By Mark Amery
Wanganui has a new mayor and there’ll be no one happier than the city’s Sarjeant Gallery, who Michael Laws made things difficult for early in his reign. Yet I’m pleased to relate, on the evidence of a visit this week, the gallery appears to be in rude health.
Currently showing is a much due survey show for ceramicist Ann Verdcourt which deserves a good national touring life and, employing the great gallery collection, curators Greg Donson and Damian Skinner have also curated an intelligent yet cheeky group show, Colour, lightly placing objects from the Wanganui Museum’s collection next to artwork, exhibited across both institutions.
An even better reason for a visit is the first solo exhibition in a public gallery of Wellington photographer Andrew Ross, of images taken during a residency at The Tylee Cottage in 2009. Ross is known in the Capital for his documentation with an old large format camera of soon-to-be-lost buildings, and the social and work communities that inhabit them. In Wanganui he finds his perfect intact habitat. The city remains a joy of historic dilapidated wooden, stone and brick buildings that have escaped progress’s sledgehammer, with equally character filled independent artistic communities and independent businesses inside them.
Ross avoids the tarted up shop fronts, to train his camera instead on the jumble of shapes that make up buildings’ back ends, or industrial historic architectural oddities that reveal in their surfaces rich, odd histories. Ross also takes great portraits of people comfortable in their own skins and surroundings. Portraits that manage to be formal as well as relaxed, expressing a quiet empathy with his subjects. Thirdly, he depicts the small local workspaces and social clubs that have managed to survive global capitalism’s swoop.
Ross likes showing that behind the glossy surface we use to hide things, society maintains a messier and livelier continuity between present and past. Spaces where objects and additions pile up on top of each other, never quite replacing what has gone before. Often there is the sense of the photograph as a chamber of past and present, full of windows, doors and fireplaces, some open, some shut, some blocked up, and some just starting to let the light back in.
A ticklish intelligent humour is often present to break up any documentary reverence. A Baxter poster on a writer’s wall talks to a shop’s monkey logo out the window. A quaint old corner dairy called The Pylon is framed through the enormous struts of the pylon it is named after. There is recognition that culture is always subverted by a subculture. A doorway at the old Native Land Court has an upside down hand-drawn sign for a ‘Monster Raffle’ propped above it. Equally Ross upsets the perspective we expect a photograph to take on the world.
As a documentary project Ross’s exhibition is a treat for Wanganui in terms of peeking round corners residents never would otherwise. Indeed they’re getting what Wellington has long deserved but still not had.
Laurence Aberhart’s images of such quirky historic sites as the Masonic Lodge and Savage Club in 1986 on residency are revisited by Ross, but he adds a whole series of unexpected others, like music venue the Stink Magnetic Club and the Gonville Croquet Club. In the latter a giant statue of the Virgin Mary, complete with barbed wire headband and fluffy angel’s halo at its feet, sits next to the honours board, and bits of board propped up against the wall. A tribute to a New Zealand patched-together visual vernacular we’re in danger of forgetting.
The beauty of a great Ross photograph is the way, in what others might see a collapsing grotty mess, he can find a complex lively visual order that places layers of history into conversation. Clever interplays between line, light and form - as if the image were a carefully constructed painting - meet unexpectedly animated objects. In a hall in Waverley extension cords perform a bizarre elegant journey to a Zip, while a gaggle of disparate battered teapots seem to be ganging up on one lone other, its spout turned to the wall. Ross with a camera is a ready-made installation artist.
I’ve previously called Andrew Ross a painter with light, but he often uses it sharply, or finds other ways to animate surface dullness. In a golden light shot of Tawa Street the shade cuts an artificial mountain range line across the face of buildings due for demolition. On the left side of the image the word ‘swim’ is matched by a large painted circle. It looks like a red button demanding to be pushed.
Given their arresting nature Ross takes images you think you would have taken. Except you haven’t. His eye proves differently intently trained. Take the final image in the exhibition, the only one of the river. It’s an extraordinary bucolic yet unconventional and unsentimental scene of clouds, water and trees, punctuated in the foreground by the remains of an old wharf. A local photographer tells me with amazement that he lives close by to this scene but has never thought to photograph it.
Curator Greg Donson gets the shape of this generous exhibition just right. Each photograph can absorb a lot of time, and while you could pick the eyes out of the show to make a smaller stunner, every image holds its place in a nicely paced document of a Wanganui most people never see.
Round and About Wanganui, 72 Photographic Studies by Andrew Ross, Sarjeant Gallery, until 12 December