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Upstairs Downstairs

Laith McGregor - Holy 2011
Laith - Drunken Boat 2012
Laith McGregor - Untitled 2011
Callum Morton - Tomorrow Land 2004
Mark Amery takes a look at two new Wellington art project spaces that are off the usual beaten track.


By Mark Amery

When most people think about exhibitions they have a public or dealer gallery in mind. Yet some of the most interesting art events fall in between – in project spaces often run with no public funding and limited commercial imperative.

Welcome then are two new models for art projects in town. With support from a farsighted landlord, self-described “open-source community gallery” 19 Tory Street has gained strong momentum since opening in April with a plethora of events. There’s everything from a weekly silent disco to discussions and screenings, able to be proposed by anyone and decided on by consensus. Growing week by week this is a group experimenting collectively with new ways to create community in the city. The next exhibition in the space by Priyavanti Makwana opens June 12, and the building also hosts the quality window project space The See Here (formerly of Newtown), with Matthew McIntyre Wilson showing until 24 June.

Another farsighted move is that of art collector Malcolm Brow who has created exhibition space upstairs in a handful of light rooms at 30 Courtenay Place. Called simply 30 Upstairs Brow states his intention as a non-profit space that celebrates his passion for art. He’s begun with a group exhibition of recent works from his own strong collection (more collectors should do this), but then begins his project series with two by recent ELAM graduates, Scarlett Cibilich and Priya Patel opening June 21.

Brow has spent lots of time in Melbourne, and this show is, welcomingly, dominated by Melbourne based artists, and one Canadian Andre Ethier. Outside Auckland Art Fair these artists are by and large simply not seen in New Zealand.

The same can be said also however for Wellington in terms of some good New Zealand artists in the show. There's an amusing pumice fire extinguisher from Regan Gentry, excellent Kushana Bush gouache drawings, a vinyl work from Ben Buchanan (it doesn't have the physical mesmeric impact of his large wallworks but) and my favourite thing in the show, in a video room is Steve Carr's exquisitely made slow-mo videos of balloons full of velvety paint being popped. None of these artists have Wellington dealer representation.

The show is dominated by paintings involving an intensity of mark and pattern making. There’s a swampy amount of painterly layers, patterns and textures. Some of this to me is sophisticated ornate decoration - perfect for big white apartment walls. It doesn't move or transform me in anyway. But there are some impressive works: Kate Shaw’s Tremor sees swirling marbled forms in a brilliant range of subtle hues oozing under resin; like a geomorphic picture of one of our Southern fiord's. Adam Lee's Original Camouflage has a man swathed in bands of texture, stumbling out of a painterly wet morass of delicate colours and traceries of plants. It’s as if he’s gathered the landscape like a fat suit around him, a metaphor for the way we carry the environment forward with us. Elsewhere there is the now rather ubiquitous use of geometric fractal shapes in natural settings - the three Viv Miller paintings in particular are dull to my taste.

Best represented of all the artists is the eclectic spookiness of Melbourne's Laith McGregor. On a large double canvas of complex shifting planes of location, a dinghy of spectral Victorian figures and cartoon ghouls float upon an ocean, as if caught in the watery washes of history. In felt tip on a blue tarpaulin is a holy man made out of vertical stripes, his eyes and a hole in his hand cut out. These strike me as a distinctively antipodean take on spiritualism, with both wit and charge.

There are plenty of nicely sited surprises. With echoes of Ronnie Van Hout, Rob Cherry's witty pointed gesture Man on Landscape sees a tiny figurine of a man climbing a shoelace-sized ribbon above a window. His back to us, bracing the wall, his exact activity is dodgily difficult to discern. The next room features the beautiful dance of Irene Hanenbergh's electric fur-ball like marks on aluminium, and a sharp Tony Garifalakis poster of fearful faces blacked out except for their alarmed eyes and a mouth.

An exhibition of cool domestic furnishings, this work at 30 Upstairs couldn't be further from the activity of 19 Tory Street if it tried, yet the show is a feast of recent unfamiliar work for contemporary art followers. We could do with more of these.

Written by

Mark Amery

7 Jun 2012

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