T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Freedom's just another word

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Exhibition emphasises ironies, drawbacks of modern world

Tessa Laird ceramics in the Freedom Farmers exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery. Photo / Dean Purcell
Tessa Laird ceramics in the Freedom Farmers exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery. Photo / Dean Purcell

Freedom Farmers at Auckland Art Gallery is a revival of the survey exhibitions. It concentrates on artists raised in the 1970s who represent the second wave of contemporary art after the first who battled for abstract and expressionist art.

The second wave grasped freedoms and the artists in this show have "farmed" and grown those liberties. The most obvious freedom is from traditional subjects and mediums. Art can be made of any materials, ranging from old tyres to building off-cuts. Photography, still and video, also plays a large part.

A word used frequently in the literature that accompanies the exhibition is "utopian", suggesting the creativity in the show will lead the way to a better world.

Nevertheless, the feeling is often "dystopian", emphasising some of the drawbacks and ironies of the present.

Pacific Islanders now play a large part in the art scene and one of the most prominent is Edith Amituanai.

Here she departs from her usual neighbourhood and shows large colour photographs of the situation of refugees from Myanmar (Burma). The group is called La Fine del Mondo (The End of the World), with the formal emphasis on the contrast between sunlight and dark shadows but the detail is telling.

Another dystopian group of photographs involves Ava Seymour's 1998 pictures of state housing. Government housing was utopian at its outset, though there was always a slight stigma about being raised in a "state suburb".

The artist's patronising attitude is emphasised by collaging pictures of deranged patients on to images of state housing and the addition of a sign saying, "End of Improvement". Her more recent work in the show is a minimalistic print between sheets of transparent acrylic leaning against a wall, which the artist is quoted as saying, "mediates between the wall and the floor".

Housing plays a part in Allan McDonald's photographs of houses uprooted from their sites but never re-sold.

Photos by Allan McDonald that is part of the Freedom Farmers exhibition. Photo / Dean Purcell
Photos by Allan McDonald that is part of the Freedom Farmers exhibition. Photo / Dean Purcell

He turns them into metaphors for past lives and activities fading in memory.

The most idiosyncratic contribution is from Isobel Thom. Her works range from small cubist clusters of leaves where the eye dances from leaf to leaf through cups and teapots to a video of hippie self-sufficient living in Japan. It is delightful to explore, although often totally bemusing. The room is shared with Stella Corkery, who has 38 paintings, all the same size. The paintings improvise on colour, texture and mood. The effect is like modern music with the addition of dissonant cuts in the canvas as part of the variations. This theme is followed by Dan Arps. He rehabilitates the ordinary in glass cases and children's comic characters as wall decoration with stuffed animal cushions to show even the shallow can be indicators of where we are, and raise issues about copyright.

Xin Cheng shows on a column what sort of monument a tyre dealer might make of the objects of his trade along with sculpture of inner tubes. Among her Propositions she also shows an indoor garden.

Tessa Laird makes a monument of her own with a hill of ceramic structures in the shape of books that make up her reading for her PhD. They are vividly coloured and match the candelabra that might have shed the light to read them by. Her work is clunky, attractive and witty.

Materials in the show are varied. The et al. collective uses angled iron in stacks and in a structure bound by aggressive clamps. These are supplemented with a video that asks awkward questions such as, "What is my ... ?"

We can watch this while being hammered by speakers emitting sheer noise and being instructed with an aggressive pointer. It is a gloomy work about the impossibility of communication.

Communication is sometimes a problem. Shannon Te Ao appears in a performance work, wearing a blanket in a reference to Maori trade garments. Filmed by Iain Frengley, he drinks from water bottles, then blows a spray. This is like a whale breathing. This in turn refers to a Maori proverb about a leader being like a powerful whale. The leader he has in mind is Te Kooti, whose followers were forced to work. A surviving scrap of a road they worked on is the setting for the action.

This points to the major weakness of this kind of contemporary survey exhibition. It often needs explication. The stylish catalogue goes some way toward this with articles for each artist.

A case where this fails is the tree hut by Richard Maloy. His earlier huts made the point about the need for a place of retreat. But a tree hut is essentially rickety and nothing can convince that the solid, safe structure in the gallery contains "the essence" of tree houses.

There is plenty to admire, notably the attractive work of Francis Upritchard and Martin Basher that have a special magic and do not need explanation.

Work by artist Martin Basher that is part of the Freedom Farmers exhibition. Photo / Dean Purcell
Work by artist Martin Basher that is part of the Freedom Farmers exhibition. Photo / Dean Purcell

At the galleries

What: Freedom Farmers: New Zealand Artists Growing Ideas

Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, Kitchener St, to February 23

TJ says: Curated by Natasha Conland, this survey concept makes a lively, if sometimes puzzling, show of some of the extremes of recent art.

- NZ Herald

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