Tuesday, November 1, 2011




2 - 20 NOVEMBER, 2011

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason: He was the last of the magicians.” 
- John Maynard Keynes

There is no general curatorial intent for this show. All the artists: Boyce/Brehaut, Robert Hood and James Oram, hail from New Zealand and Christchurch in particular, the town flattened by earthquake. The rebuilding has begun in the city and there has been support and gifting from the State and beyond; part of this help includes cultural endowments and this has helped our travelling exiles.

Although then not curated together as such, the contents of this exhibition share an oscillation between the material and the ideal; the socially embedded and the fantastical. They are on the cusp of reason and the irrational. Everything here works through a kind of image magic. What also connects them is a knowing interrogation of the place of art in the society. There is playful humour and satirical edge to the works.

Robert Hood regularly annexes his practice to prominent (and/or arcane) cultural artefacts and art genres. His works characteristically exist in a sort of symbiosis with hosts that are robust enough to bear a bit of good-natured parasitism. In ‘Broken Kilometre’, a master work shown recently elsewhere Hood apes Walter de Maria’s ‘Broken Kilometre’, now set up in the de Maria’s New York studio. Hood’s installations are in fact ‘broken’ road markers. The high seriousness of minimalism is countered in a neo-minimalist inversion. In ‘Untitled (Bucket on a pole, mop & towel)’’, is minimalism again to be seen? Or is it perhaps an obelisk declassed? No doubt what functions in Hood’s work is the tension between the grand and the silly. Like interrogative words attached to declarative text Hood’s objects hijack their subject’s established intent and divert a portion of its ‘substance’ toward confounding and revelatory ends.

In Roger Boyce and Marie-Claire Brehaut’s ‘Nature Morte’ the artist’s studio is conflated with a bedroom methamphetamine laboratory; the alchemy of paint is connected provocatively to the chemistry of transgressive drug manufacture. But weren’t the first artistic studios also alchemical studios? Painters would distil and mix their own colours from chemical powders, cutting and mixing certain hues together. The magic of creation also suggests the process of the alembic. Another strange transformation has occurred, more materially: in New Zealand the work was considered a ‘P-Lab’ (Vitamin P?) whereas here, in Australia it metamorphoses subtly into an ‘Ice-Lab’ which also has new poetic resonances. The painting series ‘The Illustrated History of Painting’ by Boyce, recently acquired by Christchurch Art Gallery, also relates to these questions of the ontology of art and the processes in the studio.

It is a simile that expands beyond the formal, dimensional and pictorial mimicry of sprawling bottles and tubes - which characterise both set-ups - hinting at an overlap of art, science and psychotropic substance. The artists describe the work as a tableau mort, referencing the stasis and opulence of Victorian tableau vivant, but entertaining both dead and deadly subject matter. The artifice of the Ice-Lab apparatus is exposed through its mirroring on canvas and vanity as a perverse sort of still life. In turn, the artists present us with a contemporary memento mori.

James Oram has a ‘bad’ habit of setting-up (existential) situations wherein a hapless ‘actor’ (often the artist himself) is bound to fail. The audience for his staged failures looks helplessly on - like voyeuristic (and cringing) motorists slowing past a series of personally embarrassing ‘pileups.’ The video work ‘Game Face’, 2O1O, puts us uncomfortably close to a performance of a set of ‘I AM’ self-affirmations. There is a sense of the endless struggle in a futile battle, as the oral stumbling block of a mouthguard becomes a constant obstacle in the recital process. The statements, as is the case in the lists from which which they were taken (internet self help websites), begin with basic self belief/ confidence/ relationship improvement and work their way towards building you up to dominating your peers, achieving wealth, career success, and so on. The mirrored profile of the mandible/maxilla as each affirmation is made creates a ripple effect from the significance of the words, to their oration, to the spit that forms a fervent slather.

In ‘Meeting’ a similar repetitive loop is played out, of handshakes filmed in slow motion, making visible the subtle re-grippings, power plays, tender finger draggings and the often overlooked tensions between the white knuckles of the assertive gripper and the crushed fingers of the meek. Through its isolated presentation the most universal of all greetings takes on a new gravitas and the subtleties of difference that are highlighted speak to wider concerns.

Oram’s work acts out a clear oscillation that allows for a rupture between everyday nothingness and the profound. Small actions (breathing, reciting, greeting) become signifiers of macrocosmic forces outside the gallery: of activity and failure; hope and despair; creation and destruction. Working heterogeneously across time-based media, objects, drawings and installation his varied working methods rely, for consistency, on painstaking (and pain giving) conceptual reiteration. Oram’s gimlet-eyed social commentary provides a punishing blow-by-blow commentary on the inevitably lost battles of human existence.

A way of looking and interacting connects the works in this show rather than any curatorial intent. Although all good art has this binary of the material and the ideal, these artists have a practice that demands a poetic moment of re-imagining. The viewer needs to resize, re-conceptualise (temporally and spatially), re-construct historically, revisit, in relation to the work but beyond it.

Boyce/Brehaut, Nature Morte, 2010, Mixed media. (Installation shot)
James Oran, Game Face, 2010, Film Still. 
Robert Hood, Untitled (Bucket on a pole, mop & towel), 2011. (Installation shot)

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