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Lively Art

Huub Maas - Hand Clapping - Swamp cedar
James Harcourt, Oxbow, acrylic on plywood with nails
Andy Clover - The Extent of the Void - lightbox
Installation view. Artists, right to left: Jenny Quayle, Toni Mosley, Jane Zusters, Alison Murray and Susan Hurrell-Fieldes.
Michael Crawford, Still Life – Self Portrait, glass
Denise Batchelor – Video - Owl Breathing
Installation view. Centre Artists Catherine Macdonald (lhs) and Victoria McIntosh (rhs)
Installation view - Kate Fitzharris - Dianne Rimmer
Installation view, still life ‘cluster’
James Robinson, Taniwha (mean as bro! and qigong notes level 7), mixed media
More change is underfoot at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, writes Mark Amery.

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More change is underfoot at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, writes Mark Amery.

"Curator Jodie Dalgleish has given her Academy show the theme ‘Art on Life’, and indeed the energy instilled in the artists, and her placement of figures and gestures makes this an exuberant dance of an exhibition, full of the swings of what she calls a full life."

* * *

Every fortnight, dear reader, my most difficult decision is what to write about. This week it came down to a stark choice: an exhibition of Vincent Ward at Mark Hutchins Gallery, which has received more column inches already than everything else in town put together, or an enormous, surprisingly vibrant group exhibition at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts on Queens Wharf.

I chose the latter. There’s something rather special about a curator being able to take what is usually the most middling of material, a big Academy membership show, and lighting up the room with its strengths.

But I will briefly have my cake: whilst Ward’s film and photography work here leave me cold, the surprise is his paintings of female nudes. With their dramatic, ambiguous baroque gestures, and the rich rippling surfaces that coat the model’s skin as a film, they are violent yet celebratory, as if part of some strenuous ritual. The emotional turbulence of these works tugs and turns you around. I’m put in mind of dark contemporary version of Renoir.

Curator Jodie Dalgleish has given her Academy show the theme ‘Art on Life’, and indeed the energy instilled in the artists, and her placement of figures and gestures makes this an exuberant dance of an exhibition, full of the swings of what she calls a full life.

Rather than get stuck with the amount of material entered, 300 works in all, she embraces it, making music out of it as a wave of expression. Yes, there are the same old paintings of birds, trees and water reflections in a pick’n’mix of modernist styles, but they sit decoratively in the backdrop, the floor given to those most celebrating her theme.

The spirit of the show is exemplified by the first main wall, centring on guest artist James Robinson’s banners of furious diaristic doodles, collages and personal slogans on his struggle with the ego. The space is anchored by two large blood-red abstract expressive paintings by Glen Hutchins, embodying the ecstacy and agony of their title. The energy and humour of the show is epitomised by Jenny Quayle’s Caravaggio Chickens, quirky chooks emerging as expressive brushes of white and pink paint from a theatrical sooty darkness. In the surround there is the lovely expressive whoop of paint which is Vincent Duncan’s waves of sailing boats meeting, Steward Mackay’s Allen-Maddox like bright thicket of garden life, and Peter Leask’s interesting experiments in black and white photography capturing an acrobat on the highwire, as if they were clambering up a lifeline. I also enjoyed Jane Zuster’s acrylic on rimu works, where life instructions like, “aim high but not too high” float like fish in an ocean.

Elsewhere the show is full of figurative studies that have an intimacy borne of care and love, exemplified by Huub Maas’s beautiful small wooden figures of children playing. These could have been carved hundreds of years ago.

Shifts into different contemporary media are also one of the show’s delights. With her zines, Whanganui’s Catherine McDonald provides dry, witty domestic reflections in words and wiry drawings, recalling Joanna Margaret Paul. Denise Batchelor’s video up close of the breathing, feathery chest of a baby owl doesn’t achieve for me the sensory connection aimed for, but is interesting work.

The highlight of the show for me is Kate Fitzharris and Kyla Cresswell’s meditatory sensory beads made of beeswax, with which they’ve rolled up collected materials along walks by Wellington Harbour and Dunedin’s Blueskin Bay, even if its presentation is marred by hanging over Diane Rimmer’s strong bookworks.

Last year I wrote of the untapped potential for the Academy to grow. Well, the Academy has announced a new director, Warren Feeney. Former director of Christchurch’s COCA, the Centre of Contemporary Art, which gave new life to the Canterbury Society of Arts, and author of a recent history of that society, I can think of no one better in the country to lead such change. This show is a great start.

  • Wehi, Vincent Ward, Mark Hutchins Gallery, until 14 April
  • Art on Life, New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, until 8 April

Written by

Mark Amery

29 Mar 2012

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