Mark Amery considers the potential of re-presenting collected artwork in our private galleries in a visit to Wellington gallery The Young.
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An artwork made the hairs stand up on end somewhere on my body this week. I was at a private collection show in the charming gallery The Young, set in an old wood paneled Victorian home, up on Wellington’s Mount Victoria.
The work in question was the late Don Driver’s ‘Natural Product’ from 1992. The work has the material static electrical charge of hair. A brush broom made of natural materials, possibly of Pacific Island origin hangs on a piece of rough hessian sacking - as reminiscent in this context of 1970s gallery cladding as of agriculture. Driver works like this are bristly, almost spikey in their visceral effect. They ask you to mentally pick up an implement and consider new thought actions with the collaged items.
It took a while to realise that my reaction was deep seated. I had seen and been struck by the work in a different time of my life and a different context, more than 15 years ago. It was the opening exhibition of the One Eye Gallery in Paekakariki run by painter Gary Freemantle. Then the work spoke to the character of a rough historic old factory, now swept clean as an art and community space. It was at a time when I was finding a community myself to belong to in my now home village, 30 minutes north of Wellington on the Kapiti Coast. Getting grounded, Driver’s work reminded me.
Strong artwork has this ongoing currency, taking on new meaning for people over the years as its context changes, but returning us to our memories. This is something the exhibition LIKE at The Young, an ever-changing presentation of work from private collections speaks to. In a character-filled space itself in Wellington the work responds also to a charged new space.
We have not been strong in New Zealand of late of representing our art history in different ways. While the job of private galleries is principally that of presenting artists’ new work, our public galleries I would argue have become increasingly shy of exploring new ways to present artists and work that are of the recent past. We forget too soon. In the impulse to show the latest and most interesting new practice, whole swathes of artists of excellence get squeezed out of attention. Even the diversity of the work of some our most well known artists get forgotten in the desire to show big iconic works. Art history becomes tamed.
Where is all that artwork in all its unruly creative diversity? It remains treasured, scattered in private collections, bought from private galleries where a fuller range of artists work gets show. The Young director Carey Young gives the example of Patrick Pound. Long resident in Melbourne this interesting New Zealand artist had stronger profile here in the 1990s, represented by Hamish McKay, with too few public gallery outings here. He is one of many where you question how they might fit into a telling of our art story. At the same time, as Carey points out artists like Pound and Driver are of interest to a whole new generation of artists whose interests go wider than the tidied version of our past.
Young has previously shown Don Driver with young artist Ed Bats, who shares an interest in the potency of abstract collaging industrial and building materials. There’s a ripper of a Batts work here, with an ooze of expandable foam sealant dripping out of it. It currently hangs above the fireplace in The Young kitchen. Nearby, quietly in a kitchen corner above the bench is a Peter Peryer work of a hanging meatworks carcass. I saw it last but a few months ago in a pre-eminent place in the reopening exhibition of New Plymouth’s the Govett Brewster. Carey recounts a visitor, on seeing Driver’s ‘Natural Material’ with the word Tomoana stamped on the sack, stopping to talk at length about his experience as a teenager working at the Tomoana meat processing plant meatworks. The word created “a jolt back into his memory bank, a place he said he hadn't thought about for a long time.”
LIKE is drawn from the collections of five different women, a curious fact given I didn’t detect in the exhibition anything particularly feminine. Indeed the show when I see it is dominated by the work of men, sometimes with a prankster wit or rough materiality that speaks more of the masculine. In the main dining room (‘the Oak Room’) on the table, amongst other curios, sits Ronnie Van Hout’s ‘Snake’, a small turd made from modelling material with the head of the artist peeping out. Above the fireplace is a 2005 Work by Simon Denny, quite unlike what he is producing now. It is like a Barbara Hepworth or other modernist maquette with cubist inspirations, yet again made from roughly cut cheap building materials. Now it hangs politely but Carey remembers fondly how it hung originally, shambolically on a line.
Indeed LIKE is packed full of less familiar but excellent work by leading artists. A wee work from Billy Apple’s Youthline fundraiser series, where the price of each edition of the work related to the cost for the organisation of a new call centre operator, a brilliant mid 1980 Marie Shannon, ‘Indoor Fireworks’. A small, exquisite 1990 Auckland Islands Bill Hammond work. His iconic birds are absent, the work reveling in rippling pattern, but there’s a dark potency I find missing from anything I’ve seen him present for a while.
These works tell stories and have stories, amplified for being presented together in a building that has its own. I imagine a series of exhibition in houses, each collection as deliciously idiosyncratic as this in reflecting both the house owner and a selection of a collectors’ tastes. Let us hope the private gallery model continues to shift into new dynamic modes as galleries like The Young suggest it can.
LIKE: Works from Private Collections, The Young, Wellington, until 14 November