Wednesday, 15 February 2012


Don Driver's Yellow Tentacle Pram
To commemorate its 125th year, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery features an installation called Beloved. Comprised of some of the gallery’s finest works from the collection, it spans a timeframe of 600 years and is contemporary in its presentation. The artworks are grouped according to theme rather than chronology and are displayed against a vibrant set of colours.

First to grab attention is a room called New Sensations against sky-blue walls. First I take notice of Ani O’Neill’s Kua Marino te tai (The Sea is Calm) which unspools from the wall – a sheet of woven white florist ribbon. She combines the horizontal and vertical movements of weaving to suggest a confluence of traditional and fine art forms from her dual backgrounds of Auckland and Cook Islands. The star-shapes intimate the navigational arts that guided her forebears here, while the white fabric with patterned spaces is the negative image of the night sky. Almost quilt-like, this art-work is both comforting and confronting.

Spes, or Hope
The New Sensations of the title are previously untested directions in which the artists are moving, allowing incongruous groupings of oeuvres. Ralph Hotere’s Oputae, Blue Gums and Daisies Falling gleams on its rough corrugated iron beside Claude Monet’s Le Debacle (1880), in which he captures one of his many depictions of the break-up of ice. The neatly divided, roughly painted quadrants of blue and purple on Gretchen Albrecht’s Cardinal provide a counterpoint to the fine and intricate detail of Edward Burne Jones’ Spes or Hope (1871) in which even the periwinkles crushed underfoot are hyper-realistic.

The room is dominated by When the Sun Rises and the Shadows Flee by Reuben Paterson. An industrial fan blasts the acrylic shimmer discs on board, which depict palm trees and beaches in garish hues. Metallic shoes are abandoned on the floor in a heap of tangled blue streamers, presumably meant to represent seaweed, and the hedonistic escapism of a summer holiday. Apparently he has taken his trademark glitter to a size he calls 'god-sized' to embody other people's dream-like imaginings. It proves that bigger is not necessarily better as subtlety is sacrificed to size.

When the Sun Rises and the Shadows Flee
I prefer Don Driver’s Yellow Tentacle Pram (1980) which allows for more interpretation by the viewer. The pram full of bright yellow ribbed piping suggests a myriad of possibilities: a domesticated octopus; a mobile drainage unit; a 3D tantrum; a giant fancy-dress clown wig; Brobdingnagian spaghetti; transportation of slapstick prosthetic limbs... A black comedy of cast-off objects, it also alludes to the devoted parent, trundling his artworks from place to place.

The next room features works assembled under the title of Proud Flesh. Bursting forth from the black walls they explore the thin line between one person’s rapture with and another person’s repulsion to the physical form. Tony Fomison’s Mugshot was the highlight for me – I have admired his work before. The oil soaks into the hessian backing and makes the painting look rough and rural, as though the artist was moved to create with whatever material came to hand in desperation to express himself, just as the subject of the portrait gurns with ecstasy or grimaces with anguish, depending on the viewer’s mood.

Unloading the Catch
Unloading the Catch by Frank Brangwyn is a mêlée of writhing flesh, both masculine and piscine, with lurid colours and overtones of Gauguin. The large canvas dominates the room, but I am also intrigued by Maybe Tomorrow by Alvin Pankhurst. In a highly stylised version of a typically Victorian house we see a face of a man in a mantelpiece, and his back in shadow. The ornate wallpaper and the designer crockery are partially obscured by creeping tree-roots, waving tendrils of memory and indicating the passage of time.

Waiting for the Train
Bright red is the background for Sense and Sensibility, a compilation of male and female portraits and dainty pieces of furniture. Not being a huge portrait fan, this is my least favourite room, although the placement of Jacques-Joseph Tissot’s Waiting for the Train (Willesden Junction) here makes the work shine all the more among its counterparts. Also worth admiring, as always, is Frances Hogkins, represented by Still Life with Fruit Dishes. Robin White’s Sam Hunt at the Portobello Pub (1978) makes much of the contrast between the stern lines of the building and the gangly elegance of the poet, reflecting the curve of the bar’s doorhandles in the insouciance of his bent arms.

The splendour of nature in all its guises (from formidable foe to gentle ally) is represented in So Far Away, So Close, which is suitably in the sage green room. The variety is most pronounced here from Joseph Mallord William Turner’s wide, sweeping, atmospheric Dunstanborough Castle, Northumberland, to Laurence Lowry’s tight, pinched, political Lancashire Industrial Scene. I don’t quite see the rationale for grouping André Derain’s Un Paysage with Walter Sickert’s Old Heffel, the Fiddler, but I’m sure the curators had their reasons.
Preparation for the Market
I like Theodore Rousseau’s A Hilly Landscape in Auvergne, and any reason will do to show off Stanhope Forbes’ Preparation for the Market, Quimperlé, Brittany with its gloriously rustic detail: the meticulous brickwork; the hens’ feathers; the old woman’s weather-beaten expression; the young girls’ clogs – all are exquisitely rendered. Stanley Spencer calls to me like an old friend and I am unfathomably moved by his Merville Garden Village Near Belfast (1951) as he seeks to find the commonplace countryside in the midst of the city.

The Bosom of Abraham
In the final room, entitled Spiritualised, Michael Parekowhai’s light installation The Bosom of Abraham (1999) leads inexorably to Colin MacCahon’s The Five Wounds of Christ (1977-78). Whereas the koru colonnade seems to have plenty to say as it guides the viewer down a passageway, the exclusive crucifix is closed and limiting. Five white gashes on a black canvas occupied by a bold cross leave little to the imagination – it seems a confrontational and curiously disappointing way to end the exhibit.


Carole said...

Great blog. I love Gretchen Albrecht's work.

Kate Blackhurst said...

Thanks Carole,

I popped over to visit your blog and love your work! I shall follow with interest.