A Matter of Taste: Exhibition Essay

This was written as part of the first exhibition I curated, entitled ‘A Matter of Taste’ way back in 2014. It was a celebration of the past, present and future of Kitsch in New Zealand.

From the curator:

Tomas Kulka said that “if works were to be judged democratically- that is, according to how many people like them, then kitsch would easily defeat all of its competitors.”

Kitsch has had an ebb- and- flow relationship with both critical and popular opinion. Naysayers dismiss it for its overt garishness, sentiment, and mass-produced marketability. At the most extreme end of this spectrum, there are those who believe that kitsch is bad, even immoral for deliberately evoking such cheap and easy emotions. This is supposedly achieved by presenting the viewer with an illusionary world that is comfortingly perfect.

Despite these acerbic accusations, Kitsch has become an artistic field that holds a considerable amount of power, perhaps for the very reasons it was first reviled. It is still branded as art that cares nothing for taste. Consequently, it has become an integral element of modern culture, where ‘serious’ art may have little to it beyond a declaration of ‘superior’ judgment by a handful of academics.

Within contemporary art, aspects of Kitsch are recycled in an ironic or knowing way. It is a way of turning social commentary about irony and style as well as all of the associated Hipster-esque attitudes and assumptions into a commodity and vice-versa. By referencing Kitsch there is an argument for artists highlighting our dissatisfaction with the present. Our world is a product of the industrial revolution, urbanisation, and capitalism. While this is paradoxically partially what Kitsch celebrated, there is also an underlying desire for the past. But why do we have such strong sentimentality for bygone eras? Is it because of our desires for a more easily defined past? Does it help us feel superior to a more innocent past? Or does the ‘familiar’ remind us of the innocent desires and foibles of the past with affection?

Ultimately, trying to define what Kitsch ‘is’ is a bit like walking into a roomful of mirrors- it ultimately reflects ones own prejudices about what constitutes ‘good’ art and design, and arguably speaks volumes about the individual just as much as the object.  Within the realms of this exhibition, the artists have been asked to explore notions of decoration, domesticity, and collectability in relation to Kitsch.

True to the subjective nature of Kitsch, these works respond to the aforementioned themes in a myriad of ways, referencing both aesthetic, historical and perhaps future tropes of Kitsch.-Everything from garish colours and cheap materials to  Reuben Paterson- inspired portraiture and souvenir knick-knacks. The exhibition emphasises the way in which Kitsch defies the notion of good design whilst commodifying nostalgia in the modern age.  This tableau has the potential to simultaneously evoke memories and provoke a response in equal measure. But in the end, it is all A Matter of Taste.

 

-Kate Powell, May 2014

Exhibition Review: David Bowie Is:

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When I was 14, David Bowie had been playing on my Discman constantly for six months and it was beginning to show. Bright blue metallic eye make-up was smeared across my face while my cheekbones and lips were accentuated with silver body glitter. A blue paisley shirt with exaggerated sleeves and collar was tucked into high waisted sky blue flares, and a midnight blue velvet waistcoat completed the look. That Saturday morning I was on my way to see a blockbuster film at Hamilton’s Village 7, and had accessorised my ensemble with the musk of op shop bargains and a jaded glint in my eyes. I had grandiosely decided that the aughties were characterised by a cookie cutter uniformity that left no room for the expression of ‘self’ and all its contradictory facets. At that stage, David Bowie represented a respite from this way of thinking, of being with his ambiguous attitude, style, and music.

Of course as I grew up I realised that the slavish imitation of one’s idols is hardly more authentic than the drones, but my love of Bowie has remained. However, upon hearing that the David Bowie Is exhibition was showing at ACMI in Melbourne, I let out a schoolgirl scream.

David Bowie Is first showed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. Since then, the exhibition has toured around the world and been seen by over 1 million people and counting.   Affectionately known as the V & A, it is an institution that explores the process and the interaction between art and design, and David Bowie Is upholds this interest.  Over 300 items from David Bowie’s personal archives were winging their way to Melbourne, and this collection was going to be added to courtesy of the ACMI curators. My tickets were booked before I had finished listening to The Man Who Sold the World. A few months later and fresh off an early morning flight, I stood at the exhibition’s entrance feeling underdressed and over excited. My gold boots were gleaming in the low lighting as I positively skipped to the front desk and handed the visitor host my ticket.

