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Collecting Contemporary

Tiki Face, 1992, Freeman, Warwick (1953- ), Auckland. Purchased 2009. Te Papa
Pendant, 2009, Walker, Lisa (1967- ), Munich. Purchased 2010. Te Papa
Pocket full of rainbows, 2010, Pick, Séraphine (1964- ), Wellington. Purchased 2010. Te Papa
Te Kooti At Ruatahuna, 1967, Matchitt, Para (1933- ), New Zealand. Purchased 2007. Te Papa
A new exhibition at Te Papa puts a dim spotlight on Te Papa’s contemporary art collecting, writes Mark Amery.

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By Mark Amery

Collecting Contemporary is elegant, well meaning but dull. Why, you may well ask. Surely this is some of the best of the best? A selection of Te Papa’s additions to the national contemporary art collection since 2006.

After all, our national institution’s remit is to collect great examples of our nation’s most recognised artists, and the art that most strongly tells our, and our art history’s stories.

Yet as full of special work as Collecting Contemporary is and as thoughtfully staged, the exhibition’s very broad spread dims my experience. It is a loosely hanging garment of many threads. Any one of these strong threads or themes could, filled out, make for a sharp exhibition.

With Para Matchitt’s stately musical trio of figures The Family from 1966 and two other of his works there is the beginning of an examination of the contemporary Maori art movement. With Daniel Malone’s My Name in Lights and Shane Cotton’s Back bone the influence of street art on the gallery. With a few excellent works by Ben Cauchi, Gavin Hipkins and Anne Shelton it is noted that public art galleries and museums didn’t start collecting photography until the late 1970s, yet we still await a contemporary survey. We are given tastings rather than meals.

My frustration is symptomatic of the feeling we don’t get to see enough of the contemporary art collection in the Te Papa building - grist for proponents of a national art gallery’s mill. We are forever seeing fragments.

This exhibition is the sort of taking-care-of-business hang you’d expect to always be on show through the corridors of such a gallery - a wander through the collection on the way to the keynote exhibitions. And to be fair such a keynote is provided for currently by the excellent E Tu Ake exhibition downstairs. Even E Tu Ake however is the kind of broad scope exhibition with a national collection you’d hope to have being constantly refreshed semi-permanently.   

The theme of Collecting Contemporary is self-conscious, and even just a little bit defensive – ‘this is why we collect what we do’. The answer is provided with such a spread of work that it just leaves you forever wondering what else they’re collecting.

Firstly (they explain in the wall text) there is retrospective collecting, where Te Papa collects work long after it was first exhibited to fill out the picture of art history or an artist’s practise. Geoff Thornley’s 1980 painting Construction No.4, and a set of paper collages working towards it are given as one specific, but here rather isolated, example. More rewarding because they form a mini survey are 14 small exquisite pieces by Warwick Freeman, created between 1982 and 2007.

Secondly is the collection of recent work. There are examples of works by noteworthy artists exhibited here because in content they also touch on notable historical events – the nicely paired Richard Lewer on the Crewe Murders and Ann Shelton on the Parker-Hulme. These works also have the distinction of working in fresh ways in their respective media. Then there are works by Julian Dashper and Stella Brennan nearby that are here in part because they contribute to international conversations around art history. Without like work to rub up against they lack lustre.

A third component to building the collection is introduced as ‘New Voices’. The museum has felt the need to justify why it sometimes collects work by emerging artists. With only a few examples on display stating this ends up only reinforcing the impression of particular biases, rather than filling out the easily justifiable assertion that though early in their career most of these artists will have “developed a considerable exhibition history and a profile nationally and sometimes internationally”.

With such a broad range of work we lack context for collecting decisions. More instructive for example would be to simply see once a year an exhibition of recent work collected, providing some impression of what has been considered of recent importance.  At the very least making accessible lists of recent acquisitions alongside this exhibition would be instructive - a move I understand is underway.

There is one exception to my complaint. Decorative arts feel like they have a clearer storyline. With ceramics a high shelf of John Parker’s work (nicely paired with Sriwhana Spong’s video) opens the hang and is a nice counterpoint to Martin Poppellwell’s fabulous dinner party set of fragments of domestic pottery, with their snatches of ideas and thoughts, Study for Strip. This in turn leads well to emerging ceramicist Paul Maseyk’s splendid vessel that brings together autobiography, Grecian and American pop design to explore the power of line and shape in advertising.

There’s also the sense that in recent years contemporary art has been moving in some exciting directions that are more challenging to collect. We get the documentation of Maddie Leach’s Ice Rink rather than the actual rink to skate on (an interesting comment on the collection challenges for sure, but still no skates). Simon Morris is represented by two 2006 works, while meanwhile at Dowse Art Museum until 28 June he’s creating a wall painting in response to the museum’s spaces. Collecting Contemporary seems static by comparison to much you can see in other galleries.

Perhaps as taxpayer I sound ungrateful. The exhibition is full of terrific treats not previously seen in Wellington - from Spong at one end to a Simon Denny installation at the other. The Denny is cleverly grouped with Nick Austin and L.Budd to lead us to think about the act of museum collecting and presentation. The exhibition is full of smart, quiet conversations like this. Yet I left feeling it failed to rise to be a satisfying sum of its parts.

Written by

Mark Amery

23 Jun 2011

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.