T J McNamara on the arts
T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Visions of a dim future

An exhibition referencing Auckland's leaking apartment-block disaster is ugly and uncomfortable.

Dan Arps installation at Michael Lett Gallery. Photo / Richard Robinson
Dan Arps installation at Michael Lett Gallery. Photo / Richard Robinson

They look empty, forlorn and abandoned. And so it goes on. Two exhibitions in Auckland this week are by former winners of the Walters Prize. The exhibitions are academic, autobiographical and largely composed of found objects.

At Michael Lett, Dan Arps, who won the prize in 2010, has a show called After Hobson Gardens, a follow up to his 2011 show, Hobson Gardens. The name comes from an apartment building that proved to be leaky and cost millions to repair. The theme of Arps' uncomfortable exhibition is a post-apocalyptic Auckland of terrible barrenness. There are no "gardens" in this show. The whole thing looks more like the ruins of a prison.

The first two pieces in the exhibit have the conventional picture shape but the frames are plastered with something like badly mixed concrete. Within the frame are little birthday candles and pasta, looking like worms feeding on decay. The painting alongside has a steel grid, lurid red and green paint and a padlock. Its title is Weak Idea Grid Study.

The other pieces are larger, and sculpture of a sort. You enter through a jagged arch between two false stone columns, trip over a bit of flax rope and encounter Sculpture for Hobson Gardens, a green neon tube on a stand.

Then you encounter two works entitled Unit 1 and Unit 2. These are made from resurrected steel refrigeration panels constructed into large cupboards with glass doors, odd stickers, a bit of plaster and lights. They look empty, forlorn and abandoned. And so it goes on. A deliberately awful abstract painting is called No Class. A Figure Study is Mickey Mouse, who appears on the T-shirt that is the principal feature of the piece.

A coherent vision is at work but it is ugly, uncomfortable and ironic in thought and execution.

Zac Langdon-Pole takes found material to an extreme. He is showing Pale Ideas, also at Michael Lett.

The paleness is in two small paintings that are blank canvas. More unexpectedly impressive, in spite of their origin, are two large plain pieces of coarse canvas. One is a dark brown and the other a navy blue that is almost black. They have taken on shadowy, faded shapes in a previous incarnation but stretched and placed on the wall their texture and size links them to the big colour fields of abstraction. It is a telling use of material as well as an oblique comment on minimalist art, but it reduces the artist to no more than an eye.

Hopkinson Cundy Gallery has a show by the recent winner of the Walters prize, Kate Newby. Once she was a prodigy as a painter but the present work is in line with her prize-winning installations. It springs from residency on Fogo Island in Newfoundland.

The show occupies one end of the large gallery and is mounted on a substantial wooden platform smelling pungently of newly sawn timber. On the platform are items that evoke the residency.

On the window sill above the platform sits a collection of small polished rocks and on it more rocks, some painted and marked. Two mats are made from T-shirts torn in strips and knitted. One is larger with strong colour from a man's T-shirt and the other smaller and pale, which may represent the artist herself.

Then we have three quilt-like assemblages. One is made up of squares of wool, silk and cotton stained with dyes made from materials found in the kitchen of her residency.

The colours are pale and fugitive except for a dark square of wool. Another rectangle of silk has lain on rocks and been subjected to weathering. It is faintly stained with mineral yellows in no particular pattern. The third quilt is made of towels and face cloths used during her stay.

It is all intensely autobiographical but takes on meaning only when you know the circumstances of the residency. Collectively, the works are intriguing; individually, they strike no spark.

Yet Newby does have flights of fancy. A much smaller installation features two islands, one of rocks and one of concrete, on the floor. Hanging over them are glazed, ceramic chimes bearing the marks of the squeezing and looping that shaped them. They chime most melodiously.

Photography is also about found scenes and objects. Neil Pardington's immaculately made photographs in his show The Order of Things at Two Rooms features objects found in the back rooms of museums.

It begins with a straightforward shot of an old-fashioned card catalogue, then moves on to specimens in jars. One wall is dominated by 48 jars, each filled with a marine animal preserved in liquid. It makes a remarkable mural. The shapes of the specimens are extraordinarily varied and right in the middle is a jar with a crab whose eyes stare challengingly at the viewer. It brings a light touch to an exhibition that whispers of mortality.

At the galleries

What: After Hobson Gardens by Dan Arps; Pale Idea by Zac Langdon-Pole

Where and when: Michael Lett Gallery, 2/285 Great North Rd, to July 6

TJ says: Arps uses mostly found material to make an anti-fine art installation that is a vision of a dim, tasteless, inelegant future. Langdon-Pole makes minimalist art by using materials without intervention from the artist except to choose them.

What: What a Day by Kate Newby

Where and when: Hopkinson Cundy Gallery, 1/19 Putiki St, Newton, to July 7

TJ says: In an installation from a residency in Newfoundland, Newby brings back objects of direct autobiographical significance.

What: The Order of Things by Neil Pardington

Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to July 7

TJ says: Images that preserve what has already been preserved in the specimen collections in museums; notable for a mural of dozens of marine animals, strange and curiously touching.

- NZ Herald

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