Unpublished Writing IV

Danny Brisbane – Fast Lane

Brick Brothers, Dunedin

May 22 – June 5, 2015.

Fast Lane, Danny Brisbane’s show of recent work at Brick Brothers in Dunedin has the artist bringing out his regular rogue’s gallery of romanticised outsiders accessorised with an assortment of iconic signifiers circling around the notion of outlaw as doomed hero. The rough edged approach that Brisbane brings to his medium lends an air of urgency to these paintings although leaving the works somewhat technically unresolved. This rushed and unfinished quality in a way serves to underscore a hurried desperation for living that is thematically central to the romantic outlaw archetype. Unfortunately it feels that this rough hewn aspect is not entirely intentional. Examples of Brisbane’s drawing were displayed in a second room off the gallery space, including preparatory work for this show. These pieces indicate a certain refinement of graphic technique with the pencil which doesn’t quite translate to paint. Additionally, the drawing, for all its attempts at visual fidelity highlights the inherent problem of drawing from photographs rather than from life. There is a replication of the surface aspects of the image without an understanding of the underlying form and structure of the subject. Though there still remains a dissonance in polish between the drawn and painted work that points to a level of finish that Brisbane is aiming for but falls somewhat short of.

Regardless of the technical difficulties, each canvas remains patchwork case study of the picaresque. Cultural anti-heroes Jerry Garcia, Sonny Barger, Babe Ruth, and Lemmy Kilmister vie for screen-time with packets of cigarettes, alcohol in various forms, rattlesnakes, skulls dressed in an assortment of hats, cartoon characters, daggers, and so on all strewn across uneven fields of lurid colour. Mixed in here is a particular reverence for the American west with cowboys and Indians weaving their way through these works as a recurring motif.

The non-local and predominantly Americanised imagery that is Brisbane’s lingua franca is not necessarily as problematic as it may seem to be on first blush. Given the undeniable globally networked environment we now inhabit all culture and cultures are up for grabs and indeed, appropriation. We are all destabilised, rootless, and hyperreal where cowboys and Indians may provide a more immediately relevant cultural narrative to a New Zealander than, say, the land wars, although one may hope not. This particular fetishisation of US culture strikes as similar to that of the French New Wave in cinema, Goddard’s Breathless as a foremost example, though with much less of an ironic distance and with channel-surfing in place of the jump-cut. It is a false nostalgia generated through culturally skewed prosthetic memory; symbolist painting for a collective psyche externalised to the point where the unconscious has no interiority. Archetypes are made manifest and then denuded of the resonance.

Of course it is evident that this just the stuff that Brisbane is enjoys and into this collection of signifiers he injects an immediacy of personal narrative in scrawled diaristic remarks. These fractured notes read as part declarative confessional part self-conscious response to the subcultural narrative full of casual drug references and pithy philosophies.There is a definite scrapbook quality to these works. Images seem to be arbitrarily juxtaposed declaring an chaotic aesthetic in the specific arrangement of elements. It is the self as an aggregate of cultural references. Of course, this multiplication of image, copying the copy, is exactly the hyperreality that Brisbane’s audience are buying into.

This show is presented under the auspices of Bill Munro’s ‘Freestyle Management’, last seen shifting units for Dunedin’s enfant terrible/wunderkind of post-Basquiat Street Expressionism , Philip James Frost. Whenever an artist is attached to any kind of a hype-machine such this, even on a localised scale, one has a tendency to question, not the integrity and intentions of the artist as much as the depth of critical engagement of the audience. What is it about these images that appeals to their buyers? It is a question I am almost too afraid to ask in fear of receiving the answer, “Because it’s cool.” ‘Cool’, whatever it may mean is no longer a viable culture value. In our post-networked, subculture is just another facet of a multifarious monoculture. Perhaps Brisbane is aware of this, but that would just make things worse rendering the work as no more than cynical marketing ploy, but I believe that onus sits more heavily on the shoulders of Mr. Munro.

This work offers no answers, nor does it even pose any particularly engaging questions. The hope however remains that as still a very young painter Danny Brisbane may yet develop his omnivorous low-brow aesthetic onto more articulate associative narratives and bring to his brush work the same, at least surface polish of his pencils. As long as he doesn’t let this early success breed complacency it may be worth keeping an eye on how Brisbane’s dedication to his practice may yet kindle the spark of his intent into a more resolved and definite aesthetic statement.

