Friday, August 29, 2008

Slow local

Edward Hopper, Highland Light, 1930, watercolour over graphite on rough white wove paper, Collection of Harvard College

I've written before about the way in which certain artists come to "own" the views which inspire their work, to a point where it's almost impossible to see a particular landscape except through their eyes. Think of Edward Hopper's Cape Cod landscapes; Ed Ruscha's LA; Arthur Boyd's Wimmera. There are dozens of New Zealand examples: Toss Woollaston's high vantage point across Wellington Harbour, which he experienced in a sort of muddy atmospheric cubist frenzy, and accordingly now so do I; McCahon's tablet-like clifs at Muriwai; the slight edge of craziness in the swirling skies of Bill Sutton's rural Canterbury churchyards; the surprising delicacy of Bill Hammond's Boulder Bay in Lyttelton Harbour, with its whispy birds and plumes of spray; the doughty resoluteness of Michael Smither's stony Taranaki beaches banking up his glimpse of the mountain.

Years ago I was driving through Provence when I saw a familiar landscape appear like a mirage in the distance. "It's Mont Sainte-Victoire!" I said excitedly. "You know, that mountain Cezanne painted a lot." Until I saw it I'd had no idea where it was, or even, stupidly, that it was a real place: I'd never thought about it. I felt ridiculously pleased: seeing the view framed in the windscreen was like owning my own personal version of the paintings, until the road turned a corner and it was out of sight.

The extraordinary thing was that what I saw from the car looked just like the paintings, an arrangement of angles and planes and edges softened by a golden haze. I wasn't long out of university and had "done" Post-Impressionism twice, once as part of a stage one French culture course and again as part of Art History (bet it doesn't feature much in either today). Of course everything was taught by slides: there were no real works of art to look at. Driving through the French countryside I realised that my understanding was completely at fault, and that Cezanne, at least, was much more of a realist than I'd hitherto assumed. (Ditto Hammond, when I took a walk down to Boulder Bay.)

On a visit to Christchurch once, I had a similar experience of encountering a landscape I was already familar with from a painting. I was driving through the old streets of the eastern central suburbs, trying to find an acquaintance's studio, hopelessly lost. Going through an intersection, I looked to the right towards the hills, and suddenly saw Doris Lusk's Pumping Station. It looked exactly like the painting. Just as suddenly, it was gone, and I've never seen it again.

Doris Lusk, The Pumping Station, 1958, oil on board, Collection of Auckland Art Gallery

Built in 1882, the Christchurch Pumping Station (it pumps the city's sewage along the pipes out to Bromley) is now a protected building. The city council with the poorest record in the country of granting non-notifiable resource consents (effectively letting developers knock stately old buildings down before anyone else finds out about it) couldn't knock it down, even if it wanted to: Lusk's view is safe. (Now, if only I could find it again!)

But not so Edward Hopper's view of Highland Light and the keeper's house at Truro, Cape Cod, which inspired so many of his works. The NY Times has a piece about the zoning consent which has just been granted to owners of the section next door to the house once owned (and designed) by Hopper and his wife Josephine, to allow them to build a 6,500-square-foot trophy house, which will effectively block the barren view made into one of the iconic images of American art by Hopper. It's being done in the teeth of opposition from local residents, who say there are two types of people that traditionally live in Truro: fishing people and artists, and landmarks are important to both.

It's a vain hope, I guess, to suggest that landscapes which artists have made famous should be protected from development. But in this instance, it does seem a bit of a pity.

Hopper used to drive around the Cape a lot to find locations to paint; he often painted from his car, a two-tone Buick sedan, in which he had had the green-tinted windshield and windows replaced with clear glass. An article in Time magazine in December 1956 in which he was interviewed at his Truro home commented that his paintings look as if the viewer is travelling, somehow:
"By suppressing all details that would not be noticed in a passing glance, and arranging his compositions to suggest that the scene extends far beyond the frame, he puts his picture window in motion. Seeing a Hopper exhibition is like floating through people's backyards on a slow local, in a state of awed awareness."

