Friday 11 December 2009

Avoiding the obvious

One of the few reasons I regret not living in Auckland is that Michael Parekowhai doesn't have a Wellington dealer. So a recent trip north has timed to coincide with Parekowhai's new show at Michael Lett Gallery, The Moment of Cubism.

Michael Parekowhai, The Moment of Cubism - installation view, 2009, Michael Lett Gallery

Parekowhai has, since the outset, made incredibly interpretable work.

Michael Parekowhai, Kiss the baby good-bye (The Maquette), c. 1994, Christchurch Art Gallery

As with Shane Cotton, writers and art historians have delighted in unpacking and unravelling all the signifiers in the works, in a kind of cryptic crossword fashion. This has certainly held true with John Hurrell's review of 'The Moment of Cubism' (and subsequent reader comments).

What I admire about Parekowhai - and what keeps me intrigued - is the distance he places between himself and the interpretation of his work. Sometimes it almost seems he's taunting the interpretors with traps baited with art historical quotations and cultural references - although this implies more time and effort being devoted to the cause than I imagine really is.

The themes that to my mind reoccur across Parekowhai's works are:

  • immaculate construction
  • puzzling yet awesome titles
  • experiments with scale
  • realism (often subverted)
  • art-historical/cultural references (I'm as fallible as everyone else, you know)

When you look at the body of work in this way, objects as disparate as taxidermied sparrows and up-sized Wedgewood bookends hook together in a way that makes you hunger for a survey show.

Thinking about The Moment of Cubism, the first of Parekowhai's works that came to mind was My Sister, My Self (coincidentally, part of the last show Parekowhai had at Michael Lett's, in June 2007 - it's been a while between drinks).

Michael Parekowhai, My Sister, My Self, 2006, Christchurch Art Gallery

The Moment of Cubism shares the blow-it-up-big approach to domestic tchotchkes. But the next set of work I thought of was The Consolation of Philosophy, the photographic series from 2001.

Michael Parekowhai, Boulogne, 2001, Michael Lett Gallery

Part of this is purely aesthetic, of course; the creamy tints of the elephants and the deer sculptures in The Moment of Cubism calling to mind the Crown Lynn vases in The Consolation of Philosophy. The Consolation of Philosophy is relatively easy to 'read' (flower arrangements named after major engagements in which the Maori Battalion fought in WWII) - but only once you've been given that information. Like the pieces in The Moment of Cubism, the photographs hold themselves aloof.

The Moment of Cubism comprises two new pieces of work - the cast bronze lemon trees and palette and Te Ao Hurihuri, the elephant sculptures - and a piece shown earlier this year at Roslyn Oxley's, Seldom is Herd (punniest MP title yet?). In Sydney, Seldom is Herd was accompanied by The Brothers Grimm - ten little 'Indian' boys.

Michael Parekowhai, Seldom is Herd (installation view), 2009, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Ten little Indians refers back to a counting song for small kids, and it suddenly occurred to me as I was looking through these images that this is a connection back to the Atarangi works, based on Cuisenaire rods, used to teach children about relationships between numbers and more recently employed as a tool for teaching te reo.

Michael Parekowhai, Atarangi II, 2005, Te Tuhi

According to the Roslyn Oxley press release, the little Indians are modelled on Parekowhai's sons. If I recall correctly, these kids have played Indians before - in Steve Carr's 2004 film, Cowboys and Indians. [Or do I have this completely wrong?]

Anyway. Michael Parekowhai is a smart smart guy, and he likes to fool around with us viewers. Relax and enjoy it. If this show doesn't put him into the next Walters Prize, I'll be a donkey's uncle. Go see it (on til 23 January 2010)

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