Constructing a narrative for an ornately constructed artist such as Bowie was never going to be easy. Different aspects of him speak to different people on different levels, and while each of his personas are disjointedly unique, they are all ultimately David Bowie and so one character cannot be put above another.   The V & A have realised the sheer impossibility of pinning down the man formerly known as David Jones, and this is reflected in both the exhibition’s title and opening display. Emblazoned on the wall, Bowie declares that “All art is unstable. There is no authoritative voice, only multiple meanings.” Right from the word ‘go’ the institution is effectively washing its hands of definitively pinning down who David Bowie is. In a postmodern fashion we the viewers (or voyeurs) are left to make up our own minds.

Upon entry, I was handed a set of headphones which provided me with snippets of songs, interviews and observations (including Bowie’s own jaunty tones) as I moved around this deeply immersive, multisensory exhibition that felt halfway between a rummage through a very cool closet and a nightclub. It had a charmingly cluttered layout that showed us everything Bowie had ever been- from Brixton to the streets of Soho awash with drug-fuelled creativity, the walled streets of Berlin and everything in between. This haphazard approach suited the anything-but-straightforward subject, and encourages the viewer to flit from station to station and construct their own notion of who David Bowie is. Presenting the viewer with everything all at once is an overwhelming experience. Costumes, video screens, album covers, photographs, hand written lyrics all jostle for your attention, and for a few minutes I stood dumbstruck by the sheer vibrancy of it all.

Keeping true to the aforementioned themes of the V & A, the exhibition expertly highlights the eras, processes, influences and collaborations that helped shape the many faces of David Bowie. He was inspired by a myriad of cross-cultural references-including Dada German Expressionism, Mime, Kabuki Theatre, West End Musicals and Little Richard. Powerful collaborations with an eclectic range of figures- Brian Eno, William S Burroughs, Klaus Nomi and Kansai Yamamoto also proved to be enriching for Bowie. Like a truly postmodern artist, he redefined all of these ideas to create something that was new but no less powerful. Beyond Bowie, the exhibition also highlights the impact that art, culture, and music has on society as a whole. However, just as the man himself was carefully constructed, so too was this exhibition, and I couldn’t help but note that the David Bowie of the 1980s was largely glossed over save for a few photos and music videos. His acting efforts were also confined to one small room. It was the lithe-hipped, androgynous Ziggy Stardust era that attracted the biggest crowd and the era that David Bowie Is leaned on the most.

Being in the exhibition for around three hours meant that I observed the reactions of other viewers in this exhibition which was simultaneously personal yet communal. Lightning bolts were smudged by tears as punters got up close and personal to their favourite Bowie. Strangers would start singing together and squeeze each other’s hands with excitement. I must’ve had the wobbliest grin on my face seeing Bowie’s jumpsuit that he wore for his 1972 Top of the Pops appearance because a kind attendant offered me a tissue. Fandom in relation to Bowie is an odd thing.  Generally, fans tend to like the artist’s music, as well as who they (believe) the artist to truly be. Bowie is an anomaly. He was completely disinterested in singing songs about his own experiences and presenting an image of authenticity.  But by throwing himself wholeheartedly into each persona he was not only experimenting with aesthetics, form, and a myriad of other reference points, he was also experimenting with a constantly metamorphosing sense of self- arguably something that we all do. It was authenticity on another plane.

David Bowie Is is not without its flaws- some moments are skimmed over, some questions remain unanswered- for example, how exactly did the shy David Jones get the confidence to become one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century? And we are never permitted to see David Bowie the man behind the mask. But feeling so close yet so far away from David Bowie doesn’t detract from the mysteriously feel good charm of this exhibition. David Bowie is exploring possibilities rather than reality.

This article was first published by Rip It Magazine on September 28th 2015.

An Interview with: Barry Brickell.

