at Hopkinson Mossman Nick Austin's Total Dread at Hopkinson Mossman Nick Austin, Drugs, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 460 x 610 mm Nick Austin, What?, 2013, gesso, string, egg on paper, 700 x 920 mm Nick Austin, App Idea, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 510 x 410 mm Nick Austin, Map Island, acrylic on canvas, 610 x 840 mm Nick Austin, Untitled, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 510 x 710 mm

For all its grim trembling anxiety there is an odd musicality about Austin's installation, the eight paintings being not regularly spaced - for the position of each fin, lopsided on the far left, is exploited by irregular positioning that's light-footed and never plodding. This is particularly noticeable with the two windows and long wall.

Auckland

 

Nick Austin
Total Dread

 

7 August - 6 September 2013

This is the first Nick Austin show in the comparatively new Hopkinson Mossman site, so it is interesting to see how the now Dunedin-based artist uses it for his latest paintings. No longer a wide L-shaped room, the second gallery has two separated (but linked) rectangular spaces. Usually painters present a continuous show for both, but he has decided not to do the same. One is definitely an installation, and the other, the smaller space, a hang for a collection of paintings.

The larger room features eight almost identical canvases depicting pale invoice envelopes, each with a rendered transparent paper window through which we see not an address on a folded bill but a grey shark fin. Alluding to Austin‘s earlier fishtank paintings, this seems to also refer to loan sharks or simply the stress of unpaid dockets piling up on an artist’s studio desk, with attendant signs of increasing paranoia. You stand in the middle of the space and the ring of voraciously predatory maneaters encircles you.

For all its grim trembling anxiety there is a strange musicality about Austin’s installation. The eight paintings are not regularly spaced - for the position of each fin, lopsided on the far left, is exploited by irregular positioning that’s light-footed and never plodding. This is particularly noticeable with the two windows and long wall. There’s an odd optically jerky rhythm, a hesitant shunting that you can’t grasp with the online photographs, something perhaps related to the remarkable Peter Robinson ‘pole’ work Hopkinson Mossman showed a few months back which confused the viewer over the edge between wall and floor.

That confused horizontally, and Austin does the same but twists things further by messing up the ‘counting out’ of regular beats. These speed up and slide back, a pulse from the eight curved triangles that teases any vertical observer pondering a totality of relationships between wall, stretcher, envelope window and fin, and Austin’s dexterity with curly thin scumbled paint.

The other room is more classic Austin: a set of his enigmatic rebus-style paintings displaying his characteristically delicate image construction and deft manipulation of materials. Sort of Rene Magritte image meeting Milton Avery technique. A bit like koans, there is in these five works a sense of some ultimate truth waiting for you to grasp, a Steinbergian riddle - if you could only just reach it.

One image shows a simple brown cardboard box that looks as if some scoundrel has tampered with the glued flaps at the top, and started to peel back one corner to get in. Maybe they heard somebody coming and ran off?

Another shows two speech balloons made of glued down pieces of string, positioned so they overlap. Hovering in the black void nearby is a blown hen’s egg. The overlapping suggests both talkers are speculating about this. However there is something about string and eggs that doesn’t mix. String is a very difficult material for restraining or conveying shiny round objects, they slip out so easily. Austin seems to be referring to the limitations of speech. The work is also painted on a piece of silver Christmas present paper. That implies something about the transience of thinking; the difficulty of wrapping up or enclosing concepts.

Another still, called Drugs, shows green notes of paper money hovering on the other side of some prison bars. The vertical bars of the four dollar signs are completely hidden by the cage so you only see a line of sibilant s’s, as if a drunk snake were hissing. Maybe that is the drug connection.

Of the other two, one is a triangular woodgrained cheeseboard on which is positioned a blunt looking knife. The board has a strange yellow aura around its edges and could be a road sign or even a mountain. It’s called App Idea but it is not digital. With its acrylic and canvas - it’s unabashedly old school.

My favourite is the last work, an image of a tatty piece of paper that could be a map of an island. In fact that is what it is called. Torn eroded holes (perhaps eaten by silverfish) look like mountain lakes while its frayed edges seem like a coastline, and a blue dotted line traverses one corner, as if a track. The background of thin grey paint looks like streaky graphite, so to me this suggests a strange pun where the painted ‘map’ is on its fragile surface and the drawing is underneath the paper. The suggestion of a journey hints at a metaphor for art-making itself.

This sort of painting you really need a lot of time with, not for looking at constantly but rather for having as a tangentially indirect presence in your living space - so meanings can creep up on you slowly. Interpretations that furtively tippytoe into your mind when you are elsewhere, busy cutting the grass or making the kids breakfast. Thoughts that seem to spring from nowhere.

John Hurrell

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Owen Pratt, 7:52 a.m. 6 September, 2013


"For all its grim trembling anxiety there is a strange musicality about Austin’s installation."

http://www.hamienet.com/score12677-4.html

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