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March 6, 2006 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Here my Roar

IT’S A JUNGLE IN THERE Sian Torrington
Roar! gallery

ROAR! gallery was unfortunately not included in my ‘Art in Welly’ list. Not intentionally, but mainly because sometimes I rant on and I ran out of words. This gallery, recently moved from Vivian Street, can be found right on top of Real Groovy on Abel Smith Street (I’ve provided a handy photograph). So next time you are sifting through the stacks at Groovy, it is well worth a visit upstairs to check out some of the art on offer in this small but interesting space.

Two exhibitions are on at the moment. The first, Kay Morgan’s ‘Iconoclast’, is a highly symbolic collection of oil paintings. Morgan’s works deal overtly with religion, politics, gender, and environmental issues. The artist challenges religious hegemonies by re-contextualising religious and secular figures and examining their meaning. In one work Jesus is shown carefree and dancing with one of the artist’s dead friends, not martyred, festooned with a crown of thorns, or in his usual white garb. In doing so, the artist subverts traditional patriarchal religions. Religions which, the artist writes, ‘dominate world dialogue because they are driven by an imperialistic imperative and use myth to maintain their power’. Morgan goes on to compare and contrast them with more matriarchal, particularly pagan, belief systems, ie ‘Animism, Earth-centered Creationism, Paganism, Pantheism, Polytheism’, clearly favouring this group.

This bias is no more evident than in Brethren at the First Supper of the New Age. Morgan puts side-by-side two dinner scenes reminiscent of da Vinci’s famous Last Supper. On one half of the canvas there is a misogynist feast of debauchery and masculine egotism, figures who, in the eyes of the artist, are responsible for the bulk of violence, religious intolerance and abuse of culture and religion. ‘Monotheistic religion’, writes the artist, ‘as practiced (and that’s what counts; not the theory) is a bloke-thing, it seems to me’. On the other half, Morgan depicts in soft blues and greens a harmonious collection of women of pagan religion, intent on creating, not destroying, shown accepting and open to difference and change.

Now, the poet James Brown once talked to a creative writing workshop and warned us eager young poets of the ‘overdone’ poem, the poem whose message is conveyed too heavily, too self-consciously, that puts itself all out there and keeps nothing to itself. This is what I found with most of Morgan’s works. They keep nothing to themselves. In many ways I am interested and sympathetic to the artist’s blatant message of acceptance, feminism, and rejection of patriarchal religious hegemony, but there are subtler and softer ways in which to convey them, ways that don’t leap off the canvas and hit you over the head with a rolling pin.

The elaborate wall texts which accompanied the paintings further contributed to the feeling that I was being talked to like I was a five year old. They are long, and explain down to the smallest detail the symbolic elements and intentions of the artist. Wall texts are problematic. It’s hard to maintain a balance between explaining an artwork and preaching too much, dictating what people are to see and where they are to see it. In ‘Iconoclast’ they err to much on the side of dictatorial, and even though we can already see that the works are highly symbolic, the explanations spell this out to us and in turn make the paintings even more heavy handed.

My friend just read that last paragraph and said ‘you’re just jealous because she stole your job’. And maybe this is the case. My role as the critic is to write about art in an eloquent and interesting manner, but also to reveal things, pick apart obscure artworks, and engage with work in a way which may not at first be evident. When there is such an elaborate and involved wall text, I am rendered somewhat redundant. So perhaps this exhibition just made me bitter. But, when the art is as superficial as this then there is only so much ‘revealing’ that I am able to do, as most of it is pretty evident on first glance.

In comparison to the surface quality of ‘Iconoclast’, the other exhibition at ROAR! gallery- ‘It’s a Jungle in There’ by artist Sian Torrington, is a layered and enchanting work. This installation is tucked around the corner from the main gallery, in a small alcove and is fully suited to its site. Torrington has filled the space, the walls, floor, and ceiling, with carefully cut paper. This hangs down, curls round, and clutters up the small recess. The paper, mostly coloured green, black, or white, has been cut into various shapes and patterns, some reminiscent of plant forms, as is suggested in its tangled, vine-like, arrangement (and the title of the installation), but some form intriguingly unidentifiable shapes. Many of the repeated symbols are reminiscent of Richard Killeen’s cut-outs, some recognizable, others not of any discernable ‘real’ object. The cut outs are hard to explain, you’ll have to go and see them, but the artist has cleverly arranged the sections of paper which are the blanks with those that form the outlines, so that it is hard to tell what is supposed to function as what. Spaces and solidity are complicated and confused. Sections which at first appear to be holes become the outlines of others, and vice versa. The viewer is unsure what is supposed to signify, and what is supposed to be negative space. I found this almost semiotic trickery most appealing.

Scattered amongst the papery jungle are bits of decoration, beads, tassels, and detritus, an old glass bottle, and in the corner a slightly creepy merry-go-round horse. The amassing of this odd assortment, strewn among the paper foliage, brings to mind the shambolic collection of an old closet or a forgotten drawer. The tid-bits we pick up and unconsciously carry around with us, all the while surrounded by the insidious creeping of nature and time.

Through Torrington’s wonderful contrast of media, found objects, paper, cardboard, pencil, coloured pencil, shiny beads, the installation questions the way in which value is placed on certain materials and ‘explores the boundary between rubbish and treasure’. My flatmate loves going out to the dump in Porirua where she can fossick through ‘Trash Palace’, the shop where things which are thrown out by some people can be purchased for next to nothing and taken home by the new happy owner. One person’s annoying crap is often someone else’s prized possession. This kind of interaction is subtly suggested in ‘It’s a Jungle out There’, which questions how and where we place worth by scattering unexpectedly junk-like objects amongst the clutter of green.

Torrington’s predominant use of paper gives the installation a certain ephemeral quality. Paper isn’t a solid, stable material. It rustles and flutters, is easily crumpled up, destroyed and thrown away. Not the usual material with which to create art to stand the test of time. Indeed, ‘It’s a Jungle in There’ is not concerned with posterity. It is neither an extroverted display of artistic conviction, nor does it make the social, political, or environmental claims of its companion exhibition. Instead it is quiet. The manipulated paper explores the room in a timid, introspective way, creeping delicately across the walls. Torrington is interested in the isolation of art makers and the paths that the mind wanders when it is alone. When read in this light, the symbols in the installation become signs of the unconscious infiltrating, and finding form in the outer world. ‘This show’ writes Torrington, ‘in congruence with ROAR! gallery’s focus on outsider art, works with an idea that making art can be equated with making and exploring a world of one’s own.’

This is very much the sense that one gets when exploring this installation, partially because of the physically small space of its site, but ultimately because there is something personal in the intricate webs of paper, and the way in which they fade in and out like memory, like dreams.


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