Exhibition at Judith Anderson Gallery, Kereru Road, Maraekakaho

Ten years can be a long time in art and, since the late 19th century, each decade has stamped its own identity upon art history. Seen This Century exhibition, at Judith Anderson’s Maraekakaho gallery, surveys some of the artists who have emerged on the New Zealand art scene during the past decade.

The artists showing are drawn from Warwick Brown’s book on new New Zealand art, from which the show takes its name: “seen this century”. Their work makes an interesting comparison with the later 20th century artists covered in Brown’s two earlier books on New Zealand art. The shifts in style are not dramatic but they are real and they are discernible.

So what are these shifts that we can see? Well, there is a growing interest in how we see things rather than what we see. Materials and subject matter are treated more non-judgmentally with fewer barriers between “art” and “non-art”. Sometimes “good taste” as we perceive it is questioned, not that that is new. Were Goya’s etchings or Rembrandt’s “Flayed Ox” in good taste? Above all, it is more “international” in emphasis, with few of the regional concerns that we might have seen, say, in the work of Hotere or McCahon.

Some of the artists address the way we perceive art itself. Samantha Mitchell plays upon that perception, assaulting our “good taste” reflexes by employing images gleaned from tattooists and comics. These images are incongruously super-imposed on to a bizarrely coloured, “innocent child” face taken from comics or advertising. The sentimental slogans are subverted to question the values they purport to represent and they challenge the viewer to ponder on what they really mean.

It is interesting to compare Callum Arnold’s landscape with those from the Kelliher Prize era of the 1960s. The Kellihers are concerned purely with the objects shown — hills, trees and sky. But do we really see and recall things with such fixed, single view clarity? Arnold looks at how we see them as our eye scans and memory blurs one view into another. Arnold’s beautifully painted landscape is quite magical.

Matthew Couper is something of an artistic gannet as he scavenges an idiosyncratic range of subjects and art periods for his ideas. Rituals, including Christian and Masonic rituals, interest him … not so much, I suspect, for their ascribed meaning than as phenomena of human behaviour. This diversity of sources creates a guessing game for viewers. When are the sometimes strange combinations of images truly impulsive as in pure surrealism, and when is there a deliberate agenda to be deciphered by the viewer? Sometimes it may be the sheer fun of creating visual puns and conundrums or some serious social comment to which the text gives a clue. Couper is certainly one of the most original of this generation of artists.

Some of the artists draw on Modernist styles from the 20th century, reshaping them for their own purpose. “Total Invasion (Break Records)” by James Robinson is a good example as he reprises the energy of 1950s Abstract Expressionism. But, unlike the heroic exuberance of Pollock and de Kooning, Robinson’s seemingly random drips and spatterings evoke an apocalyptic landscape comprising things gone wrong or unwanted (like the skin off an old paint pot). There is even an apparently futile attempt with crude stitching to “put things right.” Unlike his 20th century progenitors, he includes graffiti-like text offering support to his agenda.

Don’t be fooled by the apparent disorder in this work. Robinson has an acute sense of pictorial organisation, achieving a wonderfully taut composition with a deceptive delicacy of tone and colour.

Matthew Dowman also revisits Abstract Expressionism but in a much less aggressive way. Using a variety of methods to apply the paint, his work is a lovely orchestration of interesting colours and tones rather like an electronic circuit in poetic melt down.

The use of found objects in art is not new but Alexander Bartleet adds his own variation. He fills the picture space with a bewildering range of common items from hinges to cheap jewellery to give what Warwick Brown calls “the sense of a seething, energised mass.” Bartleet then alters their “realness” to “painterliness” by over-brushing paint and then rubbing back. The objects now look super-real but their original nature changes as they become harmonised parts of an abstract painting … like the paint dribbles in a Jackson Pollock.

For sheer playfulness it is hard to go past Miranda Parke’s work as she crumples and shapes a canvas covered in banal coloured squares into something sensuous and opulent as it blooms out of the wall in three dimensions.

For me, the most touching work in the show is “Big Head Woolly” by Kristin Hollis. It is simply a large drawing in charcoal and aquarelle of a sheep’s head. Somehow she makes it touching and tender with a dark sense of impending tragedy and all of this without a hint of mawkish sentiment. It is beautifully drawn and a terrific composition.

Warwick Brown’s book is valuable contribution to our knowledge of recent New Zealand art, but his selection of 100 new artists does stretch the bounds of quality at times. Some of this unevenness of quality carries over to this exhibition, but the greater part of it reflects a vibrant and refreshingly diverse art scene.

Seen This Century opens on 7th November and, for anyone seriously interested in contemporary art, this is essential viewing.

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