By Mark Amery
With Surrealism and Dada as the glorious exceptions, it often feels like 20th century art had a humour bypass. All furrowed brows, pushing art relentlessly forwards across troubled times.
By the 1990s however art was looking back on itself with a wit laced with strong doses of irony.
That can be seen in current Adam Art Gallery exhibition Play On with several landmark works from that period. Featuring five drum kits adorned with the names of some of New Zealand’s most famous artists pitched as the brands of popular musical groups on the bass drum heads (from The Anguses to The Colin McCahons), Julian Dashper’s ‘The Big Bang Theory’ breaks us out of our reverie with our own recent past. With Duchampian glee he brings pop art and minimalism together for one droll drum roll and cymbal crash.
As this work so neatly suggests, back then we were still working through paying our dues to our local icons. Ten years on we’ve loosened up and the humour is freer to lure us into thinking about the work more deeply on its own terms. The tables have turned: where twenty years ago we were more distrustful of an artist who warmed you up with a joke, today I’d suggest we’re more suspicious of art that appears overly reverential.
I was struck by this shift last week visiting a range of exhibitions in Wellington. My trip started at the Film Archive, where in their filmed performances Siberian group the Blue Noses comment on globalization through clown tactics such as firing fireworks out of their trousers. Consider yourself warned.
Around the corner at Mary Newton Gallery co-director Paula Newton presses a button on the back of a white paint dribble covered toy figure on the floor. It then proceeds to waddle across the room, ghostly stick arms outstretched letting out a comic horror theremin warble. With a pile of bones nearby it’s a spooked cartoon caveman figure. Mounted on the wall is a white paint dribble covered cave, complete with red evil eyes flashing inside and a kitsch bunny perched on its roof.
This is the sculpture-cum-painting work of Jarad Bryant in the group show ‘Duck!’ and it’s a beautifully controlled expression of feeling, with humour and poetry replacing the abstract expressionists’ gloomy angst. The individual comes out of their cave and feels uncertain in the world at large, a feeling I’m sure many can identify with at this point in time.
There’s a thoughtful melancholy and wit that reminds me of a Leunig cartoon, a rich visual poetry in the play with objects and paint, with white paint poured over objects and allowed to congeal off them in hanging drips. Lonely white leaves elegantly hang from single white branches, paint drops drooping from their points. A long semicircle of cardboard with a necklace of drips is deliciously titled ‘Toothy Grin’. A white branch hangs down like an upended antler, huge elongated paint drips hanging off it like expensive pendants, or is it a ghostly hand reaching out?
Bryant’s objects are nicely matched in the show. Painter Tom Sladden’s expression of the relationship with the world through half painted and sketched out interaction with objects around him are interesting poetic meditations but connected less powerfully for me. John Roy’s metaphoric ceramics see male figures made out of brick walls and perforated ceiling tiles with their heads in the sand. Providing comment on the stonewalling and tough exteriors males throw up, in the Contained Series, for example, upright figures are upturned in flowerpots to resemble prickly ornamental cacti. At Mary Newton kookiness abounds, but as ever it provides a way in to some thoughtful exploration of the complexity of being human.
Around another corner at Bowen Galleries Paul Rayner’s ceramic money boxes are deliciously witty and recession topical. Roughly glazed and wonkily unstable, his Jesus on the cross money boxes (naturally entitled ‘Jesus Saves’) are notable for having no way to get the money out once it’s in. There are also the elegant, playful typographical drawings of Sarah Maxey here. These play with the potential labyrinth poetic complexity of short colloquial expressions when imprinted on the page. They weave meaning with fluid line, erasure of negative and positive space, and symbolism of different materials, from ribbons to stones. Some resonate much more strongly with me than others, but each pithy visual expression is a compaction of potential meanings, lightened by humour.
My trip ended at curator Heather Galbraith’s magnificent swansong at City Gallery, Ready to Roll, an exciting and vital exhibition that introduces us to some of the finest work in the country from artists who’ve had little exposure yet in Wellington. Full of comic turns, I wager you’ll find it hard to make your way around without chuckling a fair few times.
Duck!, Mary Newton Gallery, until 19 June
Sarah Maxey and Paul Rayner, Bowen Galleries, until 19 June