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The Nature of Poetical Art

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Katrina Edwards: Miniscapes; Untitled Ruth Cleland: Island #5; Island #4 Ruth Cleland, Island #3 Ruth Cleland, Island #2 Clinton Watkins, Delta Edith Amituanai, The end of my driveway Monique Redmond, Drivebys between 15th July and 27th October, 2013 (Linwood Ave, Martin Ave, Maybeck Rd,  New North Rd, Willcott St, motorway Greenlane, Martin Ave, motorway LA, Oakfiekd Ave) Andrea Lowe: Sea Level; Lost weekend Kate Small: Clotworthy; Cobham Jude Broughan, Staring at the Sky Jude Broughan: Cambridge Wellington Electric; Hataitai Fog; Staring at the Sky

Victorian art critics used the term ‘poetic' to denote a spiritual quality to art which transcended the formal and technical. As the juxtaposition of words creates an effect beyond the individual words signified meaning, so can the combination of formal elements in an artwork; the tone and rhythm of shape and colour is equitable to the sound and texture of words. An exhibition can also have this function.



Group exhibition

as if you were bringing back dust from the moon

Curated by Tracey Williams and A.D. Schierning


14 December 2013 - 25 January 2014

Language reduces experience to meaning. The universalizing or generalizing power of language is reductive. We accord that poetry the highest respect which successfully counters this reductiveness.”
-W. K. Wimsatt Jr. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1954.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about what is implied when an artwork is described as ‘poetic’ or ‘prosaic.’ Defined in the dictionary the poetic is an expression of elevated, imaginative thought while the prosaic is rooted in everyday vernacular. This explanation is not entirely adequate as the prosaic can have poetic effect. A haiku poem procures the prosaic into the poetic, and similarly art made from everyday materials is often described as ‘poetic.’

Victorian art critics used the term ‘poetic’ to denote a spiritual quality to art which transcended the formal and technical (1). As the juxtaposition of words creates an effect beyond the individual words signified meaning, so can the combination of formal elements in an artwork, the tone and rhythm of shape and colour being equitable to the sound and texture of words. An exhibition can also have this function. Artworks with their particular themes and aesthetics come together as individual poems in an anthology, to create associations and meanings beyond their discrete selves. What underlies the poetic is then, perhaps, the notion of opacity, openness and ambiguity that such ruptures afford, with potential for a ‘transcendent’ dimension.

The group exhibition as if you were bringing back dust from the moon, a ‘poetic’ exhibition with poetic effect, was an opportunity to think about the meaning of the ‘poetic’ in relation to art and exhibitions. Curated by Tracey Williams and A.D. Schierning the show acted, according to the online press release, as an antidote to the frenzied consumerism of the Christmas period. An extract from Homecoming, a poem by Anna Jackson, forms the exhibition’s title. The poet’s son’s return from Hamilton is treated with grandiose enthusiasm and exoticism: ‘all the children come running,/as if you were bringing back dust from the moon.’ Thus the poem sets the tone and theme for the exhibition: beauty and wonder in the suburban experience.

New York based Jude Broughan’s soft and precise works were the first encountered upon entering the exhibition. Her careful assemblages include snapshots from a suburban window where fog has cloaked the setting in grey dullness. The monochromatic tones visually blend with the cut black cardboard on which it sits. Straight stitched lines add to the linear nature and lend a domestic air. Her works are simultaneously complete in their formal consideration and appear still in the process of becoming, as works not yet fully realised.

Monique Redmond’s work Drivebys between 15th July and 27th October contains photographs of plants and trees in bloom in front of suburban houses, beautiful and common being emphasised by their similarly beautiful and common arrangement in a grid mosaic. Ruth Cleland’s images of pockets of vegetation in the middle of empty suburban roads show similar geometric care, rendered with photo-realist precision. The images’ construction is evident in penciled grids; in Island 5 these lines are all that remain. In the exhibition’s Papakura, Auckland context these works borderline the site specific - observations of the suburban oscillate between the banal and the beautiful.

Louisa Afoa’s moving image at first glance elicits a similar quiet nature. A hand-held camera circles and documents a state house, momentarily resting on details such as a garden tools and a lush vegetable garden. The accompanying audio contains narration from the house’s tenant on her experiences of Housing New Zealand, revealing the works political bent.

Kate Small’s works combine social observations with formalist concerns. Her luminous paintings, completed with strong warm colours, show a group of faceless figures ambiguously lounging in architectural spaces. Andrea Lowe’s photographs have a similar dreamy resonance. Photographs that look like screenshots from a home movie are global and placeless.

Edith Amituanai’s photographs also nod to documentary style. She captures teenagers coming home from school as they pass the bottom of her driveway, displayed in a book that protrudes from the wall. Photographs from this series were exhibited in a large-scale grid formation as part of Home AKL, a contemporary Pacific exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery in 2012. Here, in as if you were…, the smaller scale prints combined with the action of flicking through a book accords a different, intimate viewing experience.

Katrina Edward’s Miniscapes installation turns from the structural and social to the earth itself. Earthy capsules of homely terrariums are placed across the floor with a framed Untitled print of layered, monochrome, abstracted, landscapes leaning against the wall. Layers of dirt and florae, like a Victorian scientific observation, parallel the suburban garden in Redmond, Cleland and, to an extent, Afoa’s works: an environment cultivated, maintained and controlled. Ling-Wei Chiang turns the viewer’s attention to the sky in her moving image of clouds gliding on a backdrop of blue. Projected on the gallery wall above head height the work is a suburban meditation reflecting the joint act of movement and stillness.

Clinton Watkins’ moving image, displayed on a black box TV placed on the floor, shows a scene of passing land, with a similar hypnotic quality albeit earthy, connecting to the terrariums that sit opposite. Watkins’ essay in the exhibition catalogue champions the use of film footage as opposed to HD quality. He contends that the ‘fuzziness’ of film creates a textural openness of interpretation, in opposition to HD’s sharp focus and aesthetic, which generates a closed text. This ‘fuzz’ creates a space to engage with the viewer’s imagination, where they can insert their own ideas and feelings.

I would argue that mystery and ambiguity can be achieved in moving image with crisp HD precision, for example Yvonne Todd’s recent works. This aside, Watkins’ concerns run parallel to this discussion on poetics when poetry replaces film. If words can be reductive funnels of generalized experiences (2) then poetry opens up possibilities of experiences that, paradoxically, are beyond the written language. The holes created become suction points that engage the viewer, at an intellectual and emotional level.

In multidisciplinary group exhibitions, openness can occur within the works themselves, and in the spaces and gaps between the separate artworks. The viewer bridges the gaps and fills in the details. These ambiguities and fissures are evident in this cleverly curated exhibition, which thematically presses on the pulse of home and its surrounding environment. Its theme and tone are set yet its meaning radiates outward, from curatorial premise to artwork to viewer.

Zara Sigglekow

(1) Elizabeth Prettejohn (1997) ‘Aesthetic Value and the Professionlization of Victorian Art Criticism 1837-78’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 2: 1, p. 86.

(2) See Wimsatt quote at the beginning of this review.

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