Te Tai-o-Rēhua (The Tasman): A Group Show of Australian and New Zealand Artists

5 - 27 June 2021

Te Tai-o-Rēhua (The Tasman)

An essay by Andrew Paul Wood, June 2021

We are delighted to have commissioned Andrew Paul Wood to write the essay for this magnificent show with his usual flair and insightful panache. Enjoy!

 

Presently [Alice] began again. 'I wonder if I shall fall right THROUGH the earth! How funny it'll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward! The Antipathies, I think -' (she was rather glad there WAS no one listening, this time, as it didn't sound at all the right word) '--but I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is, you know. Please, Ma'am, is this New Zealand or Australia?' (and she tried to curtsey as she spoke--fancy CURTSEYING as you're falling through the air! Do you think you could manage it?)  'And what an ignorant little girl she'll think me for asking!  No, it'll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere.'

-        Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

 

Antipathies indeed. Of course, Alice meant the Antipodes - which is probably worse, "opposite the feet" of the northern hemisphere. We are the top end, thank you. And one could not really fault Alice for asking if she was just trying to work out where she was from the art because there has been so much exchange between Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand over the decades one might easily be confused. Scott Lawrie, like Alice, has tumbled down the rabbit hole to Wonderland and his ongoing coming to terms with the visual arts in the region he has curated.

 

Is there such a thing as Australasian or Trans-Tasman identity? Or are we more of a bewildering, overlapping identities? Some might argue that despite only separating from the colony of New South Wales in 1841 a mere year after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, that New Zealand has always been on its own path. Some might draw attention to the tradition of Anzac mateship forged on the bloody beaches of Gallipoli. Others might suggest that relationship has long since gone the way of the dodo, assuming it was anything more than Imperial propaganda to begin with. 

 

Some might point to the growing solidarity between the indigenous peoples of both lands and their aspirations for sovereignty. Others might recall Badtjala artist, curator, and academic Fiona Foley's complaint that Ngāriki Rotoawe and Ngāti Whakarongo artist Michael Parekōwhai had been commissioned for a public artwork in the forecourt of Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art, noting the absence of any indigenous Australian culture in Brisbane's Southbank cultural precinct. The territory is not unfraught. Yet many leading cultural figures position themselves as Trans-Tasman like the artists Brent Harris and Euan Macleod, for example, or the writers Martin Edmond and Stephen Oliver, of New Zealand origins but operating in the Australian context.

 

Scott sets up a space to have that conversation by showcasing some of the best that both places have to offer. It is a space where cultures and concepts collide: five men, eight women, six Australians, six New Zealanders. 

 

First the New Zealanders:

Roy Good is a stalwart Auckland modernist who cut his teeth as a set designer for NZBC in the 1960s and creating some of the most recognisable corporate logos of the 1970s and 1980s. A member of celebrated Auckland dealer Petar Vuletić's circle of artists - a group that also included Gordon Walters, Milan Mrkusich, Ian Scott (in his lattice phase), and Geoff Thornley - Good's painting reflects his passion for strong, minimalist, geometric composition and the Op Art of Bridget Riley, combined with subtle, painterly surfaces that seduce the eye. 

 

Originally from the UK but based in Auckland, Rebecca Wallis creates gestural abstract paintings on glass that are more felt than seen. Her mark-making is a way of making her inscape an outscape, drawing on the emotions and experiences of her life, particularly as a mother. For all that abstract and action painting has been around a long time, there is something very unconventional both in her formalism and her medium. Most abstract painting engages you with its surface. Wallis' paintings make you look right through them into yourself. Wallis deals in encounters outside of language, bypassing the Wittgensteinian "whereof we cannot speak thereof we must remain silent", informed by Kristeva's theories of the Real and Abjection. She was the winner of the Walker and Hall Art Awards in 2008, received a merit award in the 2009 Waikato Painting & Printmaking Art Awards, and a frequent finalist in the Wallace Art Awards.

 

If sculpture is all about the physical interaction of the artist's medium and body, then Monique Lacey takes it to its logical conclusion, crushing cardboard boxes - symbolic of the way a patriarchal art world tries to crush women artists - and monumentalising the results of happenstance with plaster and paint. Lacey's process muddies the waters between the modernist minimalism of the cube and the Baroque maximalism of the blob.

It's difficult to say if Kirsty Lillico is a sculptor who works in line, or a drafter drawing with found materials, as she pulls apart post-minimalism and puts it back together again from soft furnishings. There's something of the old kiwi No. 8 wire, mend and make-do spirit in these architectonic constructs sutured together from abject pieces of carpet that carries its own untold stories. Her work speaks of how we live and who we are. Lillico is somewhat notorious for winning the 2017 Parkin Drawing Prize with State Block, an installation of strips of repurposed carpet dangling from a string as comment on the liveability of high-density social housing. To add to the compelling dynamics of her work, this work is a photograph of a drawing as a sculpture.

