T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: The state of art in America

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'Sang' by Tony Oursler, showing at Fox/Jensen Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade
'Sang' by Tony Oursler, showing at Fox/Jensen Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade

Times change. Once a stack of commercial concrete blocks presented as a work of art would have done more than raise eyebrows; it might have raised a storm. That time is gone. It went with the stack of firebricks that Carl Andre laid on the floor of the Tate Gallery in London in 1966.

A similar work is on show in Auckland as part of Greetings from Los Angeles at Starkwhite Gallery. It features work by eight artists from that city curated by Brian Butler, former director of Auckland's Artspace. Jorge Mendez Blake's contribution is made up of ordinary grey cement blocks, a tall rectangular stack 1.8m high and 4.5m long.

This is not 1966; it is a post-post modern world. Whereas Andre's work was a formal display of surface and assembled weight, the Blake structure has to have an extra point. The pile is massive but the extra is easily missed. Under the crushing weight of the western edge of the massive pile you can see the backs of eight colourful books. They are Bartleby the Scrivener and Benito Cereno by the American writer, Herman Melville. Both of these short stories by the writer of Moby Dick concern oppression and slavery.

So what does this great weight of blocks on the books signify? Does it suggest the White Whale and the way that huge story overwhelms the author's shorter stories? Is it a symbol of oppression? Or is it just some blocks?

This is a large, mute minimalist work shifted from a construction site to a gallery to become art and challenge viewers to find their own answers.

There is another Moby Dick-ish creation by Blake, this time in vinyl, on the wall of the stairwell. It shows a man in the grip of a giant squid. It is impressive but has limitations of expression as does another appealing work, Unboxing by Fiona Banner, a pair of boxing gloves in bronze hung from the ceiling. The bronze gloves chime like bells when they touch.

The works upstairs run the gamut of styles available to the contemporary artist. Diana Thater has a room to herself with the walls coloured by light and projections of daisies. Kerry Tribe gives us a blast from the past with a documentary about early Russian space travel judiciously manipulated. Rirkrit Tiravanija has a set of six pencil drawings with a strong political message. Uta Barth does inkjet prints of windows making delicate and lovely abstract compositions. Along with the rest they make an intriguing, if not always convincing, survey of art across the United States today.

Also from America is the highly original Tony Oursler, an artist prominent enough to make it into textbooks. His sculpture is at once macabre, utterly compelling and, at times, almost tragic.

His exhibition at the Fox/Jensen Gallery features one of his familiar works where eyes and a mouth are projected on to a three-dimensional shape.

The eyes are wide open and function independently. The mouth, filled with startlingly white teeth, is marked by black lipstick that leaks into the lines around the lips. There is no nose, neck or body but the piece, perched on a support, takes on compelling life as the eyes stare at the viewer or look up and away. The smiling and occasionally gaping mouth emits incoherent speech so filled with pathos it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the trapped creature as it bubbles forth words: "cold cold cold, dreaming dreaming dreaming," or "seeking, seeking seeking," endlessly.

The second of these sculptures is much less macabre though it has a similar shape. Lights play continually across the form and spill on to the wall beyond the shadow cast by the sculptured contour. This play of stars is lovely and demonstrates that Oursler commands a variety of effects within his highly individual work.

John Pule, who recently had a large exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, is showing his latest painting and poetry at the Gow Langsford Gallery. Some of the work is in his characteristic style based on Pacific patterns but rendered in golden colour. Bright colour, including blue for the Pacific sea and sky, is also part of a new departure. These recent paintings feature an earthy base in heavy paint, which is the plateau from which tendrils reach searchingly up even as they carry memories with them.

The growing plant forms in When I was new here suggest strange new experiences coloured by the past and a similar painting, The Blue Plateau of Polynesian Memory, gives its name to the show.

These strong images indicate that Pule continues to develop his thinking and the metaphorical strength of his art.

Land of the Peacock is the title of a colourful exhibition by Jane Kellahan at the Parnell Gallery. The paintings are loaded with rich blue, yellow and orange. The peacocks represent the female principal and it is a paradox that the work that most captures tension between male and female, The Unmasked Man, is largely black and white.


At the galleries

What: Greetings from Los Angeles: Eight Artists
Where and when: Starkwhite, 501 Karangahape Rd, to August 6
TJ says: Eight prominent artists from Los Angeles present a spectrum of today's artistic attitudes and styles.

What: Sculpture by Tony Oursler
Where and when: Fox/Jensen Gallery, McColl St, Newmarket to August 11
TJ says: Outstanding American sculptor projects movement on to three-dimensional forms to make objects that are macabre, touching and, in one case, oddly beautiful.

What: Blue Plateau of Memory by John Pule
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to August 4
TJ says: The poetic title of the exhibition is matched by a new departure in style where images in colour stretch upward from islands of paint.

What: Land of the Peacock by Jane Kellahan
Where and when: Parnell Gallery, 263 Parnell Rd, to July 31
TJ says: Attractively colourful paintings of bright peacocks in a misty world where they often shadow tense human relationships.

- NZ Herald

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