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Unpublished Writing III

Patrick Lundberg, Simon Ingram, Raewyn Martyn – Field Recordings

The Physics Room, Christchurch

21 Feb – 21 Mar, 2015.

Once again I find myself facing the prospect of a contemporary project space searching for ways to tackle the particular iterations of painting practice as it exists today. Field Recordings presents the work of Patrick Lundberg, Simon Ingram, and Raewyn Martyn in three separate rooms of the gallery space, each exploring modalities of interface between exhibition space and the work as such. Whilst ostensibly a group show there is very little interaction or dialogue between these artists, each fully occupying their own space within the gallery and presenting an almost hermetically sealed display of the current state of their individual practices.

The notional title of the show, Field Recordings, however provides a key to these disparate experimental approaches to the form of painting. A field recording is at essence a description of place only very loosely filtered through technology or technique and sensibility. In their determined and total occupation of separate rooms these three artists present ‘field recordings’ in their investigation, translation, and finally reification of the gallery space. It’s all about responding to environmental context. A field recording is not what you make it’s what you get. What one gets from this show is slightly intriguing, existentially frightening, and somewhat wonderful, with those proscribed doses in equal measure.

Coming off the tail of his Francis Hodgkins Fellowship at Otago University, Lundberg’s work can be seen as an addendum to his end of residency show at Dunedin’s Hocken Library. Eight spherical elements are distributed two to a wall in an upper and lower corner of each wall of the first gallery space. Too oblique for easy close scrutiny these pieces nonetheless, with the barest gesture of structure manage to contain the entirety of the room. It is notable here how the installation encapsulates not just the raw white walls of the gallery space but also two walls of large windows. This containment of the room, the explicitly stated negotiation with the social and spatial form of the gallery also encompasses the view from these windows as a vista made microcosm. Possibly this is the strongest statement I have seen of the underlying structure that haunts the depths of Lundberg’s metaphysical conjectures.

Also looking out the window to situate the gallery in its particular neighbourhood, Simon Ingram’s painting machine in the next room actually makes use of audio field recordings for its input. Across large cardboard boxes originally housing consumer electronics and appliances the machine charts the waveform of audio derived from a directional microphone aimed across the street at the construction of a new building for Vodafone. Thick oscillating lines in deep blue oil paint are stacked across their disposable cardboard fields with a visual shimmer. Several finished pieces are staple-gunned along one wall and a couple of painted boxes are reconstructed as sculptural elements in one corner while the painting machine continues its staccato task opposite.

There is a curious evocation of time and impermanence in Ingram’s installation. The source material is determinedly gathered from a set period, the finished pieces as the record of a process anchored at another point in time, and the machine continually working at the liminal node of the present are all underscored by the disposability of the work. There is no end product here, just fragmented glimpses of a perpetual process of which the only lasting artefact will be Ingram’s digital audio files. A reminder that a field recording is a document of time as well as space.

I have heard painters speak of the spectral life of oil paint. The material as an entity in itself like some kind of demon that one can only negotiate with and never master. The machine in this light becomes something infernal, methodical and relentless and as much an angel trap as the shew stone of John Dee and Edward Kelly. A mechanised, occult horror laced with the organic scent of linseed oil. The interface ‘living’ oil paint and the soulless but animate machine invokes a peculiar kind of horror from which one can’t turn away. This isn’t any kind of a Ballardian car crash, however. There’s not enough dangerous Eros in the Thanatos for that. The restless mechanical movements of Ingram’s robot belong to the world of Survival Research Laboratories. Machines of a post-human age pantomiming the actions of their redundant creators. Where the creations of SRL play at war and Ingram’s plays at art the resulting tension is the same: human technology pointing to an uncomfortable absence of the human subject. This is how the world ends, with the bang of a staple gun and the whir of servomotors.