Unlike the new neighbours, one of the current owners of a house painted by Hopper says she feels an obligation to keep the house as it was, given the numbers of people who come to photograph and paint it themselves, following Hopper's trail around Truro. You can compare the paintings with the locations as they are today in this New York Times feature: or click here for an interactive 360 degree video view from the Hopper house. Might not look like this for much longer.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What they don't want you to know

Ronnie van Hout, Abduct, 1999, pegasus print, 38 x 50 cm, from Darren Knight Gallery

Regular readers of Art, Life, TV, Etc. will know that I have somewhat of a bee in my bonnet about museums that are keener on interpretation and interactivity than in just getting on and showing the good stuff. Yet somehow I am filled with admiration for the sheer outrageousness of a museum which appears to collect no genuine stuff at all, and yet still attracts close to 150 000 visitors per year: the International UFO Museum and Research Center, in Roswell, New Mexico, for which a new building is being designed by architects Ahearn-Schopfer Associates, of Boston, featuring an extremely high-camp exterior "wormhole". The concept drawings have just been released.

“The concept is that this is a found object emerging from a file cabinet, kind of like information hidden in a drawer somewhere,” explains the architect, referring to the purported government cover-up of extraterrestrial evidence -- the "Roswell Incident" of July 1947, in which either a weather balloon fell to earth, or a group of tiny alien men crash-landed in a flying saucer, depending on your point of view. It's a story that refuses to die, and the UFO Museum is increasingly driving both tourism and progress to the one-horse desert town:
"Prior to the [opening of the] UFO Museum, there were no alien eyes on the lampposts, no space ship logos for a local car dealer, no city of Roswell logo and branding campaign including a space ship, no documentaries on the Incident and no television programs with the Roswell name. In the past eight years, six UFO related businesses have opened in downtown have opened. There have been six hotels completed and one currently under construction. Roswell now has a Home Depot Building Center, Super Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby, Sam’s Club, PetCo, Famous Footwear and others."

The thing is, from what I can work out, the Museum doesn't have any actual stuff in its collections (I guess all the authentic alien artefacts would be stored in a top-secret government facility somewhere?), so instead it exhibits (currently on pegboard walls; that'll change when the new building goes up) copies of newspaper accounts and affadavits sworn by witnesses to the alien landing and subsequent cover-up, as well as a large model of a flying saucer and interpretive displays such as the very popular "Alien Autopsy" diorama below.

The Roswell UFO Museum's website comments that it "maintains its position as the serious side of the UFO visitors to Roswell and the surrounding areas ... people come looking for answers to specific and personal questions about UFOs or simply out of curiosity. People spend from 30 minutes to a week here."

And somehow, it all kind of works: a museum to something that probably never happened filled with inauthentic objects that people made years later. Usually I loathe museums that see their business as telling stories, but on reflection, maybe it's all about the nature of the story they have to tell.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Boredom is very important

Francesco Clemente, Map of What Is Effortless, 1978, gouache on paper, Private collection

"Boredom is very important. Boredom is the origin of any good idea. Growing up in Naples in the 50s, I had many, many empty afternoons.

In painting, waiting is a big part of the effort... waiting for both the mind and the material to develop their narrative. Painting is not so much about decision, it's more about acceptance... of the fact that certain structures and orders and narratives, they really have their own saying, and all you have to do is listen."
Francesco Clemente, interviewed by Charlie Rose

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What's left behind

The coast at Sumner: Rita Angus, Self-portrait (with moth and caterpillar) (unfinished), 1943, pencil & watercolour, from The Angus Clan

A few weeks ago, I was at Cave Rock in Sumner. Because it was cold, and early, with a nor'easterly blowing up along the sand, the beach was largely deserted and we parked under the Norfolk Island pines at the beginning of the Esplanade, close to the rock.

