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July 7, 2008 | by  | in Visual Arts | [ssba]

Don’t be a Dick in the Engine Room

In May five Massey University students curated the painting exhibition ‘Don’t be a Dick’ at the Engine Room, which also included photography, video installation and sculpture. Apparently painting in a university context, anyway, now includes other media. Which makes this exhibition more engaging.

The exhibition’s presentation is to be commended: works were placed in a good walk-through order from the entrance. The show had echoes from an “exhibition for grown-ups” from the Auckland Art Gallery in 2005 titled ‘Mixed-Up Childhood’ – perhaps not surprising given that a number of Lecturers from this institution were in the exhibition. Yet this exhibition focused specifically on secondary school, given the probable age demographic of the artists present.

What we remember from our experiences from those formalistic days is quite mixed and this was evident in ‘Don’t be a Dick’. The school playground and open spaces were evident in a number of photographic works, whereas in the central part of the room was a wooden hut structure, a shelter from the sun. On the wall at the back of the room there were those objects that were an essential part of the school experience placed with other memorabilia, such as the school desk and the schoolbag. The desk was placed towards us from the bottom, which was etched with the words Jazz Sux Shit, giving us some indication of what school department it existed in and the opinion of a student!

A suitcase is placed in a corner reminding one of boarding school; for some, another rite of passage.

These are literal, concrete memories of that experience. On the other hand there were works that were more abstract, such as the sculptured screaming head. Or the video work that presents in a humorous way the angst that those years can bring. There are also representations of two white sheets on the wall, representing someone else’ school experience.

Is there something remiss with painting at this institution? Largely the painting was pretty much unexciting and came across as rather weak. Which, one can suppose, is why other media were included in the exhibition. Two paintings with a bluish background were over glazed and presented on crude canvas. There was another small painting of a girl’s face looking either quite shy or depressed. The image can give a number of readings. Which is quite nice, but technically it is not rather challenging. Another work that involved three shields or crest shapes was also rather crude and one could not help but be reminded of a fourth form Chilton Saint James school art project. The crests represent the fact that schools have to inspire collective unity, coupled with a motto of some sort. In some ways I am drawn to the motto from Wainuiomata College, before its closure, for this show – ‘Effort Brings Reward’.

The College of Creative Arts touts itself pretty much as conceptual in ideology which seems to have placed painting on the margins in the institutional hierarchy and has lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of this art form. This exhibition is a mirror of what this institution is seeking to portray. Given the level of restructuring that has occurred over the last number of years, the question is what direction does this College of Creative Arts intend to develop in, and is this the best direction for its students? To cite a Russian proverb, ‘A fish begins to rot from the head’.

Institutional art of this nature has been under a reasonable amount of pressure that has led to a considerable amount of retraction and belt tightening over the last couple of years with restructuring at a number of tertiary institutions throughout the country. The impact that this has had on staff has been quite severe. This surely must have a filtering down affect with ideas being taught to the students becoming dated or stale. Yet this exhibition intends to show that this is not quite the case, and that creativity continues unabated in its various guises.


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