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Where all the stuff goes

Mantel piece arrangement (a painting by Lionel Terry), 6 Elder St, Dunedin
Andrew Ross - Radio Active
Freeman White's kitchen, Eva Street, Wellington
Mark Amery on rooms and the stories they tell us in the work of Wellington photographer Andrew Ross.

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Mark Amery on rooms and the stories they tell us in the work of Wellington photographer Andrew Ross.

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Last week I saw something in a gallery I’ve never seen before. Someone was dusting the artworks. Now, I have no substantial research on how often or in which galleries this occurs, but it got me thinking. Galleries collect as much residue of human activity through dust (particles of dead skin cells, hair, paper and clothing) as any other rooms, yet so often give off an antiseptic vibe.

Photospace, the gallery I was in, is not one of those. It maintains a warm, homely air, protective of photography. And antiseptic certainly also aren’t the rooms in the photographs that were being dusted. Andrew Ross likely photographs more dust than all of the rest of city’s photographers put together. The rooms he captures are the antithesis of the white cube – places where the evidence of human labour and activity has accumulated and been ad hoc exhibited in piles, on walls and on ledges - many looking like they’ve been undisturbed for years. Ross’s work probably makes gallery staff want to dust. 

A Ross exhibition at Photospace is always a fine thing. He opens a curtain and sheds light on quiet but industrious worlds, which have built up a rich history of layers. These are the magical but commonplace elsewheres that are otherwise overlooked. He goes where stuff goes.

The focus of this show is artists’ studios and other interiors. It gives dignity to the work of making and dreaming of things. It may now be fashionable to divest yourself of ephemera, but Ross isn’t fashionable. These aren’t the designer studios and homes you see in magazines. They’re the delightfully odd collections of artefacts of unapologetically odd people. They celebrate the creative messy way many people live and work and hold onto things.

Ross’s work is intelligent and sharp to the wit and surreality to be discovered in found assemblages.  An open DIY coffin and a marble hand sit on a coffee table before enormous piles of tottering books. Centred in the middle of the frame meanwhile on the top of a pile before the table is a book entitled Walkabout. In another image, a painting sits on an easel, while nearby a painting of a fireplace is propped up as a stand in for a real fireplace. In the surround the old wallpaper and ceiling casing is peeling away as if it itself might be paint. History left to accumulate and deteriorate, like memory itself, proves an animated plane. 

Ross is drawn to what we might just pass by. From a visit to the Rita Angus Cottage, it’s not her studio or the artists who’ve used it he chooses to exhibit. Perversely but poetically, shot at night it’s the letterbox roughly constructed out of battered wood, with ‘Rita Angus House’ quickly but lovingly painted on its front, as if it were a handwritten letter itself. 

Look at these works at a distance and you’ll notice unusual, fresh shifts in shapes and volumes care of an adventurous eye, all illuminated by soft light from windows beyond. No white cubes, in his articulation of space Ross makes us aware of the camera’s possibilities as itself an interior chamber that captures light with the dust that twirls in it. 

Next door at Photospace Te Anau wilderness photographer Graham Dainty turns his attention to something that couldn’t be further from his usual habitat: stripped out, vacant city retail spaces. These also, he documents carry traces of activity. Manufactured Spaces is one of three suites of work he describes as ‘short stories’, thought they’re short on narrative. Working well in colour, he plays fruitfully if sometimes blandly with the punctuation of the picture plane by the markings and lines of human use, and shadow and lights.

Editing down to the strongest works would have helped. There are a clutch of beautifully animated images here, where stories faintly rustle in the play of light over fragmented remnants of activity and indicators of the passing of time. Shot from the dark back of a space a ladder stands in silhouette against the haze of light before the shopfront where activity in bright sunlight outside beyond might well be a projection on the wall of a time past.

  • Must See: Passage, Cathyrn Munro, National Library, until November

As if physically touching with your body the charged mesh of digital space that surrounds us, 200,000 beads strung on long strands of tuna line form a glimmering curtain in a floor to ceiling glass box which you can pass through before the main library exhibition space.

Written by

Mark Amery

17 Oct 2013

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