Between the Main Road and Cave Rock are eleven stone cairns, each topped with four iron street lamps arranged in a cross formation. Two are larger than the others. Like Michael Parekowhai's Piko Nei Te Matenga/ The Consolation of Philosophy (2001), each commemorates the scene of a famous battle in the First World War. The base of the memorials are stones cut from the Halswell Quarry, piled together like the markers for field graves; blocks of the same blue-grey basalt were used to build the Cathedral and the Museum and the Provincial Council Chambers, as well as garden walls in the leafy north-west of the city.

Tucked away to the right as you approach the rock is another rough-hewn stone memorial, simpler and cruder than the others. A depression on the front face once housed a drinking fountain. Worn at the edges, it looks like an empty niche designed to hold an ecclesiastical relic. On the side of the memorial which faces the sea, a marble tablet commends to memory "two Sumner boys", Sergeant H.A. Rule and Trooper G.E. Wiggins, who lost their lives in the now largely-forgotten Boer War. The inscription is unusually specific: like most of the New Zealand volunteers in South Africa in the first years of the last century, they died of enteric fever, or typhoid, a disease borne by the "winged sponges", as the large African blow-flies were nick-named by the colonial troops. The bodies were hastily buried where they fell in the Transvaal.

There was something odd lying on the footpath to the left of the Boer War memorial, a lump of bedraggled black fur.

"Is it dead?" someone asked.

As we took a photograph, a group of Japanese tourists stopped and watched in silence.

Past the garden beds filled with aloe and ice plants, and down the concrete ramp to the beach, when you look back to the Esplanade your view of the township is book-ended by Clifton Hill. Recently, to considerable public censure the Council allowed one of the first houses built in the garden suburb to be demolished: the grand home of Sir Joseph Kinsey, constructed from Halswell stone, where Robert Falcon Scott and his artist wife Kathleen stayed immediately prior to Scott's departure for the Antarctic.

Scott and his wife took their last walk together on Sumner Beach, on 28 November 1910. When the exploration party departed from Port Chalmers the following afternoon, after catching the train to Dunedin, Kathleen wrote:

"I didn't say goodbye to my man because I didn't want anyone to see him sad. On the bridge of the tug Mrs Evans looked ghastly white and said she wanted to have hysterics but instead we took photographs of the departing ship. Mrs Wilson was plucky and good ... I mustered them all for tea in the stern and we all chatted gaily except Mrs Wilson who sat looking somewhat sphinx-like."

When news of the deaths of Scott's party reached Christchurch in 1913, the city commissioned Kathleen Scott, who had been a student of Rodin, to sculpt a memorial for the centre of the city. She used white carrara marble for a statue of her husband in full polar dress; her first choice, bronze, had been commandeered for armaments. The statue, which includes words from the last note Scott wrote, found in the hut near his body, is positioned so that his back is to the South Pole. He is facing north, on his final homeward journey.

Christchurch is full of ghosts, despite the best intentions of its property developers and elected representatives -- and those who inhabit an intermediate existence between the two -- to raize their abodes to the ground and start again. Artists haunt the place: there are Sutton skies, cafes with psychedelic Clairmont-esque interiors, sweeps of coast drawn straight from a Fomison painting. It is impossible to climb Summit Road and look out over the folds of the hills to the plains beyond without thinking of Doris Lusk and Colin McCahon, sketching the post-war landscape together in 1948. Or walk along the tideline at Sumner without recalling the erotic surrealist arrangements of driftwood Theo Schoon made while visiting Rita Angus at her Clifton cottage.

