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February 20, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Art is Hard

Why hello there! Welcome to the visual art pages for Salient 2006.What a momentous occasion this is. I would like to commend all readers who have now reached the fifth sentence, good work, it’s much more attention than most people pay to this section of Salient. To be realistic nobody reads about the visual arts with much dedication or interest. The only time that the visual arts tend to appear in the mainstream media is when a piece has sold for a record amount of money. Once I was taking a stroll around Te Papa and overheard some guy in front of McCahon’s monumental work Walk (Series C). He didn’t say ‘what an interesting mix of Catholic and Maori spirituality’ or even ‘wow, this really moves me’, but ‘I wonder how much they shelled out for this’.

These pages operate in a sort of grey area. The visual arts definitely aren’t as much a part of popular culture as film, music or books. The editors of those pages will no doubt get numerous people contributing reviews and writing throughout the year. But I shall soldier on boldly alone, guilt tripping a few friends to review a show now and then.

I was talking to a friend the other day about art, and why it is that the only people who read these pages are the occasional art history student, or someone in a lecture so deadly boring that it requires a more thorough perusal of Salient. It was, he decided, because most contemporary art was too hard. Music can be put on in the background, the films which dominate our movie screens are generally light hearted escapism, and inane authors such as Marian Keys are regularly cited in top 100 book lists. We don’t like to be confronted by obscure and abstract contemporary art on a Thursday evening, we like to watch Survivor instead.

Maybe I’m just being pessimistic. But I do think that most people have a problem with contemporary art practice because they hold some problematic and outdated preconceptions.

Number one: the majority of people think that art should be pretty. I’m always having this argument with my dad, where he claims that art’s main objective should be to make you “gasp with beauty”. But, I argue, whether or not something is aesthetically pleasing or not is entirely open to debate and what one person enjoys is obviously not going to be the same as what a different person likes to look at. And if that was all art was required to do then I would have very little to write about this year. Art should not only appeal to us visually but also raise questions about numerous other things, history, politics, religion, why we live the way we do, and where we are in the world. Artists are not the isolated, solitary figures estranged from the world that popular myth portrays them as. They are real people living and working in the same environment that we are, confronted and challenged by the same societal pressures and contemporary problems. Nowadays, art also often becomes self-reflective and critical, questioning the concept of ‘art’ itself and challenging the institutions which house our ‘national treasures’. It is at times like these that a little bit of art historical knowledge goes a long way. It’s easy for me to sit here after having done many years of art history and chortle in an irritatingly knowing way at the opening sequence of Desperate Housewives. But what can I say, art is hard. Get over it. It’s not going to roll over and let you scratch its belly. It’s not going to sound like Jack Johnson and it’s not going to be colby cheese (the most bland and tasteless of all the family of cheeses). It’s going to make you work for it, and art which does so becomes so much more interesting and rewarding. Seriously.

Number two: most people think that art should take lots of hard work to create, and this hard work should be obvious to the viewer. People who don’t normally go for contemporary art seem to like the work of Shane Cotton, for example. Cotton’s most well known pieces are detailed acrylic paintings, rich in symbolism and layered with delicate landscapes and text. Maybe it’s because much of his art is made up of numerous small elements, carefully crafted in paint, that we can see that he’s put in some effort, not covered a canvas in unmodulated colour like some abstract artists such as Stephen Bambury. This idea of ‘work’ has been picked apart and refuted by innumerable artists. Conceptual art is not so much about the end product, or the object which is exhibited, but about the idea behind it, the ‘concept’ if you will. Much contemporary art disregards the aesthetically appealing work of ‘art’, but is more about creating a framework of ideas which the viewer can engage with and respond to. All the way back in 1917, Marcel Duchamp (heaps of issues in the art world today can be traced to clever ol’ Duchamp, he was somewhat of a trend setter) placed a urinal in an art gallery, entirely removing any kind of traditional ‘work’ and suggesting that our concept of ‘art’ is reliant on context, particularly that of the art gallery.

Number three: lots of people get intimidated by galleries, think that there’s one right answer to art and get grumpy when they can’t figure it out. We don’t generally like what we don’t understand. What last year’s controversy over et al.’s piece for the Venice Biennale showed is that people expect art to lay itself bare, to reveal itself and give up its answer. And when it doesn’t they write irate letters to the Dominion Post proclaiming contemporary art practice as a snobbish and self-indulgent enterprise. The advice I would give to remedy this situation is to trust yourself and be confident in your ability to engage with and interpret art work. Everyone’s opinion is valid and most art doesn’t even have an answer. Many pieces of contemporary art are often created and defined by your interaction with them. Your role as the spectator is integral. Even a response such as “this is f****** bullshit” is legitimate. But you will say that less and less the more art that you expose yourself to, and the more you open your mind to acts of artistic expression.

My role as the critic is also important, if not a little complicated. I should write reviews which interest you, and also hopefully use my skill as an art historian to reveal things in art which at first might not be so apparent. But my writing is by no means the last word. Art which is centuries old continues to be reworked and reinterpreted by critics and intellectuals working today. That’s the great thing about art, it is so open and multifaceted, it’s just waiting for you, begging even, for you to come and have your say.

So, I’ve convinced you to spend you to spend your Saturday afternoon checking out some art around town. Excellent. We are spoilt for choice in Wellington so let’s get to it:

Te Papa proclaims itself as our National Museum and is supposed to be representative of the artistic activity of New Zealand. This is a sad state of affairs really, because it rarely puts on a critical or illuminating art exhibition but mostly caters for the masses with bland travelling blockbuster shows. I don’t like going there because I invariably get lost as the place is so damn confusing.

The City Gallery is the other obvious choice for an afternoon’s gallery going. Given that the City Gallery has none of its own collections its angle is to hold several temporary exhibitions from well known New Zealand and international artists each year.

We have an art gallery right on campus! This is news to some of you I know. But it’s a true story. Right next to the Union building the Adam Art Gallery is sandwiched into a funny space which used to be a staircase. I love the Adam. It is an unusual space which makes demands of both its curators and artists alike. It has a variety of different shows on throughout the year, and the best thing about it is that you can nip in between lectures.

Straying off the beaten track somewhat there are some smaller galleries which exhibit less well known artists. Enjoy Public Art Gallery can be found on Cuba Street, across the road from Krazy Lounge and up some stairs. Enjoy exhibits a variety of artists, from the newly graduated to more established figures. Enjoy, as its slogan says, is ‘freed from commercial constraints’, in that it doesn’t sell any of the art it shows, making it one of the few art spaces in Welly purely for discussion and experimentation

Massey University, given that there are innumerable artists swarming around there going to class, is also a great place to go and check out some art. Litmus is a space designed for new work, and hosts a number of ‘context dependent and temporary’ projects throughout the year. Also at Massey, The Engine Room is run by the fourth year students of the School of Fine Arts and is an art space dedicated to ‘emerging and established artists from New Zealand and overseas.’

Another option, of course, is to take a tour of the dealer galleries around town. These places are obviously open for viewers who don’t have the bling to go splashing out on art left, right, and centre, so feel free to have a look at what they have on display. Among these are Bartley Nees Gallery, which moved last year to Blair Street, the Hamish McKay Gallery which can be found at 128 Featherston St, and the Peter McLeavey Gallery is on Cuba, up the same flight of stairs to get to Enjoy and on the same landing.

I haven’t put down all the galleries in Wellington, and I’ve run out of words. But hopefully I’ll be able to introduce you to all of them by the end of the year, by which time you’ll all be super art savvy and hobnobbing it with the best of them.


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