Tuesday 31 December 2013

Mark Adams

For more than three decades Mark Adams has followed a singular direction in his art. History is always present as is the presence of people. This does not mean that one sees images of people posing in his photographs. In fact, he rarely includes humans but their lives are always there in spades. As is Mark's view of colonial New Zealand history.

"History" painting is rare in New Zealand and always has been. Not so with photography which always has history inserted into its own reality, even if it is consciously avoided. What Mark does is capture history as a visual tracery of the past. He travels to places that have substantive human history.

Very many places have such a significant history for our culture's reality. There's an old trope used about New Zealand that critiques its newness as a country appearing to have a short past. Such as believing there's no history here. Just look around, we may not recognise our visual archaeology of place but it is forever present.

To an extent, looking at a Mark Adams photograph is to look at oneself looking at the past. What can we recognise and what do we recognise? This proactivity, of expecting us to see more than surfaces is everywhere in Mark's art. Not only does it look at history, it comments on how we look at history.

These two photographs complicate this issue of where time sits even more, they are looking at another artist looking, but in the past. In this case it is the art of the Reverend Dr John Kinder. These two images are included in Kinder's Presence, which is currently on show.

Mark has gone to two sites that Kinder himself made famous through his watercolours of the same location painted over more than a century ago.

In his photograph Outlet of Lake Rotokakahi, Mark turns his back on the view which Kinder made of Rotokakahi. 1866. Outlet of Lake 1866 and looks back from what the painter would have been recording when he visited the Thermal regions in the mid 1860s.

What we see in Mark's shot is the road's path into the view that Kinder was making. In his image Te Wairoa, The Buried Village, he carefully attempts to replicate the place that John Kinder stood at to make his watercolour view The Wairoa near Lake Tarawera with Mission Chapel of Te Mu January 4 1866 circa 1886. At left is the stone pataka for storing food.

In Mark's multi-part panoramas the company of time is even more obvious. In After William Hodges' 'Cascade Cove', 21 May 1995 2005 he commemorates the visit of Lt Pickersgill with three companions to the waterfall at Cascade Cove in Dusky Sound on 23 April 1773.

Made famous by William Hodges's painted view of the same waterfall, this place is one of the few sites that one could now visit and see it essentially the same as it looked to Cook's men. How many other of 'Cook's Sites' are still able to be seen as they were? Oddly, there are very few photographs of this actual location available on-line, one has to visit it to get a true sense of its sublime qualities; the very same awe-inspiring feeling that caught Hodges's imagination.

Yet, when one surveys the four parts of Mark's panorama you see how difficult this photograph was to make with large format photographic equipment. It would be a challenging task at any time, let alone in the middle of the winter of 2005. To move from one image to another requires the camera to be adjusted with planned acuity, which is why the panorama has to be fitted together like image building-blocks.

Mark Adams's approach to time is also evident in his 1978 portrait of Tony Fomison's home in Gunson Street, Ponsonby, Auckland. Tony lived in a late nineteenth century kauri villa, whose kitchen/dining area was decorated as if it remained from the time when this house was new. Tony called it the parlour and it was filled with the naive paintings that he assiduously sought from places like Dominion Road's emporium named Antique Alley. The parlour had many visitors and wasn't like the front room kept for best.

Tony's decorating style mimicked and cherished Victorian notions of walls stacked to the brim with pictures and nick-nacks; which would then be left on the walls for decades. This tableau is the faux-past and is done with more aplomb than anything I have seen in any publicly owned local historic house. Mark sees how Tony pricked time in that Grab-the-day-way (a better translation than Seize) of Carpe Diem.

Tony really liked to tastefully flout taste as an art political act. In doing so he got way closer to truths about things. Mark's image could have been a carefully-won shot of a local identity's private interior, but he preferred to create a portrait of his friend Tony through an archaeological record of his mate's parlour at night.

Is it a portrait of Gothic local? Too right and now only existent in this image gifted by the artist and the partners of Ernst & Young. Style and time are always best kept in the tightest of tension. To paraphrase Mario Praz.

