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All Bouquets No Brickbats

Müll Ballon Wolke, Kanal Projekt - detail (2011), Intervention / live installation performance / video (created using a 3-person kayak)
Müll Ballon Wolke Kanal Projekt (2011), Intervention / live installation performance / video (created using a 3-person kayak)
Emil McAvoy Helen (2011) Archival pigment on Hahnemuehle paper
Sarah Williams’ A Monument Somewhere in Europe
Dieneke Jansen
Mark Amery reviews the 20th Wallace Art Awards exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt.

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By Mark Amery

I last reviewed the Wallace Art Awards, New Zealand’s most established, in 2006. I described the finalists’ exhibition then as a strange mix of “contemporary bric-a-brac.” That, in its efforts to contain the breadth of contemporary New Zealand art within a traditional domestic frame, diversity had become “a byword for mediocrity.”

By Mark Amery

I last reviewed the Wallace Art Awards, New Zealand’s most established, in 2006. I described the finalists’ exhibition then as a strange mix of “contemporary bric-a-brac.” That, in its efforts to contain the breadth of contemporary New Zealand art within a traditional domestic frame, diversity had become “a byword for mediocrity.”

Five years on the results are less strange but otherwise similar. Beyond a few fine exceptions there’s a lot of pretty ordinary work you feel you’ve seen something like, somewhere else before.

Yet, opportunities to promenade through a big exhibition hang with friends, handing out your own bouquets and brickbats, are one of the great treats of the art museum. So, rather than carping on, here I note a few works that really struck me amongst the 61 works (of 116 finalists) on show.

Four of them are among the eight award winners. And with their awards of international residencies and cash prizes they’re a valuable part of our arts scene. Senior figures in an exhibition that doesn’t feature many, Bronwynne Cornish and Phil Dadson present strong, if not career defining works. Ridiculously, video and performance weren’t admissible five years ago, but this year both video veteran Dadson and up and comer Brydee Rood have award-winning filmed performances.

Receiving the Fullbright-Wallace Arts Trust Award is recognition of how resonant Rood’s public gestures with rubbish receptacles and light are. Through thoughtful but lightweight, witty sculptural means she draws attention to our relationship through waste with our environment. Curiously, she’s in this exhibition twice. Indeed a far stronger exhibition concept would be for a small group of artists to get to present a portfolio of work

Mull Ballon Wolke Kanal Projekt sees three people in a kayak, buried within a cloud of inflated blue rubbish bags, trying flailingly with flimsy plastic oars to boat down a murky German canal. Pleasure seekers on motorboats look on, seemingly oblivious to their epic absurd struggle. Resembling a moving cubist collage of sky, the performance is clown-like and festive, yet both beautiful and evocative of our struggle to accept, and do something about, pollution and climate change.

Rood’s second work Plasticy Ocean Soup is the sort of hand-drawn illuminated LED sign in psychedelic colours you might find whipped up outside a Korean restaurant. Yet it’s a telling, artful play on such appealingly personal doodled art and marketing. It promotes as menu item on special the huge garbage patch of plastics that exists in the middle of the Pacific, which we continue to largely ignore. The text ends with the warning “May causes death by blockage of intestinal tract” (sic), with the word ‘May’ crossed out.

Believe it or not, but digital photographic prints also weren’t admissible last time I wrote. Two other standouts this year by Emil McAvoy and Dieneke Jansen play with the digital and our expectations of the photographer’s perspective to challenge our viewpoint of the present.

At least you might assume given its presence there is digital enhancement in Emil McAvoy’s Helen. A large reprint of a photograph of a young Helen Clark, date and photographer unknown, whether or not it’s handprinted from an old negative or digitally manipulated is part of its strong charge. It’s an exceptional ready made, that speaks of the power of portrait construction and its context in place and time. In her new but now old-fashioned woolen suit, with a ghastly arrangement of roses and carnations behind Clark is eerily, radiantly present. Out of time and place, it’s as if her worried eyes see into the future.

Finally, amongst the largely ho-hum painting, a mention goes to Sarah Williams’ A Monument Somewhere in Europe. Her nonchalant reduction of the detail of a historic place to a few chunky punctuation dashes of paint is both a smart unified arrangement of colour, space and form and a welcome relief from the jumble of of found imagery that is far more fashionable.

20th Annual Wallace Art Awards 2011, Dowse Art Museum, until 4 December 2011

Written by

Mark Amery

24 Nov 2011

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