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Back into Circulation

Behind Closed Doors
Behind Closed Doors
Passionate Abstraction component of Behind Closed Doors. Installation shot Robert Cross
Mark Amery considers exhibitions that put art back into public circulation.

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By Mark Amery

It’s ironic that of two major exhibitions of New Zealand art currently on show in Wellington, Behind Closed Doors at Adam Art Gallery is drawn from private collections and is free, whilst Oceania at City Gallery is drawn largely from public collections and will cost you $10.

Quite frankly, the cover charge stinks. The New Zealand public are being asked to pay to see art that, as taxpayers, they have already paid for the purchase of, and should feel proud to call their own. Fleece the out-of-towner if you really must, but at least do what Rotorua City Council insist on and let local ratepayers get free admission to their public gallery.

Certainly, there’s never been a better time to get a handle on our art history. These exhibitions answer a long-made demand to see more of the national collection on display. Yet, as art blogger Courtenay Johnston at ‘Best of 3’ also observes, the worse thing about the entry fee is that, from the outside, City Gallery visitor numbers appear to be low. We should be encouraging an engagement by children with our heritage, not making it cost prohibitive.

Up at Victoria University’s Kelburn campus the Adam Art Gallery’s issues are accessibility and visibility. The gallery is always quiet when I visit at weekends. I urge you to make the effort, and the powers that be to give the Adam more marketing budget.

Behind Closed Doors is a flawed show, but it’s stacked full of great work, and there’s an interesting accompanying series of projects about collecting. Just opened is an exhibition about 19th century New Zealand women’s early use of photography. Exhibiting new prints from the negatives, the immediacy of the domestic drama captured in these photographs, and the sense of the sitter being as much in charge as photographer, is refreshing, sometimes startling. They deserve as wide a viewership as the New Zealand Women’s Weekly.

Be they private or public, most art collections are built from work first shown by an art dealer. Behind Closed Doors reminds us that what ends up in someone’s hallway versus that which becomes a national treasure, can sometimes simply come down to who’s buying. This isn’t an exhibition of minor works by well-known artists, so much as simply revealing some lesser-known works. This is particularly the case with Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon, who have most of the upper galleries to themselves.

Yet Behind Closed Doors tries to be too many things. The opportunity was for an exhibition about collecting, or even an alternative art history full of the personality and idiosyncrasies of the collector. Instead it feels like an orthodox public institution selection, driven by a need to provide university students with an Art History 101 hang, mostly of the usual canonised suspects.

More interesting is the underdeveloped strand here about the relationship between artists and collectors. There are fascinating glimpses of its potential: a portrait of the Paris family by Woollaston, a McCahon painting gifted to Luit Bieringa inspired by their conversations, and a set of works by L.Budd inspired by the travels the collector took a suitcase artwork of hers on.

For the most part however collectors are not identified, and the work is placed in standard thematic art historical hangs. Wall text tells us that a stunning McCahon Muriwai painting, commissioned to commemorate the passing of the collector’s wife is usually hung at home with some drawings from his ‘Jet Plane series. I was disappointed to not see the standard gallery hang disrupted by their inclusion.

Emphasising the distance this exhibition maintains between public gallery and private home is the fact that a series of Neil Pardington photographs of art in the exhibition in their usual domestic location isn’t on the walls. They’re in a box, viewable by donning a pair of white gloves. It’s a pity, as these images (for a book to be published shortly in conjunction with the exhibition) not only provide insight into the ways people arrange their collections, but also exquisite commentary on the value of art next to other domestic objects.

The exhibition is dedicated to dealer Peter McLeavey. McLeavey has had a huge impact on the support of contemporary art in Wellington. This however feels like another exhibition strand that is evident but isn’t followed through, unbalancing the whole. Artists McLeavey has represented are by far in the majority here, leaving the work of many other Wellington dealers and the artists they represent scantily present.

The most resolved section is a small history of painting since 1946 in the downstairs gallery. Curator Christina Barton provides a short but perfectly formed journey through New Zealand abstraction. Referencing the thoughts of Jean Baudrillard on collecting, she muses that the abstract painting provides the ideal commodity - once collected and taken out of circulation it loses its reference to the rest of the world. Given Barton’s use of the line “we are what we collect” to open the exhibition notes it would have been nice to have seen this tension between art’s public and private lives explored more strongly.

Behind Closed Doors accompanied by In Camera: A Project Series Around And About Collecting, Adam Art Gallery, until 18 December 2011

Written by

Mark Amery

13 Oct 2011

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