Image credits:

Outlet of Lake Rotokakahi
silver gelatin print, toned
courtesy of Mark Adams

Te Wairoa, The Buried Village 
silver gelatin print, toned
courtesy of Mark Adams

After William Hodges' 'Cascade Cove', 21 May 1995
gelatin silver prints, toned
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki,
purchased 2005
courtesy of Mark Adams
gift of the Deane Endowment Trust, 2005

Note: I am grateful to Sir Roderick Deane and Gillian, Lady Deane for their close support in the acquisition of this Mark Adams panoramic photograph. I considered it to be an essential addition to the Gallery collection and the Deane Endowment Trust generously purchased the artwork and presented it to the Gallery.

Parlour at Gunson Street, Ponsonby 1977 1995
gelatin silver prints, toned
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki,
gift of Mark Adams and the Partners of Ernst & Young, 1995

Sunday 29 December 2013

Ava Seymour

I recently recommended that the Gallery acquire Ava Seymour's suite of photo-collages Health, Happiness and Housing. I consider these images central in any history of photography in New Zealand. The 15 photo-collages' unforgettable title signals the work's ambition, which is a unique sequence of completed by Ava soon after her return to New Zealand from living in Berlin.

The entire suite is currently on show in Natasha Conland's contemporary group exhibition Freedom Farmers. They have been glazed and framed and are exhibited as the original collages for the first time. Even though the entire artwork has a laudable notoriety it is still essentially under-known to the public.

Health, Happiness and Housing is a perceptive and astringent portrait of New Zealand. This country had lived through a period when Robert Muldoon devised his 'think big' projects while the population had comprehensive unemployment. The change wrung by fiascoes created because of the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour led to a demonstrative population; one prepared to make loud statements about society neither cowered nor frightened by state authority. This is the time when War time baby boomers' children were young adults and expressing how they felt about life.

Dada Moon Dance
After the first exhibition of Health, Happiness and Housing at Auckland and Christchurch during 1997 and 1998, the suite of montages gained a cult reputation as provocative photographic statements about New Zealand in the 1990s. If you try to find local parallels it's likely you'll find them in the performing arts, especially in punk's proto-grunge noise. Auckland punk's intensity was equally raw and declamatory. Think of the Suburban Reptiles songs and their aggressively effective performance style. Urban anger meets louche ennui while provoking the ever necessary disruption, anger and annoyance. Performance that likes not being liked at all, a lot.

G.I. Girls
These collages resulted from a road-trip that Ava undertook during late 1996 documenting state house communities in locations from Invercargill to Auckland. Surprisingly, her research was the first large-scale visual project initiated by any New Zealand artist depicting the template-like architecture of post-War State Housing and the consequent population of blue-collar workers and immigrant communities. It is political art. 

Devised initially as a social experiment in postwar housing, State Housing began profiling negative issues within community housing which had been unpredicted and unexpected. Seeing Health, Happiness and Housing was to see the unwanted. The series acutely reinforces the social reality of wealth versus poverty.

White Wedding, Invercargill

Valley of the Fruitcakes
While conceived as a critique of mass state housing with its archly humorous vision, the collages show how a Government-funded housing project actually addressed a genuine social need while not seeing its future implications. These communities are rendered as modular in plan while fostering human psycho-dramas that some fiction writers have also imagined as happening here.

Ava Seymour noted that New Zealand’s state housing project fostered "whole communities such as Otara and Porirua that became notorious and stigmatized for both their tenants and the appearance of their dwellings’ while further ‘depicting the dilapidation of such areas and the deterioration of our social dream."

Using her automatic fixed-focus Olympus camera, Ava recorded State housing communities at times when there appears to be a uniformly overcast sky. There may have been a blue sky on the day she visited, but Ava carefully manipulates the atmosphere to appear monochromatic and stifling.

Contrasting this shadow-less daylight is a local ‘population’ collected, sourced and derived from medical textbooks and magazines. This utilisation of such off-shore imagery is innovative for our art context. It makes foreign images relocate and immigrate to here. The people are both local and immigrant making this portrait more powerful than simply clipping from New Zealand printed sources. It also reduces recognisable sentiment and derides nationalism.

Betty and Nancy Gordon
These imported images contrast with the sort of humane social portraiture created a decade earlier by photographer Robin Morrison who concentrated on discovering and then affirming local identities, sited in their private domestic environs.

In contrast, Seymour’s humanity normalizes what we might previously have categorised as being images of freaks. We become the freaks by proxy and this provocation holds a mirror to us.

