Vive le différence
There is, in the world we call contemporary art, some big unsaids, and one is that there is not just one story. Yes, it should be obvious—that art reflects our complexity and difference. Yet we too can easily comply with views in authority without question. There becomes a tension around the way things are boxed—museums look to create a canon, but practices and media slip in and out, and the art landscape we are in has become increasingly multiplicitous and fluid in its boundaries, more related to our social lives. In that environment art institutions have to be ever more open, working even harder to embody the notion that we are a public collection of different ways of seeing, of being.
It was the bigger point ultimately raised for me by a favourite piece of writing from 2017, ‘The Moral Argument’ Lana Lopesi’s consideration at Pantograph Punch of Francis Upritchard’s Jealous Sabouteurs. Lopesi, quoting the perceptive words of Anne Salmond, asked us to consider the values projected by our galleries and artists at a time when, politically globally she noted, moves away from a generosity towards those not different from ourselves. What I took from it was an underlying call to public arts institutions to care about the relationships of different people to the art presented. To consider more who frames it, or at least in public programming consider how discussion can be opened out. That to me is a public responsibility.
As it is in the public gallery so to in the public media. Without a media dedicated to a wide, but selective editorial consideration of significant art news, our individual perspectives are in danger of being, like our social media feeds, increasingly fractured. Recognising edges becomes important.
And not just the new ones. Lets not forget some older, familiar edges. When we talk of generosity, of equality, let’s include the established and encourage their evolution and exposure to new practice. I am not then this column going to focus, say, on the recent edge-melding electricity of FAFSWAG at Basement Theatre Auckland, or Sriwhana Spong performing 'Tasseography of a Rat’s Nest (extended)' at Pumphouse Gallery in London last week. Or exciting new practice at an artist-run space like currently moving image artist Christopher Ulutupu at Wellington’s Play_station. Instead, I will look here, to the regions.
“For the next few months, Whakatāne is placing itself at the centre of contemporary art in New Zealand,” said Eric Holowacz, Director of Whakatāne Museum and Arts last week. This in relation to the arrival of submissions for the 2018 Molly Morpeth Canaday Award for 3D art. The award has been running from Whakatāne for over 30 years, and is announced as I write this weekend, 17 February.
I like Holowacz’s words as an assertion of intent: Whakatane is placing itself as a centre, recognising these edges still matter. But there are many centres. The unsaid is that the finalists of the Molly Morpeth Award 2018 (here) are an interesting looking bunch but they don’t, in any way as a picture, represent the finest contemporary art being produced by New Zealand artists. For one, reducing an award to 3D media (on alternate years the award is for painting and drawing) doesn’t reflect the often conceptual driven nature of much contemporary work, which has long crossed many other media. That was in a way recognised by the 2016 judge of the award, Objectspace Director Kim Paton who awarded as joint winner a performance video work by talented young artist Jasmine Te Hira, made object by being placed neatly on an antique table underneath a glass case, like a prized artefact.
Those familiar know how exciting a space contemporary art practice is currently in its expanding roles, and how socially connected. Yet there’s a very big jump to wider public understanding. In this regard, awards matter. Not to mention giving artists of excellence vital support. With a healthy $10,000 main prize, $4000 runner-up prize, well-regarded judges and many strong artists in the offing, the Molly Morpeth Canaday is a major shot in the arm for the winners. Last year’s prizewinning painter Kirstin Carlin is another good example of the excellence recognised.
Yes, Whakatane will be some sort of centre of attention when the winners are announced and exhibition opens, as I write, this coming weekend. But nationally it’ll be a brief glance. What might it take for region based awards to open up to work beyond these media categories? What about awards based on what the work is actually concerned with? What in the future could be such regioanl awards contemporary point of difference be?
Meanwhile the New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award (NZPPA; $20,000 major prize) exhibition also opens in Hamilton the same weekend. Run by the Waikato Society of Arts, it was created when in 2000 there was controversy over the chosen winning entry for the National Contemporary Art Award, Gavin Hipkins ‘The Oval’. That award and exhibition is now administered by the Waikato Museum.
And there’s the schism: traditional media protected by art societies on the one hand, the contemporary moment championed by a national network of curators on the other. This dual scenario has actually been arguably good for everyone, recognising two different kinds of edge. The sense of bristle as the awards run up against each other can be a healthy frisson. While in 2017 a painter Kim Pieters won the National Contemporary Art Award, The Painting and Printmaking Award has continued to attract strong entrants and good judges.
This year’s NZPPA judge is a painter, artist bookmaker and printmaker hailing from Canberra Dianne Fogwell. Not a familiar name to the contemporary art scene, her work nonetheless is in many major Australian collections. You’d expect from looking at her work affinity in her judging for more illustrative work, and strong technical skills, of which in New Zealand there is plenty outstanding that barely gets a public look-in. Last year’s judge Christchurch painter and ILAM lecturer Roger Boyce would have brought an entirely different perspective. Vive la différence.
In New Zealand Fogwell has shown with Wellington’s Solander Gallery. Solander is another case in point about edges. Branded ‘Contemporary Art Australiasia’, the gallery represents a strong, eclectic array of New Zealand and Australian artists. But what their brand no longer tells you is that while showing a fair few painters—currently showing Matt Palmer—Solander’s principal business and point of difference has been works on paper.
Solander is a great advocate for printmaking, with a passion and expertise in this realm and strong relationships with Australia. In a time when public galleries and museums are showing little interest in printmaking, but there is still a fertile, diverse community of makers nationally, the gallery has a vital role in the representation and promotion of artists.
And there is surely great hope for printmaking to have its public resurgence—this most democratic and affordable of media. As seen across our contemporary art spaces artists are showing a growing interest in engaging with social context and the handmade. Pottery and fabrics are everywhere. Pantograph Punch, again, just published an article entitled ‘Committed Passion: Handweavers Guilds and a New Generation of Makers in New Zealand’. Not so long ago you would have guessed that title as being used in a spot of ungenerous post-modern irony.
A shift in intent in contemporary art towards making good, strong relationships, over the forming of rigid individualistic containers is our moment. In recognising excellence in this space, galleries, awards, and the media are tools for highlighting those connections, and bridging different perspectives. It is something I am seeing more around me: from my local regional gallery Mahara in Waikanae, to a nationally recognised art museum the Dowse, and on to my nearest artist project space Enjoy Gallery in downtown Wellington. There is exciting new connective work to be getting on with.