Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

A shining new showcase for New Zealand art

The imposing Grey Gallery at the newly remodeled Auckland Art Gallery. Photo /  Brett Phibbs
The imposing Grey Gallery at the newly remodeled Auckland Art Gallery. Photo / Brett Phibbs

As Auckland Art Gallery reopens its doors today, Linda Herrick walks through its marvellous collection of New Zealand art.

The rarely heard voice of one of our most beloved artists will sing out to visitors passing through a long corridor in the Auckland Art Gallery when it reopens to the public today. It will be the recorded voice of Ralph Hotere, singing a tribute in Maori to the godwit every 15 minutes in accompaniment to his 18m-long, 15-panel Godwit/Kuaka, originally installed at Auckland International Airport before being acquired by the Chartwell Trust.

The panels, painted with industrial car lacquer, are a highly reflective, richly coloured homage to the bird and its marathon annual journeys across the world between New Zealand estuaries and Alaska. Senior curator New Zealand and Pacific art Ron Brownson says when he first heard Hotere's song he was moved to tears.

Be prepared to be moved on many levels as you explore the gallery's New Zealand collections in its new and renovated spaces.

One of the two Mace Galleries on the ground floor is dedicated to a powerful collection of works by Colin McCahon called Texts and Gates. "All this work is about faith," says Brownson, while next door the second Mace Gallery displays works by major Maori artists including Para Matchitt, Fred Graham and Hotere.

The always imposing Grey Gallery, with its mezzanine areas and balustrades above, had become a little shabby pre-renovation but is now a breathtakingly beautiful room, its walls painted an elegant green which serves the collection of New Zealand art 1900-65 superbly.

Brownson, who curated the art in this room, says he has "taken a lot of care with the colours in these gallery spaces - not grey, not green, but a bit of both, not pastel, not trendy".

Brownson has double-hung the works along the walls on the gallery's two long sides asymmetrically with "an imaginary centre line".

"This room will bring back memories for a lot of people," says Brownson. As you enter, McCahon's huge On Building Bridges has its own special place on the wall to the right, while works by the creme of artists from a crucial period of growth in New Zealand's visual culture stretch out ahead: William Sutton, Frances Hodgkins, Raymond McIntyre, Lois White, Louise Henderson, Gordon Walters, Milan Mrkusich, Rita Angus, Christopher Perkins ... the list goes on and on and includes a pleasing number of works by women.

At the far end, in the curved area facing Wellesley St East, sits a rounded sculpture of a woman, Polynesia, by Jim Allen, his 1952 graduate work from the Royal College of Art, with two small Theo Schoon pieces on each side.

It's not just the room which looks immaculate. "A lot of work has gone into the frames," Brownson points out. "There are new arts and crafts frames, the paintings have been cleaned, everything has been really carefully looked at."

Up one floor, and we enter the Upper Grey Gallery, with one smaller room housing a phenomenal collection of Maori portraits by Goldie and Lindauer facing, on the other side of the room, studies of some of our earliest colonial figures such as Richard Seddon, Sir John Logan Campbell and James Rutherford. They are united by a large 1863 work on loan from the Hocken Library, The New Zealand Chiefs in Wesley's House, by James Smetham.

Next door is where we find the gallery's oldest work, A View in Murderer's Bay, from 1642, "after" a sketch by Abel Tasman, by Isaac Gilsemans, the artist who travelled with the explorer. Below that is a 1777 study of a Poe-Bird (tui) by James Cook's artist, Sydney Parkinson, and on to an array of historical New Zealand scenes, culminating in Kennett Watkins' portentous The Phantom Canoe: A Legend of Lake Tarawera (1915), based on a ghostly event said to have occurred 11 days before the eruption.

We have barely scratched the surface, including whizzing through an area dedicated to the gallery's earliest philanthropist, James Mackelvie - furniture, painting, sculpture, china - before we head off back downstairs to the Gibbs Galleries where Brownson hands me over to contemporary art curator Natasha Conland, who is busy overseeing the installation of works in three rooms spanning 45 years of New Zealand art leading right up to the present day.

Each room, she explains, represents 15 years, starting with 1965-80, a period when "we were starting to find our own identity, when Art New Zealand first started being published, when the first books about New Zealand art started happening and when the most voracious debates about New Zealand were happening".

This room, "which is supposed to feel like the times, like you are almost back in the 60s", includes powerful works by Pat Hanly, Robert Ellis, Greer Twiss, Don Binney, Robin White, Milan Mrkusich, Peter Peryer and Colin McCahon (the moving The Care of Small Birds: Muriwai).

A backlit panel of self-portraits by Julia Morrison called Quiddities dominates the 1980-95 room, complemented by the likes of Max Gimblett, Billy Apple, Richard Killeen, Ruth Watson, John Reynolds, Bill Hammond, Tony Fomison, Giovanni Intra, Fiona Pardington, and one of Michael Parekowhai's earliest works, a sculpture called The Indefinite Article, a homage to McCahon.

The space supports Conland's claim that by this stage New Zealand art is "really established, with a younger generation coming through, with much more bravado, a bit of punk, some strong conceptual statements".

The 1995 to today room boasts "a lot of work that hasn't been displayed before" - acquisitions by Michael Stevenson, Rohan Wealleans and Kate Newby, a work from Francis Upritchard's show Doomed Doomed All Doomed, Shane Cottons' startling blue portrait Te Waiwhariki, two Mark Adams photos from his Authentic Tribal Arts series and Parekowhai's Rainbow Servant Dreaming perched high on the wall, near the door.

Says Conland: "I imagine the expectations on this room are going to be really heavy.

"We will be changing it regularly but for the first time it has to feel really alive."

Opening today
The public are invited to join the celebrations at 10am today on the Kitchener St forecourt of the gallery. After the ceremony, which includes a speech from Mayor Len Brown, a kapa haka display and a performance by the Auckland Philharmonic Orchestra, doors will open to the public at 11am.

- NZ Herald

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