And others: at the end of the Sumner causeway as the road turns through a cut in the rock towards Redcliffs, where I haven't been for years, I'm reminded of the stories of Julius von Haast, the first director of Canterbury Museum, digging cross-trenches in Moa-Bone Point Cave in 1872 where he found flax sandals left behind by the Southern Maori, as well as the moa bones he traded with overseas museums for items for Canterbury's collections. He was followed by generations of fossickers sifting the sand for treasure: mussel shells, bone fragments, bottles left behind by the workers who built the causeway across McCormack's Bay in 1907.

The mouth of the cave has been blocked up with hurricane fencing for the past decade or so. When I was last inside, as a teenager, there were coke cans and chip bags blown into the corners and an acrid stench of urine throughout. It was dark, and cold. Our arms were folded across our chests, and we breathed shallowly through our mouths. I remember I scuffed the sand with my foot, as if some archeological treasure would come to the surface, something I could take away with me. I felt unwilling to leave until I found it, whatever it was.

"Let's get out of here, it stinks," my friend said. "There's nothing here."

He was right, there was nothing left. Just the story. Something to remember. Something to tell.

Mark Adams, Land of memories: Te Ana o Hineraki (Moa-Bone Point Cave, Redcliffs), 1989, gelatin print, Collection of Te Papa

Monday, August 25, 2008

Thinking of me

"They write 500 words, put me down, get their pay packets, pay off their credit cards, pay their mortgages, shag their wives - and when they do it's me they're thinking of."
Tracey Emin, speaking about journalists in 2002. For more from Her Emin-ence, click here.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Things to do in New Plymouth when you're dead

Luis Jimenez, Mustang, cast fibreglass, Denver International Airport, image from Denver's Public Art Program

Some years ago, I visited a friend who worked at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth. In my friend's office, there was a hand-lettered notice. It read: "Things to do in New Plymouth. 1. Visit the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. 2. Check on bus times."

I'm not certain whether that's still accurate -- you'd add Len Lye's Wind Wand to the list at least now -- but it's always summed up to me both the loneliness and the precariousness of "serious" art institutions out in the provinces, existing away from a critical mass of readymade constituents as well as the kind of big city infrastructure that enables visitation. I suspect of all the provincial art institutions, it's only the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery that now attracts out-of-town visitors in anything but negligible numbers: visitors, that is, who've travelled to the town expressly to see something on at the gallery.

Small children have pretty much put paid to any ideas I might once have had of jumping into the car and driving hundreds of miles to see an art exhibition: but if I am truthful, it was never high on the agenda. It took a very, very good show indeed to ever persuade me to leave the city limits. Once you've made the trip to a provincial town, seen an exhibition and had a cup of coffee, what next? Wander about a bit trying in vain to find a bookshop, then drive home again, in my experience. More fun just to have a lie-in and read about it later on the internet.

Danny Birchall, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, from Flickr

I'm interested, though, in what I've been reading about the increasingly energetic public art programme in Denver, Colorado (the New Plymouth of the Western Bible belt?), which seems to involve the fabrication of quite a lot of "big things" in response to the outsized spaces of the American West -- including Big Sweep by Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg outside the Denver Art Museum. Rather than replicating what other cities are doing, the people of Denver have determined that there will be a certain distinctive sensibility about their public sculpture (NZ cities take note). The Denver signature is apparently "the intersection of kitsch and big-thought art". Which sounds quite appealing, though I trust there are no large carrots or whopper gumboots involved. With the Clyfford Still Museum opening in 2010, sounds like Denver might well be worth a visit ... or perhaps I'll just read about it on the internet, like usual.

Coosje van Bruggen and Claes Oldenburg, Big Sweep. Photo by Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Full of ideas. Has balloons in studio.

Ugo Mulas, James Rosenquist, New York 1964, via We make money not art. Image courtesy of GAM di Torino.

I love a good artist's studio photograph. Knowing more about the artist's working process always gives me a greater appreciation of the work, unfashionable though that point of view has been for the past couple of decades.