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Barry Brickell is one of New Zealand’s most influential potters, yet he refuses to identify himself as an artist. “I don’t call myself an artist at all, it’s a bit conceited. I’m a workman. I just work, whether it’s bending rails, or doing drawings or paintings or making pots. Ralph Hotere said ‘what is art, it’s just work.’ Therefore digging a drain could be art if you like.” Despite trying to sidestep the label of ‘artist’ Brickell has undoubtedly made a noteworthy contribution to New Zealand’s cultural landscape for the last 35 years.  Recently, he became the subject of a significant retrospective curated by Emma Bugden and David Craig at The Dowse in Lower Hutt, an institution noted for its ceramics. Entitled His Own Steam, the exhibition featured some of the artist’s own collection as well as private and corporate collections from around the country. A book of the same name was written by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien to compliment the exhibition.  His Own Steam has now come to the Waikato Museum and is showing from now until February 16th 2014. The original exhibition has been added to, with several rarely-seen works from the Waikato Museum collection being given an airing.

In order to understand Brickell’s work, one must first understand his life and his passions. His life “is consumed by mixing art, conservation and engineering” and all his enthusiasms were fostered from an early age.  Born in New Plymouth in 1935, Brickell soon moved to Devonport in Auckland where he was to spend his formative years.  His interest in pottery was first sparked aged 9, when a teacher brought in a potter’s wheel and taught his students to throw clay. His interest deepened when he started exploring gas and brickworks, and began constructing his own kilns under his house. It was while at Takapuna Grammar School he formed a potter’s society and first met the preeminent potter Len Castle. Upon completing his degree in Science and Teaching at Auckland University he had a short-lived stint as a teacher at Coromandel District High School in 1961. Afterwards, he decided to become a full-time potter and purchased his first property near Coromandel Town. In 1974 he purchased the neighbouring property which became the current location of his Driving Creek Railway and Potteries, and his home ever since. It was at Driving Creek where Brickell’s passions were able to completely merge together; He set about designing and building his own kilns, and constructed a railway complete with steam engine that was initially to help transport local clay dug from the hills to his studio. It has since become one of the Coromandel’s star tourist attractions.  Brickell cares deeply about conservation, and as such any disturbance to the natural environment is kept to a minimum.

 

It may sound as though Brickell adheres to long-held romantic notions of the solitary artist returning to nature; however that would be trivialising his significance on our cultural landscape. Brickell’s creations, which range from cups to murals and politically-charged instillations, have found their way to top galleries, museums and collectors throughout the country. He has sought throughout his career to find a New Zealand identity that merged an indigenous and modern aesthetic. While his contemporaries were looking to Japan for inspiration, Brickell was more fascinated by Sepik pottery and Fijian gourds as well as provincial medieval pottery. This was combined with elements of engineering and interest in steam to create what David Craig describes as an “explicitly counter-colonial, hybrid Aoeteroan practice.” During a time in New Zealand’s history when we were paralysed by a cultural cringe, this was an iconoclastic notion. In now typically nationalistic form, Brickell produces work that speaks of our landscape and our relationship to it both literally and figuratively. His pieces are created using a concoction of yellow Coromandel clay mixed with local river sand as well as fine plastic ball clay from Central Otago. The final products are bound by their timelessness and ties to the Pacific. Coarse primitive textures are juxtaposed with sweeping curves, abrupt cuts, and formidable forms are coloured by a local palette.  These idiosyncrasies deftly capture the essence of our nation’s landscape with its most primal material. Brickell’s works pulsate with socially-conscious vigour, earthy practicality, and wryly satirical humour.  Much like Brickell himself, who simply describes his art as “a form of communication.”

Brickell as a character has become just as significant to the New Zealand artistic landscape as the work he produces. His Own Steam showcases Barry Brickell the engineer, the potter, the conservationist, the political commentator, and workman. Visitors will be sure to leave with a broad appreciation of this multifaceted “workman.”

This article was first published in the Waikato Times, November 2013.

An Interview with: TJ McNamara.

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Bespectacled with long silver hair and a penchant for wearing black, at first glance TJ (Terry) McNamara looks like most people’s idea of an art academic. However, looks can be deceiving and McNamara has built a forty-seven year career out of eschewing artistic jargon in his columns for the New Zealand Herald. He has since become one of New Zealand’s most well-known art critics.

While art critics were once widely thought of as being the taste makers, nowadays, art critics help their audience to ‘see’ the artwork. They do not barricade the works into explanations. Rather, they seek to open each work up. This usually involves contextualising them art historically or within a particular artistic practice. While viewing art is meant to offer the viewer a chance to reflect on it and to heighten their discernment, there also has to be a connection with the world outside of the painting. What art criticism intends to do is to establish or clarify the relationship between a work of art and society. In theory, this means that art writing should be straightforward and easy to understand. However, many people deem art writing to be complex and too easy for readers to become tangled up in excessively floral language. But McNamara has always been straightforward about the intention of his writing.