 

Fiona Pardington (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Mamoe, Ngāti Kahungunu and Clan Cameron of Erracht) is one of New Zealand's leading photographic artists. She is justly celebrated for her ability to infuse the inanimate with an aura of presence or draw out the mana and mauri of ancient taonga. Hers is a practice full of wit and magic. Dr Pardington is a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, a Chevalier de l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France. Her awards include the Moët et Chandon Fellowship (France) in 1991-92, the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in both 1996 and 1997, the Ngai Tahu residency at Otago Polytechnic in 2006 and both the Quai Branly Laureate award, La Résidence de Photoquai, and the Arts Foundation Laureate Award in 2011. 

 

Artist Sefton Rani draws on the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, the philosophical acceptance of transience and imperfection as giving meaning to life and beauty and combines it with his own Cook Islands heritage and sources as wide ranging as graffiti and street art, crumbling walls spattered with paint, and Tibetan Buddhist Thangka paintings to create his unique works. He often works onto skins of paint, improvising with chisels, blades, saws, incorporating text, nature, and found objects to create highly impastoed bricolages capturing snapshots of experience and facets of the lived world.

 

Now the Australians:

The art of Melburnian Benjamin Aitken occupies a visceral middle ground between urban street art spray-painted on inner city walls, the self-conscious transcendentalism of Abstract Expressionism, the elaborate wit of the Baroque, and a kind of hipster orientalism. Applying an exceptionally light touch he brings it all together with humour, politics, social commentary, and autobiography. Aitken won the 2018 Tony Fini Foundation Prize, Art Gallery of Western Australia and was a finalist for the Archibald Prize in 2021, 2019, 2018 and 2017.

 

Fellow Melburnian Jeremy Piert's work shares some of that urban insouciance and grit, that hipster grunge irony, filtered through a low-fi graphic sensibility that maybe owes something to skater punk style and the slacker aesthetic of comic book artists like Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and Craig Thompson, but with a dash of psychedelic Gustav Klimt.

 

Nicholas Ives, also based in Melbourne, has a wonderful sense of the whimsical and romantic, tempered by an awareness of contemporary life in all its absurdities. His imp of the perverse guides him from one idea through an enviable maze of semiotics and imaginings to a destination that is completely unexpected. The result is something precious, dreamlike, surreal, and ethereal, while drawing out narratives exploring the hierarchies of power, authority, and control we must negotiate every day. Ives was a finalist for the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize in 2015 and 2018 and exhibits in Europe and the US.

 

Sydney-based painter Clare Brodie finds in landscape painting a visual metaphor for her emotional inscape, bringing a venerable genre fully into the twenty-first century in a superflat style picked out in striking palette of reduced saturated colour. It is a quite different take on the figuration of nature in a part of the world where for a long time the landscape was the dominant form of painting. Brodie has previously been a finalist for the Mosman Art Prize in 2012, 2014, and 2016, the Kilgour Art Prize in 2014 and 2016, and the Ravenswood Australian Women's Art Prize in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

 

Another Sydneysider, Patrizia Biondi, crafts the most intricate architectonic collages from cardboard and paint. Ranging in scale from confections resembling crystalised Bismuth to small scale Merzbau's full of grottos, Biondi revels in her material, letting the torn edges and markings show. Cardboard, she says, is "the icon of consumerism". There is a violence in the work too, invoking Biondi's Neapolitan childhood amongst all the political upheaval in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, the assassinations and terrorist attacks, the turf wars, but also the protest signs of students and feminists. The beauty of the work is the sugar that helps the medicine of their environmental message go down. Hopefully making our waste gorgeous and then confronting us with it will make us pay attention.

Not a lot of people realise Patricia Piccinini was born in Sierra Leone, but the Melbourne-based artist has certainly become one of the highest profile Australian artists internationally. Her fleshy sculptures, for all their tendency to Cronenberg-esque body horror, are fuller of melancholy, pathos, joy, and love than they are grotesque - though sometimes they are that too. There is a popular tendency to read into Piccinini's works a kind of allegorical warning against the excesses of science and the dangers of genetic tampering, but these creatures are more reflections of our own humanity. You can look into their eyes, if they have eyes, and see a soul. Piccinini is regularly exhibited internationally and held in collections around the world.

 

Senior Kaiadilt Australian Aboriginal artist Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori was instrumental in creating something of an entirely new and exciting visual language; painting her memories of her birthplace, Bentinck Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Dibirdibi Country, 2010 is a magnificent work - a painting describing the events of a sing wherein Dibirdibi - the Rock Cod totem - swims between her island and the Australian mainland after the rising of the waters when the glaciers melted at the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago.

 

Together these artists capture a snapshot of what Antipodean culture might be, looking simultaneously back to the past and into the future, indigenous, colonist, and immigrant, connecting to the rest of the Pacific, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Looking at these artists' work we very quickly realise how extraordinarily complex, rich, and diverse our part of the Pacific is. The Tasman Sea really is just "the ditch" that is more a point of communication, an osmotic boundary, than a barrier. We are not the end of the world, we are merely the beginning.