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

T.J. McNamara: A strange menagerie

By T.J. McNamara

Exhibitions effortlessly define intrigue with appealing, vast collections of content
Antoinette Ratcliffe's  We Guard the Borderlands sculpture.
Antoinette Ratcliffe's We Guard the Borderlands sculpture.

"Curiouser and curiouser," said Alice in Wonderland. She might have said the same about current exhibitions in Auckland.

The line of headstones that make up the work, Sucu Mate/Born Dead, by Luke Willis Thompson at the Hopkinson Mossman Gallery sets the tone. Nine carved stones, from a cemetery in Fiji, all similar with a curved top are ranged in a line across the gallery. These grey slabs are obviously old because of their covering of lichen and mould. Though they are clearly headstones they bear no inscriptions and this, along with their age, makes them symbolic of the anonymous dead of the past rather than being ready to record future deaths. Their regular march across the floor suggests the march of time and they make a grimly effective sculptural presence. Thompson won the prestigious Walters Prize in 2015. His prize-winning work was a house you had to make an appointment to see. The weighty found objects of this solemn, effective work do not need notification. They will stand and wait for you.

Hanna Shim, whose work is at Whitespace Gallery, is also showing sculpture that is rather odd.

Her exhibition includes some painting but the major part of it is a whole troop of soft sculpture animals. These stitched and stuffed creatures all have no heads. Instead they may have a soft disc decorated with beads or, in other cases, a lamp a light, or leaves.

At first the toy-like quality is cute but the persistent decapitation has overtones of cruelty that contradicts the sweetness but the effect is not potent enough to add real depth to the work. The works are cleverly made, notably a flamingo with a light for a head, but fewer animals more rigorously dealt with might have made a more convincing show.

Objectspace, the public gallery devoted to craftwork, has an exhibition of work by three silversmiths: David Clark from the UK, Peter Bauhuis from Germany and an Australian, Vito Bila. They represent the extreme fringe of craftwork and they make curious objects indeed. The pieces retain the nature of containers or vessels but in keeping with modern trends in craft, they have no practical use. Instead they are, paradoxically, distorted and dismembered objects fed by imagination not purpose.

David Clarke's  Vessels on their side supported by spoons.
David Clarke's Vessels on their side supported by spoons.

So we find a teapot divided and its handle and lid set away from its spout, a coffee pot with two sides and no interior, a jug that only works if its spout hangs over the side of the table and silver vases shaped like ceramics. The eye is caught by delicate glassware where molten silver and other metals lie at the bottom and metal vases where every mark of their making is left boldly obvious. The accompanying literature describes the show as "antiauthoritarian, funny and also masterful". It is all of those and odd as well.

Across the road is Studio One, another useful public gallery. Antoinette Ratclifffe has filled one room with a remarkable installation work called We Guard the Borderlands. It is a mass of interlocked, geometric white shapes that has stylised hints at vegetation and birds yet a rhythmic force of its own. Curiously, the room is also the home to small plaster animals like old-fashioned mantelpiece ornaments. Attached to them are preserved butterflies and stuffed birds.

The oddity of these is in direct contrast to the modernity of the sculpture.

In the next room is a display of skateboards each with a unique stylish design on the underside by Lucie Blazeska. It is sad to think that these varied and sometimes quite beautiful works might be destroyed by sliding down a rail.

The third artist is Han Nae Kim who does wall sculpture: black lacquered reliefs and divided diamond shapes on copper. Also piled on a table are a series of drawings on heavily varnished handmade paper. They have dark patterns of foliage and sweeps of movement. The technique is inscrutable but all have a curious, dark appeal.

Fragments of a World at the Michael Lett Gallery was originally curated by Dr Sandy Callister for the Adam Gallery in Wellington.

In addition to its artistic appeal it has considerable historical interest. It shows the work of feminists Jane Campion, Janet Bayly, Minerva Betts, Rhondda Bosworth, Alexis Hunter and Popular Productions in the 1970s and 80s. Among the notable works are two sequences of photographs by Alexis Hunter, who left New Zealand as a young artist and established herself in England with work that has taken its place in the history of feminist art. Two examples here show the self-inflicted pain of high heels and another of her sequence of a women's sense of fear of the unknown in darkness.

Jane Campion is the other big name in the show. A viewing room at the gallery has been constructed to show one of her early black and white films. It is a sensitive portrayal of the life of maturing girls at a convent school.

The other three artists are pioneering women art photographers. The interesting thing is the way they often cultivated small size prints to contradict the world of commercial photography.

At the gallery

What: Sucu Mate/Born Dead by Luke Willis Thompson
Where and when: Hopkinson Mossman Gallery, 19 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to February 27
TJ says: Anonymous gravestones make a stern progression across the gallery.

What: Headless by Hanna Shim
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to February 20
TJ says: Young artist paints and sculpts with care, thought and potential.

What: Fixing the Unbroken by David Clark, Peter Bauhuis and Vito Bila
Where and when: Objectspace, 8 Ponsonby Rd, to February 27
TJ says: An exhibition by three international silversmiths working wittily at the edge of their craft.

What: We Guard the Borderlands by Antoinette Ratcliffe, Born to Ride by Lucie Blazevska, Skin by Han Nae Kim
Where and when: Studio One, 1Ponsonby Rd, to February 25
TJ says: The public gallery in the old police station introduces three new artists.

What: Fragments of a World, curated by Dr Sandy Callister
Where and when: Michael Lett Gallery, 312 Karangahape Rd, to February 20
TJ says: A collection of photographs and films taken by artists of the feminist movement in the 70s and 80s last century.

- Weekend magazine

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