For him, put simply -“respond to what is on the wall. I see myself as a spokesman for a public completely outside the art practising community.” He has struck a fine balance between the two literary worlds of art writing and journalism, operating in a space in between them. As a result, his work is characterised by an approachable, well informed writing style akin to international art critics such as Robert Hughes, Simon Schama, and E.H. Grombrich.

When one considers his style and ethos, it makes sense that McNamara’s roots are in teaching, as he strikes the balance between amicable and scholarly. As a boy in Orakei, a  state house suburb in Auckland he grew up with books, but no art. It was Eric Newton’s Penguin book on the history of Western art that first sparked his interest in art history. After winning a public speaking prize in his final year of high school with a talk on da Vinci, McNamara studied English at Auckland University before going onto teacher’s college. It was these years that were to be especially formative, and solidified his burgeoning interest in art history. It was during this time that he met some “particularly lively” art graduates from Christchurch, including prolific artists Trevor Moffit, John Coley, and Quentin McFarlane. This acted as impetus for McNamara to read more widely on modern art. Upon graduating, he began teaching English at Auckland Grammar School. During the 1960s the salient art organisation was the Society of Arts, where McNamara was  soon asked him to give some lectures on art history. After his series of four talks on the old masters- Donatello, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Goya he was approached by the Deputy Editor of the New Zealand Herald who asked him to do some reviewing during the Auckland Festival of 1966; he has not stopped since.  Generally, the word ‘critical’ implies to find fault. McNamara sees it as meaning “interpreting, evaluating, and rejoicing in what was well done. I do not believe in constructive criticism. It is not my job to tell the artist what to do, but to look hard at what has been done and seek out the artist’s purposes.”

Art historically, 1966 was a fascinating time for New Zealand In the words of McNamara “there were battles to be fought, and New Zealand art was frontier art.” This was an era where, idyllic landscapes were still the favoured artistic genre, and modernism was controversial. But the times were changing. We were beginning to strain at Europe’s apron strings in a bid to establish our own identity, and the bold contemporary art of this time began to reflect that. Our art began to bear distinctly ‘Kiwi’ motifs in a way that had not been seen before, and artists such as McCahon were beginning to make their mark.To meet the demand of an audience hungry for original New Zealand art, dealer galleries began cropping up. Aside from being a business, they were also used as a space to exhibit then-contemporary art.  It was this influx of dealer galleries that helped lead to an enormous growth in artistic ventures, which has been one of the most notable changes during McNamara’s career. In the embryonic stages of the modern New Zealand art scene and McNamara’s writing, there was usually only one gallery opening a week. McNamara would attend this before dashing to the newsroom to write a piece for the next day’s paper. “This was good because it appeared on the news pages and made new, original art part of the news alongside politics, big fires, and sport.”

Nowadays there are upwards of twelve gallery openings per week in Auckland, meaning that McNamara is spoilt for choice. Previously, the sight of McNamara’s now infamous cape sweeping into a gallery could strike fear into the heart of an exhibiting artist. Because in the beginning, McNamara could be “judgemental about what he thought was poor art.” Now, it’s simply a matter of leaving what he considers to be poor art out, unless he feels that it has been unjustly lauded.  When searching for an exhibition to review, McNamara likens himself to “a gas cooker set to zero. I go to the show to see how much it raises the temperature.” This involves considering a cross-section of elements within the exhibition, namely intelligence, emotion, and technical ability. He is seeking to grapple with art and make it understandable to a ‘news’ audience, to “provide some sort of bridge into the works.” A pertinent approach as the definition of ‘art’ becomes broader, and seems increasingly impenetrable.

This article was first published in the Waikato Times, November 2013.

An Interview with: Michael Smither.

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Critically acclaimed and publically lauded, Michael Smither is one of a group of local artists that emerged in the 1960s to take New Zealand art in a new direction, which had previously been indebted to British art. During this time of cultural and social revolution, New Zealand artists were exposed to a plethora of new ideas from a wider range of international art. Like a gawky teenager, New Zealand art began to let go of the Motherland’s apron strings, and gain its own sense of identity. Smither led the charge in helping to help create a new style of art for New Zealand; one that referenced new international styles whilst also expressing local concerns.