Corsophine Queen

Welfare Mom
Such an apparently shocking and uber-Gothic response to New Zealand’s people is paralleled in the paintings of artists such as Jeffrey Harris, where animated faces frequently stand as evidence of distorted relationships. Other parallels of familial dystopia can be found in Barry Cleavin's searing prints, Jacqueline Fahey's autobiographic paintings and Andy Leleisiu'ao's early paintings of relationships gone asunder. Some would call it living in a psycho drama.

Gas Mask Wedding

Tea Time

Day Care Walkabouts
Health, Happiness and Housing was not intended to be a sequence of inter-related collages that saw New Zealanders as living in ‘a half-gallon quarter acre Pavlova Paradise’. Ava Seymour's New Zealanders are rendered as socially controlled people underpinned by state subsidies and through the ghettoisation of a damaged working class, reflecting the underbelly of suburban dreams.

By being equally a critique and an affirmation, the sequence remains as challenging as it was a generation ago. In another generation it will still be regarded as tough and truthful. By shouldering images of real places with irreal inhabitants, Ava makes a social portrait which is fun, fearful and a lesson I am still being taught.

Minnie Dean

House at Cannons Creek

State Highway 1

Bandy Candy

Enema Nurse
Image credits: 

Ava Seymour
Health, Happiness and Housing 1997
1. Dada Moon Dance
2. G.I. Girls
3. White Wedding, Invercargill
4. Valley of the Fruitcakes
5. Betty and Nancy Gordon
6. Corsophine Queen
7. Welfare Mom
8. Gas Mask Wedding
9. Tea Time
10. Day Care Walkabouts
11. Minnie Dean
12. House at Cannons Creek
13. State Highway 1
14. Bandy Candy
15. Enema Nurse
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2013

Saturday 28 December 2013

Rachel Whiteread

I've long been a fan of Rachel Whiteread’s artwork. Ever since I encountered during 1993 the many news images showing the three story concrete cast she had made of an abandoned Victorian terrace house sited at 193 Grove Road East in London. That cast may well have been the largest one ever made in Britain.

That project deservedly earned Rachel the Turner Prize. Yet, the Tower Hamlets London Borough Council demolished this massive urban sculpture in January 1994 – arguably destroying what's become known as a key item of contemporary sculpture.

The Independent hit the mark when it printed that House was simply "A strange and fantastical object which also amounts to one of the most extraordinary and imaginative sculptures created by an English artist this century."

Another of Rachel’s powerful architectural creations is Vienna’s Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial from 2000, which is also known familiarly as the "Nameless Library".

Commentators have frequently noted that her art conjures absence and death but I feel that it is always more about the presence and loss of people. The Judenplatz is notable as a memorial because it has an innate stillness while expressing a welling energy about so many lives being lost. It celebrates life while facing Austria's role in the death of countless Jews during World War II. That it is placed centrally in Vienna has made it a much visited monument.

The Gallery recently received on loan from Aucklanders Erika and Robin Congreve the remarkable pair of Rachel Whiteread sculptures that are now sited on the terrace overlooking Albert Park.

Visitors are often surprised to learn that the forms are made from cast bronze, coated with a seamless patina of white automotive lacquer. We have displayed them very close together which encourages people to walk around the sculptures rather than between them.

Rachel Whiteread frequently creates such life-sized casts of objects with a diverse range of both precious and everyday materials. Untitled (Pair) dating from 1999 are beguiling and enigmatic objects. I thought I might shudder in knowing that I would recognise the object that this sculpture was cast from. Rachel gives us a clue with in the residual impression of the negative channel shape making a hollowed channel that runs to one end. The second piece is a direct cast made from this object.

The sculpture is uncanny because its feel like a sleeping couple without the couple being present. Each mirrors the other and they would fit together if placed one on top of the other. While Rachel evokes the close relations between physical objects and the human body, she makes us think about love and tenderness.

The title of the sculpture – Untitled (Pair) – references an irrevocable partnership, as with male and female companions, while allowing the shapes to evoke ambiguity and what is inexplicable. In fact, the two elements are cast directly from one mortuary slab. You know this when you see the slightly hollowed surface made for collecting bodily fluids and channeling them towards the foot.

Like partners, they rest side by side like a knight and lady from some medieval tomb. Principal Curator Zara Stanhope noted this sculpture refers to death and companionship. The artwork dates from a point in the artist's career, just after her Venice Biennale representation and the exhibition of her work at the New York's Museum of Modern Art.