Where Lundberg seeks to contain the world and Ingram collapses the world into obsolesce, Raewyn Martyn wins the show with a work that occasions an ontological change in the world.  Continuing her established mode of operation of painting directly onto the exhibition site and then pulling up layers of paint to reveal its materiality, Martyn apparently worked by torchlight installing her work in the third gallery space, previously the darkened screening room. Painting on the gallery floor over a layer of cellulose Martyn then peeled back sections of paint, exposing her process and placing the work in layered liminal state between the raw room and the intercession of her practice. The false wall that had covered the rooms windows was roughly pulled down, leaving framing timber exposed and broken sheets of gib board stacked against the wall.

This half-renovated room is a subtle yet total and evocative environment. It is a space captured in a moment of transition and Martyn’s work is part camouflage and part exposure of the temporal and spatial variables of the exhibition. A deliberate and delicate presence, Martyn almost haunts the space, paused the edge of the intangible and ephemeral.

Whereas the traditional notion of field recording could be said to make the exotic familiar, here each of these three artists working in vastly modalities of painting have succeeded in rendered the familiar into something exotic. Field Recordings is a enjoyable and engaging investigation of space, time, and painting.

Unpublished Writing II

Patrick Lundberg – Draft Copy

Hocken Library, Dunedin

14 February – April 4, 2015.

The requisite culmination of a years work as the Otago University Francis Hodgkins fellow, Draft Copy presents a steady continuation of Patrick Lundberg’s established of aesthetic and working methods as part-ephemeral gesture and part-definitive statement.

The work of this show consists primarily of groups of loosely but attentively painted over-sized spherical ‘pinheads’ arranged in clusters of associative compositions. In a couple of the pieces wooden rods are interspersed with the spherical elements. This differentiation almost, but not quite, creates a sense of compositional tension that is closest to emerging in the way the rods actually disrupt a linear reading of the other elements. The spheres, if one surrenders to the inviting tendency to view the arrangements as some kind of join-the-dots puzzle, suggest in each work a linear mapping across the gallery walls. This sense is subtly emphasised by the trace of pencil marks on the wall where Lundberg has treated the gallery as a workspace.

This body of work, much like all that of Lundberg’s oeuvre that I have encountered to date, hints at his intensive interest in the history and forms of painting alongside a concern with navigating and negotiating the gallery environment as a site of metaphysical conjecture. The pencil tracings, allusions to the process of installation, underscores the manifold possibilities of his modular arrangements. The most popular work from people I spoke to on the opening night was the first in the exhibition catalogue. This work in one of the gallery’s side rooms consists of sixteen uniform monochromatic elements are placed equidistant on groups four as oblongs in each corner of the room. Each group encloses and describes the corners of the space, making one intrinsically aware of the structure of the room.

The control that Lundberg seeks in the encapsulating the exhibition space is however subverted by the already resolutely controlled archival nature of the Hocken. Here the works, as a concentration of the artist’s explicit knowledge of the history of painting, begin to take on in return an archival aspect of their own.  There is a delicate tension here between artefact and document exacerbated by the museum-like exhibition space. The artefact being a manifestation of the thing as such and document an informational place-holder for the thing. The artefact placed in a museum context becomes a document. It is removed from its original context, denuded of its inherent use value, and made a signifier for itself. As Lundberg’s works interface with the exhibition space the works themselves are re-coded and re-contextualised by the display environment.

The modularity of these pieces suggests a work that is open to rearrangement of the gallery space and a conscious negotiation of such by the artist. This notion is emphasised in the title, Draft Copy indicating the show as a provisional statement, a conjecture open to reassessment and refinement.

Ostensibly the result of one year’s solid studio practice, Draft Copy is a decidedly less than epiphanic outcome. The work is a definite consolidation of Lundberg’s practice, to be sure, but does not seem to occasion the revolution of practice that one might anticipate from a year-long fellowship. What is most striking overall, however, is the depth of focus that Lundberg brings to his incomplete forms, a concatenation of ambiguities that cannot help but suggest an overarching system that lies behind it. Overall, Lundberg presents us with the best of minimalism. That is a highly considered and tightly focussed body of work very deliberately presented, reductive in form but expansive in scope.

Unpublished Writing I

Cobi Taylor – Framing Violence


 Dowling Street Studios, Dunedin

November 18, 2014.

