Monday 3 August 2009

Down south

It feels like a long time ago now, but the Wednesday before last I went down to Christchurch for the opening of the Ronnie van Hout, Seraphine Pick and et al shows at Christchurch Art Gallery.

It's a great piece of programming. I think Pick's work will bring people into the gallery, but my guess is that it will be et al's that's obvious! that's right! that's true! that stays with them the longest.

(In a side note, I had wondered before seeing the show whether Justin Paton would be able to successfully pull off another van Hout show so soon after the big DPAG survey show. I was proved wrong - I think there's only one work included which was in the previous show, and the activity book is inspired. It's a light-hearted piece of publishing, and if you pass it by you lose nothing. But if you pick it up and use it in the gallery it adds a second layer to your visit, a bit of gamesmanship from van Hout that double-exposes all the gags, tricks, evasions and non-senses in the works.)

The Pick show is an extremely comprehensive survey of her paintings from art school to this year. In fact, it's possibly too comprehensive, and I look forward to see the scaled-down version that will come to City Gallery Wellington. In any other New Zealand gallery I think the experience would have simply been overwhelming, but the soaring stud of the CAG's temporary galleries and some clever hanging mitigated this.

I heard some people rumbling that they wished they could see the paintings at the top of the two big groupings of works more clearly, but this didn't bother me. This may have been because the wall of watercolours and drawings reminded me of my favorite experience of Pick's work, her 2005 show at Michael Lett's, which, with its walls covered in small, fragmentary and seemingly half-finished works, evoked the intimacy of the studio and the joy of riffling through drawers and forgotten piles.

Anyway - back to that's obvious! that's right! that's true! Visiting the gallery the morning after the opening, I was surprised by how many people were in the show. There's this impression that et al's work is difficult - something only experienced arty types should dare to tackle, like an artistic Everest. But standing in the installation and watching other visitors, I realised that while the work may be hard to make sense of, experiencing it is effortless. I felt rebuffed, intrigued, nervous when forced to mount the scaffolding, wrong when I tried to avoid it. We were all drawn into a tangle of words and signs and sounds and small, heavy details.

Installations that rely this heavily on physical experience are so hard to describe in words. A series of beautiful photographs on the et al website help a little. Best of all, this is the first time I've seen a NZ-based art site use a Creative Commons licence, which makes me feel I can reproduce two of the images here without fear of a take-down notice.

Installation views et al's
that's obvious! that's right! that's true! 2009 at the Christchurch Art Gallery. Reproduced from the et al website.

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