These sculptures appear intimate and majestic at day and night. They have the candor of an Emily Dickinson poem where you feel close and scared, cherished and frightened, delighted and terrified by the honesty of one's encounter with art which is really about life.

They look light but are massively heavy in their own physical reality. They remind me of Emily Dickinson's lines:

As this phantasm steel 
Whose features day and night 
Are present to us as our own 
And as escapeless quite.

Image credit: 

Rachel Whiteread
Untitled (Pair) 1999
Cast Bronze and cellulose paint
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
on long term loan from Erika and Robin Congreve

Thursday 19 December 2013

Peter McLeavey – The life and times of a New Zealand art dealer

I devoured Jill Trevelyan’s biography of Peter McLeavey in a sitting. This fascinating book about the life and times of New Zealand’s renowned art dealer is a magnetic text filled with treats about art and artists. Many Aucklanders may be unaware of McLeavey’s significance but Wellingtonians sure know who he is and what he does. Peter is recognised on the city’s streets.

Since 1968, Peter McLeavey’s life has been dedicated to promoting our visual artist’s achievements. I reckon he has achieved more positive outcomes for New Zealand’s cultural scene than many MPs. Growth within the arts has occurred hugely over the last 40 years and Peter’s professional life has helped foster this creativity.

Peter is the pre-eminent New Zealand art dealer. No question! He has been a catalyst for numerous artists’ success. Not only has he had the longest term as an art dealer in Australasia, he has worked longer with more artists than any New Zealand curator or collector. Simply put, Peter has not only helped create a national foundation for our contemporary art scene he has been one of the key reasons why our visual art scene is as vibrant and international in its outreach.

Peter initiated his vocation as art dealer on 4 September 1968 with his first exhibition – M.T. Woollaston: Paintings, drawings and watercolours. Jill Trevelyan deftly sets the scene quoting McLeavey, 'It was a big thing for me, the gallery opening, but I didn’t want to push it as a big event. I was taking it one day at a time. I thought to myself, Don’t pump it up too much because it might not last.' The first artwork Peter sold was purchased by scholar Margaret Orbell and artist Gordon Walters. News spread of the show’s success and Milan Mrkusich conjectured, 'If sales keep up it could mean exhibiting in Wellington would be worthwhile for artists in other centres.' Jill is good at progressing Peter’s story as a narrative intertwined with close relationships to artists.

His family is brought into focus also and this is one of the searingly honest features of this book – it shows that the artist’s family has been integral to the Peter McLeavey Gallery. His wife and children knew at all times Peter was ambitious for the gallery to succeed and there was a cost to the family for the dealer’s dedication and obsession with work. His wife Hilary saw her partner’s personality and drive clearly and this honesty contributes to the impressive integrity of the biography because it mixes good with bad, negative with positive in fair measure. I felt that I was closer to the reality of the McLeavey family than I often feel when reading art-related biographies.

Jill Trevelyan keeps away from much art commentary and her book concentrates on the work and life of the art dealer rather than the art itself. For me, there is much creativity in Peter McLeavey himself. While he never claims to be an artist, he had a talented artist’s ability to make art look terrific in the simple and austere architecture of his premises. Everything was always about the art, it always came first.

No other New Zealand book so convincingly reveals our art scene’s milieu as it has been lived by one of its key figures. Here is the biography that Peter McLeavey well deserves. The Wellington art dealer is the real deal. A mutual friend called Peter 'a bona fide saint'.

A review of: Jill Trevelyan, Peter McLeavey – The Life and Times of a New Zealand Art Dealer, Te Papa Press, Wellington, 2013 

Image credit:
Marti Friedander
Peter McLeavey 2000
gelatin silver print
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Marti Friedlander
with assistance from the Elise Mourant Bequest, 2001

Tuesday 17 December 2013

What did the Reverend Dr John Kinder look like?

Since the exhibition Kinder's Presence opened, I've been getting asked what John Kinder looked like. There aren't many known portraits of him. The studio portrait above is in the Auckland Libraries's collection. I believe it was taken during the early to mid 1870s, when the artist was in his fifties. Kinder was apparently bald from early manhood and he wore a beard for his adult life. He apparently believed that he was one of the few Anglican clergymen to sport facial whiskers. There is certainly the look of a patriarch about him and the beard does make him seem older than he was.

This portrait is currently credited as being taken by James D Richardson by the Sir George Grey Special Collections of Auckland Libraries but it is too early for Richardson to have made it himself. It is more likely that Richardson printed it from someone else's glass negative.

