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Sex and the City Gallery

Listener – June 9, 2001

Cult, crap and culture mix it up in Wellington.

What is it about 1950s and early 1960s popular culture that twenty- and thirtysomethings want to replicate? The style without the boring bits, perhaps. Watch Sex and the City and you’ll see sex-savvy starlets wearing 50s-style stiletto heels and drinking martinis, with lounge music notating their sexual escapades. But what, you may ask, has this got to do with a survey exhibition of New Zealand art currently showing at Wellington’s City Gallery?

For a start, the show has been curated by thirtysomething Lara Strongman, who would not look out of place in the above-mentioned sitcom – and, besides having spent more than 10 years working as a curator for various New Zealand public galleries, she once did a stint DJing lounge music for student radio in Hamilton. Strongman, who graduated MA with distinction in art history from Canterbury University, is also a post-Elvis patron. 

“I would go and see any Elvis impersonator at the drop of a hat,” she says. “My mother thinks that’s a poor idea. She thinks it’s bereft, because Elvis impersonators are per se crap. That’s why I like them. I go because it’s really crap, but it’s the nearest thing you’ll get to getting near Elvis. So I’ve seen quite a few . . . it’s a deeply moving experience.” 

Telecom Prospect 2001 – New Art New Zealand, which is to be a biennial event at the City Gallery, with a different curator each time, is made up of 34 artists and is Strongman’s biggest brief to date; and, as you might expect, given her passion for Elvis (she even got married in Vegas), it has in part a 50s-60s retro pop feel. 

Fiona Pardington’s rephotographing and blowing up of pin-up girls of this period are included with the work of 76-year-old Milan Mrkusich, whose colour-coded abstractions had their genesis before young Christchurch double act Hannah and Aaron Beehre were born. Their “genetically-engineered” soft toys are cutely placed opposite the old master’s work. 

It would be misleading to say that all the works harp back to when Adam was a cowboy. Sixtysomethings Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert contribute a sublime black-lacquered and neon work (Hotere supplied the black, Culbert the light) that could be described as a post-postmodern hieroglyph, and paintings by Richard McWhannell, Julia Morrison, Gretchen Albrecht, Bill Hammond and Tony De Lautour could have been surveyed in the 80s. But it’s Strongman’s mix-and-matching that transports the show back to when baby-boomers like me were drinking free milk at school. 

Gavin Chilcott’s 3.7m swan covered with thousands of white crepe flowers is the exhibition’s promo piece. It is accompanied by a wall of painted carrier bags covered with loosely drawn swams and other symbols hued with a 50s colour palette. The whole shebang is called Cult Effigy 1952, 2000-2001, and there’s a lovely story to go with it: the crepe flowers were made with the help of residents of a retirement home. The work takes its cue from Hawke’s Bay Blossom Festival parades. 

Michael Parekowhai’s five huge floral arrangements also come with a story. Before Parekowhai went to art school he trained as a florist and the arrangements refer to places in France and Flanders where the Pioneer Maori Battalion fought in World War I. The conceptual template for the work is strong, but I felt that, Parekowhai, unlike Chilcott, doesn’t quite visually realise his story. 

When Strongman was choosing work for the show she was looking, she says, for “what I can only describe as a kind of grand conception in a work. Something that has a great big over-arching project that is emotionally and intellectually charged, and that hits you immediately visually.” 

Television, she says, has utterly changed our consciousness. “I have a theory about this, supplied by our education officer, who believes that fourth-form boys have the attention spans of a commercial. That’s all they’ve got. So you’ve got to get them in that period of time. People’s attention spans have shrunk as the world has expanded.” 

If you turn right when entering the gallery, the first work you encounter is Pardington’s triptych “Lost Girls”, like something out of men’s magazines of 40 years ago, with an accompanying statement from the artist: 

I like, I don’t like 

I want you to get 
a complete picture 
of the real me. 
So, I will hide nothing. 
I have a heliotrope satin 
bedhead. I have an all-over 
tan, so I hardly ever wear 
stockings. I like to feel 
the wind on my legs . . . 

“It’s an edgy work,” says Strongman. “Those images would have been quite tiny. They would have been dirty little postcards. As such, the girls were turned into objects. I think what Fiona’s doing by blowing them up, so they are literally larger than life, and also by writing a statement as if taking on the voice of one of those lost women, is making them into subject again, making them in to a specific person. She (Pardington) spoke to me about the middle image where you see the woman’s dirty feet. It’s sad and it’s funny, and it’s that kind of French idea of tristesse. You see them when they’re big, you don’t see them when they’re small.” 

Compare Pardington’s appropriations with Seraphine Pick’s paintings, which are populated with surreal childhood memories, half-remembered dreams and female longing and desire. Where Pardington solicits the looker to come clean, Pick inwardly explores her own sexuality. The work of these two women got me thinking how refreshing it would be to see Kiwi heterosexual males working in such a way, so as to take the dialogue further. 

Kirsty Gregg’s 15 rugby balls, signed by her top team of New Zealand artists, seems like boring art-referential game-playing, but Strongman defends the choice: “You have to run with the ball. I did a show with Robert Leonard in 95-96 called Hangover, which was about this sort of idea. It was about the kind of hungover morning-after popular culture and a high-cultural moment sinking beyond trace. It was very much concerned with these ideas of irony and impersonation. Irony doesn’t quite describe this phenomenon, because it doesn’t have the unkind implications that irony has. So I think that feeling, that sense for which I don’t think we quite have a word yet, is embodied in Kirsty’s work, and that’s why I respond to it.” 

In Yuk King Tan’s digital skydiving images there is light relief from Laurence Aberhart’s “perfectly” composed through-the-glass darkly approach that he has pursued for his entire career; but opposite Aberhart’s photographs is the work of Andrew Thomas, the youngest artist in the show, and I found this work’s raison d’ĂȘtre the most problematic. We’re told that for his “Blessed”, a series of photographs of a mass-produced commercial product, he inserted photographic fragments of Maori kowhaiwhai he found painted onto the fence-palings bordering a Rotorua park, thus raising questions about cultural ownership. 

French philosopher Jean Baudrillard coined the word “simulacra” in the 1960s to describe this cultural phenomenon: where the original and the copy have come to be read as the same thing. Gordon Walters emptied Maori motifs of meaning, and filled them, at about the same time, and in the 80s Dick Frizzell made the tiki and the Four Square man the same fella. Thomas, as yet, does not have these artists’ visual acumen and adds nothing to this dodgy debate. 

Although one may quibble at some of Strongman’s inclusions, she is to be commended for mixing artists of different ages, with seven artists commissioned to do site-specific works. To me, the most successful is Sean Kerr’s; with throbbing speakers, tuned to projected wall patterns . . . the work pulses like some 50s-60s pagan rite. His stack of second-hand stereo speakers assembled in an approximation of the modernist grid playfully mingles “hi” and “lo” art. 

Every generation has a different take on the same old stories, and Prospect is a stylish statement that perhaps represents a reaction against this country’s weighty modernism, a la Colin McCahon, who has cast a long shadow. But, as Wystan Curnow says, “Good art is concerned with where consciousness can take us next.”

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