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October 15, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

Comparing Notes

Art is a fickle thing, and the ways in which a work can impact upon someone are many and disparate. This week as a farewell to the year’s Visual Arts program in Salient, Robert Kelly and Todd Atticus have provided a piece of commentary on one work. They have not discussed the work together or seen what the other has written. Commentary is an act of subjectivity. If it wasn’t, then the whole business would take on a very beige tone.

Rob Kelly

Billy Apple is one of the real heavyweights in New Zealand’s art narrative, one of the names which many people recognise and revere. He was a player in the pop art scene, has exhibited all over the world and influenced many modern artists now working in new mediums. But I cannot for the life of me work out why.

It seems to me that Apple’s career is predicated on a joke, and an extremely clever one at that. In the 80’s Apple struck
a deal with critic and commentator Hamish McKay, Hamish would pay for lunch when Billy visited Wellington and in return he would receive an artwork free of charge. The work which resulted out of this transaction is called ‘Lunches’ and is a small work consisting of a vivid black background and beautifully type- faced message inscribed in white which reads “Lunches, a barter between Billy Apple and Hamish McKay”.

Ahh yes, very good Mr. Apple. How dry. All personal angst against the artist aside, this is a visually striking work. The clear contrasts between the green and gold gives a tonal depth to the piece which captures the eye but also manages to maintain appeal. It has an ageless quality, an imperial flavour. Whether that is simply my reaction to the use of gold or a result of the clear and marked composition of the piece, it allows the work to dominate the space it is placed in. Currently hanging in the Art History department in the Old Kirk building it draws the eye from across the open space. But accompanying its imposing nature is the text itself. It is from the collection, part of the cultural tapestry of the university. To my eye it is now part and parcel of the department, integral to it.

This is why I find Apple so interesting. Every fibre of me wants to hate him, his approach is snide, sarky and occasionally downright rude. But it works, and it continues to force me evaluate the way I approach the methodologies of art production and critique.

So thanks Billy A, I think.

Todd Atticus

Billy Apple is a chameleon—not the title of a children’s picture book but a statement of fact. For an artist who has made his name from not blending in, this might appear a damning indictment. In reality, all conceptual artists are chameleons. Unshackled as they are from the weight of strict personal aesthetics, they are free to pick and choose the most appropriate physical rendering for their ideas.

From the V.U.W. Art Collection is a perfect demonstration of Apple’s invisibility. Bold white text displays the painting’s title, punctuated only by gold full stops and dark green background. Compared with many artworks it is an incredibly perfunctory
object. There is nothing in its physicality or composition that admits the artist’s presence. Even the colours relinquish a discernible authorship, being but the colour set of Victoria University itself.

Like Apple, American conceptual artist John Baldassari has spent an entire career in hiding. Baldessari’s 1966 piece, A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation, is just one exercise in working at a remove. A white primed canvas is adorned with simple black lettering detailing the work’s own genesis, manufacture, and exhibition. Each time the piece is exhibited, its display is added underneath. The work even includes a helpful tip for any gallery that exhibits it: “FOR EXTRA SPACE USE ADDITIONAL CANVAS”. As of October 2010, the one canvas has become six.

As Baldessari demonstrates, conceptual art isn’t necessarily a dry occupation. Apple’s work is also often deeply humorous, frequently critiquing art making and consumption. From the V.U.W. Art Collection is a pointed remark. In choosing conceptualism, Apple has relinquished the importance of painting. In choosing a painted canvas to make this deliberately mundane gesture he lightly mocks the medium by showing it up for all its staid, obsolete qualities.

Billy Apple is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


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