Below is the portrait painting of Dr Kinder that Gottfried Lindauer was commissioned to produce by Kinder's students at St John's Theological College. Kinder is dressed formally both as a Doctor of Theology and in the formal Anglican ecclesiatical attire that he is said to have much liked. The Lindauer portrait is undated but must come from the last years of the priest's life. The look and ceremony of High Church Anglicanism fascinated the priest and is said to have alienated him from his Church cohorts at Auckland.

John Kinder was, in fact, proud of his sartorial elegance according to Professor Michael Dunn, who spoke about Kinder's personality here last week. Michael also suggested that Kinder always seemed to appear old.

I reckon that Lindauer used this late photographic portrait of John Kinder as the basis of his painting. Kinder had one of the most important private libraries in New Zealand and it is totally appropriate that he be photographed as if momentarily interrupted in his reading.

Image Credits:
attributed to John D Richardson
John Kinder

collection: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-1289

Gottfried Lindauer
Reverend Dr John Kinder

oil on canvas
Saint John's College, Auckland
gift of the students of Dr Kinder

John Kinder photograph

Cycloepedia of New Zealand

Friday 13 December 2013

Learning about archival practice: The Dennis (Knight) Turner Archive at Auckland Art Gallery

Dennis Turner Archive, E H McCormick Research Library, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2013
Recently I started a practicum at the E H McCormick Research Library to learn what the work of an archivist is like within an art institution. I started out having a limited amount of knowledge of what archiving is all about after taking an archive paper at Victoria University as part of the Master of Information Studies programme. Having a background in art, I wanted to use my new found knowledge from my studies in a practical work setting that combines both of my interests.

Archiving consists of many ‘steps’ that require patience, combined with careful handling of materials. Dennis Turner’s archive arrived at the gallery in well-used boxes (as pictured on left, above), which once opened smelt musty, and of cigarette smoke. A lot of the paper and clear files were brown with age. Sometimes archives can be in a damaged condition and it can pay to check them before deciding to acquire them for an institution. However, Turner’s work was in good condition despite the smell. It was important to keep the original order of the papers as Turner had already ordered the material into folders in date order. By keeping the archive in a similar state to how it arrived, it gives a sense of the way Turner worked and ordered his own life.

The archive contains a variety of media. There is a box of personal photographs sorted into enclosures with the original captioning. In addition, there are two boxes of research drawings and four boxes of associated press clippings, photos of artworks, catalogues and a bit of correspondence. Turner was a handsome man and not shy of the camera. There are photos where he poses with his artist’s palette, violin, at the beach, studio, with friends and his artworks. The archive focuses a lot on the time when he returned to NZ in 1992 for an artist’s residency at the Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui. His exhibition Turner’s Tiki is reflected in the archive with a large series of research drawings of tiki, moko, koru and symbol motifs dated 1991–3. Turner stated that he threw out a lot of his work from London, seemingly as a cathartic ritual for him and returned to his earlier motifs of the 1950s. I got the sense from the materials in the archive that he primarily wanted to share his experiences and interests from his time in New Zealand rather than his London years, perhaps because he was no longer interested in that work or because he thought no one here would be. Although, some of his later work can be seen on a video recording of his works called Here there here, selected works 1943–93.

The archive is a useful resource for anyone interested in Oceanic and Māori motifs and symbolic art. Reading about his frustrations with the New Zealand art world is interesting in his biographical notes. I have always been interested in looking at another’s life and their accumulated ‘stuff” which has a fascination that can touch on voyeurism. Turner has been very selective as to what he has included in the archive and does not get very personal, staying quite businesslike in the documentation of his work. If you look or read closely however, you can start to get a sense of the real person that was Dennis (Knight) Turner. His name change (which happened three times) is another interesting story explained within the artist file. In his later years, he preferred the name Dennis Turner without the Knight part, even though that is how others recognise him.

Preserving artists’ archives helps art historians to trace the context behind an artwork and adds another dimension to an artist’s legacy. The Dennis Turner archive can be viewed by appointment at the E H McCormick Research Library and Auckland Art Gallery has four of Turner’s artworks in the collection. There will also be a show on at the Gus Fisher Gallery early next year, curated by Richard Wolfe who liaised with Turner and the Auckland Art Gallery to acquire the archive.

- Hayley Webb, Intern, E H McCormick Research Library