Despite receiving frequent counsel to the contrary I still find myself thinking quite seriously about abstract painting a great deal of the time. In occasional moments of reverie I will try on for size the cosmological conjecture that the universe is nothing more than an immensely complex machine for placing us in the presence of large-scale examples of the form. With this inherent set of aesthetic co-ordinates I was drawn from the overdetermined smugness of the Dan Arps curated Probstian Aesthetic at Blue Oyster Gallery to the more intriguing potentialities of Cobi Taylor’s collection of BVA Honours work on display at Dowling Street Studios.

Taylor had cloaked the central foyer of the studio complex with a series of sizable, mostly ashen hued canvases either un-stretched and staple-gunned to the wall or torn and hanging loose on their supports, exposing the timber frames within. The installation culminated with a kind of makeshift room assembled at the end of the space delineated by a  double sided painting stretched from wall to wall. A small window cut into this work provided a glimpse of the space beyond and invited viewers to push past this canvas like a tent flap and enter this area which proved to be more haphazard arena than temporary shelter. Taylor’s set of largest works occupied this ‘room’, covering all walls from the floor to the mezzanine space above, where through the disruption of the painted surface figurative elements clustered in a scrawl of spidery lines: riot police defined by their shields and helmets emerge as through a haze of teargas and on the facing wall protestors appeared to scatter and run through a loose wash of bruised colours.

The undoubtable influence of Anselm Kiefer casts a heavy shadow on this body of work through scale, painterly approach, political subject, and evocation of total environment. Fortunately Taylor avoids merely aping the surface style of Kiefer, no sheets of lead or broken glass here, but is more engaged with borrowing from his general operational modality. The apparent state of distress of these canvases with their orchestrated rents in surface and Frankenstien patchwork is Kiefer’s industrialised attack on materiality addressed exclusively to the stuff of painting. It is a veneration of the form not through enshrinement but through a thorough engagement with what it can do and how much it can take. A friend commented that the work was also like the best parts of James Robinson without the problematic bombast. Robinson being another (ex)local artist with the initials A.K. heavily embroidered on his sleeve with the golden thread of Margarete’s hair and consumed with the process of creation through destruction.

The politics of these works also carries allusion to Kiefer and his developments around the notion of history painting. There is a sense, however, in these images not of the historical but of the present. The figurative suggestions beneath the constellation of drips and expressionist splatters could be taken from any contemporary news source reporting on the skirmishes of the Fourth World War in the front lines of the developed nations. The lack of specificity allows a generalised approach to the work and its environmental scale provides a haptic space for activation of the moral imagination but pulls short on emotional punch. This could be history painting for tomorrows headlines although in that carries the vagueness of prophecy with its inherent escape clauses of interpretation.

It is unsurprising that Taylor was a recipient of the New Zealand Emerging Artist Award earlier this year for a work addressing the Christchurch earthquake. This is the only work that comes close to snatching a fragment of Kiefer’s catastrophic lyricism with its personal access to our nations most immediate mass tragedy. The lingering riot imagery is familiar yet distant, the streets of New Zealand lacking this kind of theatre since the Springbok tour of 1981. Nevertheless, this figurative starting point is a hook upon which some intriguing painting has been hung.

Taylor shows an obvious command for the fluidity of her medium drawing a strong intentionality from the chance inflected processes of drip and splatter. The most apparent leitmotif is the terminal end of the paint drip, as much explosion of impact as pointillist dot. This coupled with her minimal palette of predominant greys suggests a loss of image fidelity through serial mechanical reproduction – a smudged newsprint photograph over-enlarged and cheaply photocopied too many times. It is an effective tactic in service of her purposeful deterioration of imagery in pursuit of new visual fields. The work is subverted only by a certain weakness in the drawing of her underlying figuration and a forced quality to some the distressed canvases, seeming in places more store-bought ripped jeans than Fontana. Overall the interplay of form and field destabilised and reconfigured into a state semi-coherence carrying allusions of an underlying structure places the viewer in point of reconsideration that lingers beyond the immediate presence of the work.

It is easy to misread works in a large format as a shorthand for ambition but the determination of Taylor’s technique, the acknowledged negotiation of influence, and the apparent willingness of her work to be political rather than merely speak to the political point to an artist coming out of the gates with all the potential to be a serious contender.

Art may indeed still survive its ruins.