Mark Amery considers an exhibition where both the subjects and the viewers are left red in the face.
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In an exhibition a social theme can bind disparate artwork together beautifully. It provides a way in for people, whilst giving the art an edge to play off. I’m surprised New Zealand public galleries don’t make more use of them. While Adam Art Gallery are consistently an exception, generally there’s way too much timidity around connecting the work of our artists to the world in this way.
You don’t get much more complex and potent than feelings of guilt and shame. These are the subjects of Through the Keyhole at Enjoy Gallery, featuring two New Zealand artists Edith Amutuanai and Claire Harris and one Dutch, Erwin Olaf. This is a small group exhibition in a small project space that could be in a big one. Yet the intimacy of the space and exhibition suit the personal nature of the subject. Both the work’s subjects and you, the viewer, end up redfaced at different times. It leaves you pondering the power in our lives of these feelings.
In a gallery devoted principally to development opportunities, particularly for emerging artists, this is what has become almost an annual programming exception at Enjoy where the gallery director gets to show off their curatorial chops. Perhaps we can allow Claudia Arozqueta the indulgence of featuring work by Amituanai, who has been well represented in galleries nationally (including here before), and Olaf an advertising and gallery photographer of international note, on the basis that the trio of artists work in a dance with each other so well (Harris is the younger local).
The two photographers both stage intense dramatic domestic tableau. Sharp lighting and hidden faces helping amplify the monumentality of emotion through gesture and situation. The rich detail of their home backdrops is left open to study and the delicacy of body language carries the story. Both artists are storytellers fitting a grand figurative painting tradition, where you don’t need to hear sound to appreciate what’s going on. The work is as mannered and stylish as it is also human and natural.
Counterpointed are two distinct contemporary cultures: the wealthy, cool, spare, highly designed elegance of the Dutch, and the more crowded and poorer yet warmer and more personalised New Zealand-Samoan. Paired the works help you consider the difference between guilt and shame. Through group scenes in Amituanai’s work, shame is shown to be that felt in not meeting the expectations of others before them. While in Olaf’s images, guilt is shown as that faced by the individual alone - photographed, in emotional knots, in their own worlds.
Olaf’s work has all the veneer of fashion photography. Yet the emotion nuanced from every wrinkle in clothing is exquisite, and settings of patterned wallpaper and wood emphasise the mental labyrinths his young subjects are in. The Amituanai works, from early in her career, are more uneven.
The exhibition title comes from a contrivance I felt Olaf could do without. We peep through a keyhole in an actual door to observe two films of mother and son - as if we were a peeping tom looking in from outside the window. The work is strong enough to not need such cute museum crowd-pleasing effects. These are beautifully staged films. Our guilt for peeping echoes the shame of the boy (for what, as in Amituanai’s work, we don’t know) and the guilt we also sense is being held by the woman. There is a gentleness in the way these films emphasise how we all carry guilt around with us.
With her performances to camera Claire Harris is the icebreaker in-between the stillness and solemnity of the other two, recognising that humour, shame, and self-harm are all connected. The older work Nicholas Girls is a terrific pushing of relationship between viewer and subject (the latest work Big Hell by contrast didn’t carry for me). At first Harris, blinking uncomfortably at us may seem the one ashamed by inadequacy, prepared to be the butt of jokes. Yet she owns the camera, tells the jokes and, in a surprise assault, rushes towards us, with a flash lifts up her skirt, and rubs herself up against us. Laughter is the first reaction. You could say this girl has no shame.
- Through the Keyhole. Enjoy Gallery, until 21 September
Last day of a beautiful group abstract installation with an intelligent, poetic lightness of touch with textures and materials, in interaction with a stripped back vacant commercial space.
- Light Perceptions, until 18 September, Corner of Webb Street and Torrens Terrace