Forty years later, Smither is still at the forefront of the contemporary art scene, and his works are synonymous with the New Zealand identity. He is noted for the use of realism with in his work- an ethos that depicts banal subject matter in an unflinching fashion. This is tempered by his used of crisp lines and flat, hyperbolic colour to create surreal worlds that are extraordinarily ordinary. He is also noted for his sculpture, murals, silk screenings, composition, and conservation work. Smither!, an exhibition at the Waikato Museum, is showing now until April 14th. It focuses on some of his earliest drawings and paintings from the 1960s through to the 1970s.


Smither was born and raised in New Plymouth, in 1939. An only child, Smither’s parents encouraged art and culture. His mother collected pottery and made rugs, while his father was an amateur painter and ran a screen printing business. “I grew up imbued, immersed in paper and paint” he muses.  In 1959 he left home to travel north, up to the bustling city of Auckland and Elam Art School. A year later, he left Elam on the advice of his tutor John Weeks. “At that stage, you went to Elam to train to be an art teacher.  John saw my interest in colour and in being an artist, and told me to get out there and start making art, because by the time I had finished the course I would have lost all interest in making art.”

In 1960, Smither returned to New Plymouth to continue creating art. While one would think being an artist in 1960s provincial New Zealand would be difficult, Smither asserts that it was “all go” during that period of his life. He set up Group60 with his long-time mentor and fellow Taranaki resident Don Driver, as well as experimenting with screen printing in collaboration with his father. Smither was inspired by artists with a distinct narrative – such as Van Gogh, Pierre Bollard and Stanley Spencer. Newly married to his first wife Elizabeth and raising their young family in Taranaki, Smither set about capturing his immediate environment and the people within it. This era of his art focuses on domestic life, landscapes, and spirituality; fleeting moments preserved only by Smither’s quick hand over a sketchbook. He carries a sketchbook with him everywhere, tucked away in a custom made pocket in his jacket.

Drawing has always been an important part of Smither’s artistic process. Despite creating some of New Zealand’s most well known works, Smither believes that it will be his drawings that will eventually be considered the most important part of his output, because “I haven’t had time to think, I just put it down onto the paper.” This preoccupation with “being honest and acting with integrity” stems from his Catholic upbringing. However, the quest for honesty is a common one, and perhaps one of the reasons why Smither’s work remains so popular. He maintains that “I just thought that if you were honest about what you painted, it would come out alright.” This ‘honesty’ is depicted through his drawings of his young children in the 1960s. “Children are so honest, and seeing them apply that world view was fascinating, it was proof of life. That’s what I was capturing.”

As well as drawing on universal commonalities, Smither’s works during the 1960s also have a distinctly localised feel. He has the ability to depict small-town New Zealand-ness in a straight forward way. His iconic landscapes are an arresting meditation on New Zealand’s natural environment and beauty, whilst also highlighting socio-political concerns. This is notable in his popular Rockpool series, which began during a nasty bout of toothache. “I sat down there for hours concentrating on drawing rocks, as a result, many of the early ones look like teeth” Smither laughs. “I have always been drawn to places with clear water, clean water. It’s important for diving and the environment in general. In a spiritual sense, water symbolises purity and honesty; Catholics used to leave a jug of clean water on the altar for anyone who needed a drink.” Despite good intentions ideologically, Smither notes that they are visually “the most unintentionally dishonest paintings I have ever done-I wanted to give people the experience of looking down into the water, but I never included distortions, I ruled them out. The works are descriptors of the real, but not real.”

Nowadays, Smither lives and works in Otama on the Coromandel Penisula, where he continues to paint “what I have always painted-my interest in shapes, colour, composition, things happening around me.” The works within Smither! highlight his then burgeoning interest with these idiosyncratic concerns. Rather than focusing on peripheral matter, Smither deftly captures essential forms in a parred-down and pure way that does not lose its resonance forty years later. Since 1960, Smither has create art that is truly ‘honest’ about the lives of himself and those around him – which invites people into his world, while also encouraging people to draw their own parallels. Therein lies an important element of Michael Smither’s longevity.

This article was first published in the Waikato Times in January 2014.