Andrew Paul Wood – 10 April, 2018
'(Un)conditional I', the first of this 2018 project series, true to the spirit of SIAP, is a partnership with the Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru. It brings together work from that institution's strong mid-to-late twentieth century South Island collection with work by the contemporary artists who had selected them. No rationale is offered for why these younger artists in particular were chosen to participate.
Ana Iti, Clara Wells, Kerry Ann Lee, Miranda Parkes, Tim McLaughlin
5 April - 29 April 2018
The Physics Room’s (Un)conditional series of projects partnering with public art collections in the South Island, harkens back to the entity’s first manifestation as the South Island Art Projects (SIAP), an arts organisation without a permanent site that from 1992 to 1996 put on a number of temporary public projects around Te Waipounamu. In 1996 they decided they needed a permanent venue and leased the space that used to be the old Physics Department of Canterbury University College at the Christchurch Arts Centre—hence the name. Later they’d relocate to the old 1931 Post Office building on the corner of High and Tuam Streets.
The present manifestation of The Physics Room is in a Worcester Street-facing space in the Christchurch Art Gallery building, formerly occupied pre-quake by Form Gallery, and it still, to some extent, feels like a commercial gallery space with its plinths and black walls—something that sits at odds with the idea of a public project space, and in uncomfortable proximity to the overwhelming presence of CAG.
(Un)conditional I, the first of this 2018 project series, true to the spirit of SIAP, is a partnership with the Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru. It brings together work from that institution’s strong mid-to-late twentieth century South Island collection with work by the contemporary artists who had selected them: Ana Iti, Clara Wells, Kerry Ann Lee, Miranda Parkes, and Tim McLaughlin. No rationale is offered for why these younger artists in particular were chosen to participate.
It’s an interesting premise, and one with a lot of possibilities, but this first outing is not very persuasive. That’s no fault of the art or the artists, but simply because—bar one or two instances—it was difficult to see much relationship between the works. Individually the work is great, it just didn’t gel together. It has many of the same problems, scaled down, as Michael Parekowhai’s Détour in Te Papa’s new Toi Art hang—the over-determined nature of the conceptual installation overpowers the work, and the works themselves aren’t really enough to sustain the relationship imposed on them. The art is all good, but the way it’s put together isn’t compelling or particularly logical and lacks curatorial synthesis. While all that may be the point, it still has to convince the person looking at it.
Lee, for example, a Wellington artist and designer, has selected a wonderful Helen Sutherland high op art painting—Complementary Op 2 (1970) to go with her own delightful lightbox work The difficulties of being Marco Polo (2017), combining stock nostalgic NZ tourism imagery, photographs and illustrations to initiate a conversation about different perspectives on New Zealand with refence to her own hybrid Chinese/New Zealander identity. Both works are exceptional in their own right, but aside from loosely similar dimensions, luminosity and graphic sensibilities, they don’t immediately appear to have enough in common to sustain a conversation (although on a subtler level they do, as we will see).
Lee also chose one of the Aigantighe’s great treasures, a huge Ming Dynasty landscape attributed to the Chinese master Tang Yin (the accompanying material and the Aigantighe-supplied title has his name as Yin Tang in Western order, surname last), but all it does is sit in its vitrine taking up most of the small library space, having very little to say to the only other work in that room, Clara Wells‘ hand drawn animation Flux (2017). The latter was created by a process of continuously tracing the same set of lines over a period of twenty four hours. The relationship between Wells’ work and her own choice, a gorgeous Warren Parry etching and roulette (basically a spirograph) drawing, Two Backwards (1970) made sense—both being process-based line works that make a feature of endurance and human fallibility—but the Parry work was all the way over in the other room. That’s just demanding too much of the audience.
Because there are no wall texts, unless you have the catalogue with you, you wouldn’t know that the relationship between Lee’s choices and her own work is a tender tribute to her father, a first-generation Chinese immigrant, who lived in Timaru between 1967 and 1970 (the latter being the year the Sutherland was painted). Conceptually I love this, but unless you’re the sort of person who wanders around reading a handout (and I am not that sort of person), you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on. On the whole, wall texts explaining the choices would have gone a long way to bringing some sort of logic to the audience experience.
McLaughlin’s stoneware pieces with their interior vermillion and flamingo glazes are lovely, but any resemblance to the Pat Foster sculpture he put them with (a pale echo of Brancusi’s Kiss) seems, at least to me, superficial and hangs on the Foster being made of pink and tactile Hanmer marble. There is only so much that the figurative, sculptural reduction of carved stone can say to the abstract, plastic manipulations of moulded clay without looking arbitrary, a bit trivial, or even jokey. This was almost certainly the weakest counterpoint in the show, though I liked McLaughlin’s ceramics very much.
Parkes, with a far more adroit and confident sense of her own place in the continuum of New Zealand art history, has chosen two very nice Louise Henderson works, Composition (1962, airbrush and watercolour) and Little Thoughts (undated etching and aquatint) to go with her painting big feels (2018). There is a clear resonance in the shared language of abstraction, and the added feminist context of women artists working in a modernist formalism often regarded as male-dominated. On the opening night Parkes’ bold collage was hung awkwardly above eye level over the Hendersons, which was distracting, but this seems to have been since rectified with all three works now in a row. This is easily the most successful of the combinations.
Iti probably made the riskiest choice, pairing Marilynn Webb’s relatively iconic Self Portrait for the Memory of Simon Buis (1985) with her own sound work Cast measurement aside. The Webb work is a hand-coloured Xerox print with woodcut border of a photograph of Webb taken by the Dutch-born Buis. Buis was infamously beaten to death in Auckland’s Eden Park in 1980 and the case never solved, so already Iti is up against a work freighted with meaning and context. Under that pressure, her own work holds up remarkably well—three self-narrated stories conveyed through headphones: one about the Wellington City Library (now City Art Gallery) basement, one about her brother’s carved Marakihau pendant, and one about the pocket watch of colonial explorer Captain James Ceroni. The meditation on memory and loss is enough to pull it all together.
A reciprocal iteration, (Un)conditional V opens at the Aigantighe on September 7, 2018, which will include new work by the younger artists. Hopefully by then the conceptual device will have had longer in the pot to cook.
Andrew Paul Wood
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