Defiant works in jokey-titled show chart bold course for future of self-expression.

Knock, Knock." "Who's there?" "Knowing." "Knowing who?" Knowing You, Knowing Me is the title of the annual New Artists show at Artspace curated by Emma Bugden and billed as a "highlight of the exhibition calendar" that will "shape the future of contemporary art".

It specifically aims at two mediums: performance and drawing. One video performance work by Claire Harris, Nicholas Girls, incorporates a version of that old joke. "Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Nicholas." "Nicholas who?" "Nicholas girls should not climb trees."

The effect is serious, not amusing. A woman, presumably the artist, sits looking directly at the camera. There are explosions of laughter from invisible spectators. Her lower lip quivers at the mockery but she does not move.

The effect is heart-wrenching. Then the joke is told. Afterwards she gently pulls her skirt up over her knees. Suddenly, shockingly, she runs forward and thrusts her bare crotch at the camera. Feeble jests meet with female reality. There is another fading flash and the performance is over, but it will be repeated again and again.

This performance has the isolated vulnerability of stand-up comedy.

It is where these young artists are at: defiant, ironic, grotesque and exploiting connections with popular media but twisting them for their own ends.

Another characteristic is the variety of media used by individual artists. Mel Cooper is a case in point. His work ranges between a group of six deft watercolours to a wine stain on the floor.

The paintings show a naked young woman but we never see her face. Her hair hangs down and there is something of the victim in her pose. The contemporary spin is that there is a black line contoured over parts of her body, most effectively across her back.

This suggests a seam that could easily come apart and is related to the title of the works, Never Change. It hints that she could.

Mel Cooper's other work is a large scroll lettered with a free-verse poem full of double entendre linking football and making love. It is more literary than artistic and gains little from its size or the nature of its lettering. The wine stain is on the floor in front of these works and is metaphorically titled Life's Lost, Love Costs, which would be touching if the piece were not at the absolute limit of transient, gestural art.

Several media also make up the works by Trenton Garratt. There are dark drawings on the wall. Each has a tiny dot of light. Expanding out from this source are almost imperceptible waves of black force. It is a clever effect cleverly done.

A second work, Model Conversations: the Last Days of the Famous Mime consists of four neatly made stools grouped as if for discussion. This incorporates a performance element.

At certain times when the gallery is closed the artist attends and reads from the book by Peter Carey with the same title as the piece. The book is open on one of the stools to suggest the readings that have taken place.

The response to the work can be little other than muted since most of it is hidden.

Jeremy Leatinu'u's work is also involved in performance. He has two videos. Both show attempts to provide welcome. In one he stands at an airport at the point where disembarking passengers are met, and he holds a sign that says "welcome". There is the flavour of documentary about the work as passengers arrive and greeters wait. Nobody takes the slightest notice of his proffered "welcome".

The suggestion is that he is expected to provide welcome, though no one takes him up on it. The second video has the same theme. In it the artist laboriously carries stones from the bottom of the crater of Mt Eden and uses them to spell out "welcome" on the slopes. Again this is a personal labour that gathers no attention. The accompanying notes suggest that both works ambiguously celebrate and yet mock the level of hospitality expected within many cultures.

The element of ceremony in the two videos is much more apparent in the large work by Tiffany Singh which occupies the Long Gallery at Artspace.

Two-thirds of the floor is covered with a thick layer of white powder, probably salt, which has ceremonial associations. The ceiling is hung with dozens of those origami paper fortune-tellers that children make. You pull them open in different ways and they show a variety of predictions. They are a basket shape and here dozens of them are hung from the ceiling, and each one is filled with an offering.

One of the baskets, which contains blue powder, has spilt, and there are blue stains on the white under it. Right at the end of the gallery is a semi-circle of little totems. The whole piece suggests ceremonies from many cultures that involve laying offerings at the temple of some totemic figure. The piece is intended to be participatory with visitors allowed to pick one of the baskets, to pull apart and release a colourful offering.

This may be the intention but the virginal white covering of the floor inhibits moving into the work so it remains static. Even so, it is the most composed and meaningful of all the works on display and needs only some guidance to enable the viewer to help it realise its full potential.

The exhibition is completed with work by Scott Satherley and Jess Johnson. Satherley's work is a drawing inspired by a volcano erupting. It is a gush of red marks, made with a pen and a brush. The marks are rhythmic scribble obsessively repeated, actions that the artist himself describes as "misshapen, ugly and exaggerated". He does himself wrong because the result of all this mark-making is a luminous gush of red making a complex abstraction.

Jess Johnson is based in Australia and co-director of Hell Gallery in Melbourne. Her work has a typically Post-Modern link with advertising. The basis of her piece is a mat of posters for her gallery, aggressive in mood but graphically very inventive. The literary element comes in here again. One of the posters is a rather savage collection of sayings about what Hell is.

This connects to the last curiosity of this show. Tucked against the wall is a stack of yellow sheets of paper, filled with handwriting that lists hundreds of expressions that begin with "out of". The first is "out of touch" and the last is "out of shape". Out of all of these expressions visitors will surely find one that suits the mood of their reaction to these bright young artists.
AT THE GALLERIES
What: Knowing You, Knowing Me: New Artists Show 2010.

Where and when: Artspace, Level 1, 300 Karangahape Rd, until August 21.

TJ says: Artspace doing its job as a public gallery by bringing to attention work that could not be staged or sold commercially and presenting the preoccupations of young artists. The work is clever but its variety makes it hard to pick trends.