It's my observation that certain types of studios tend to correlate with certain kinds of art-making. Wild visionary expressionists tend to work amidst mountains of dead paint tubes and ashtrays and stuff all over the floor: hard-edged abstractionists tend to have neatly arranged filing cabinets and a nice modernist chair to sit on. (From the shot above, it looks like Pop artists might incline slightly to the former.)

Academic and art collector Ellen Hulda Johnson visited Rosenquist in his studio in 1964 at around the time Ugo Mulas's photo was taken. The Smithsonian has posted images of her handwritten notes, on their Archives of American Art site, which are fascinating.

Note from Ellen Hulda Johnson's visit to James Rosenquist's studio. Date: 3 April 1964. Forms part of: Ellen Hulda Johnson papers, 1939-1980.

I'd like to see New Zealand art galleries post more of this kind of archival material. Auckland Art Gallery has made an excellent start with its digitisation project, and has been joined recently by the Christchurch Art Gallery who have placed some great documents online. For a look at Toss Woollaston's Rawleigh's distributor's card (you know you want to!), click here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ouch! Etc.

Self-portrait of the art critic: John Hurrell, Self Portrait I, 1993, acrylic and ink on paper maps

As I've mentioned before, I am no stranger to the stonkingly bad review. I know the heart-pounding moment as you open the paper to the arts page, holding your breath as you scan the review for words like "tour de force", "must-see" or "important"; followed by the sense of deflation and anguish as your eye instead catches on "disappointing", "inconsistent" and "unresolved".

I don't have to exert myself too greatly, then, to imagine what the staff of the National Gallery in Edinburgh must be feeling this morning after Richard Dorment's truly excoriating review of their exhibition, 'Impressionism & Scotland', appeared in yesterday's Telegraph.

Dorment (rhymes with "torment") opens by wondering whether the title of an exhibition can be reported to the Advertising Standards Authority for deliberately misleading the public. And it all goes downhill from there.

The work itself is terrible, reckons Dorment: the show "tells us nothing about Impressionism in France or in Scotland - but at least it confirms that even when French art hit rock bottom there was always some clueless Scot who could do worse." But the curatorial premise, it seems, is even worse: "At times it looks as though the curators tipped the contents of the storage areas of every museum in Scotland upside down just to see what fell out."

He concludes one of the most eyewatering reviews I've ever read by pointing the finger squarely at the two individuals he considers the prime culprits:
"The blame for this mess lies with the curator, Frances Fowle, who was also responsible for the unreadable catalogue. But the director general, John Leighton, is also at fault for not pulling the plug on this waste of time the minute he realised how flimsy the material in it was going to be."
Crikey. Smackdown.

Perhaps there's something rising in the global ether: over the ditch at The Art Life, the air is running blue as they tear strips off a guerilla advertising team, Mind Heist, who had the temerity not only to (a) monkey around with Martin Creed's Work no.850 at the Tate Britain, but (b) to attempt to pass off their nonsense as an interventionist art event. When all the time they were advertising running shoes.

And closer to home, art critic John Hurrell has pinned a large 'kick me!' sign to his back, asking his readers to comment on his own artwork which is currently being exhibited at the City Art Rooms in Lorne Street, Auckland. Owner-operators of galleries that also do framing, the Waikato Museum of Art and History, and Chris Heaphy, take note.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vision and perception

Gordon Walters, Untitled, 1952-1953, oil on canvas, Auckland Art Gallery

Following a trip to Europe where he researched contemporary abstraction, Gordon Walters produced more than 200 works between 1953 and 1956. Yet with only a couple of exceptions, he waited until 1974 to exhibit them publicly. On the occasion of his show at the Peter McLeavey Gallery in October 1974, Walters commented:
"They were not shown at the time I did them because I considered the artistic climate to be unsympathetic, if not downright hostile, to abstraction. Some of the themes still interest me and I frequently take up and rework ideas which were not fully realised at the time."

Something that's always interested me about these works are their similarity to the visual perception exercises used by psychologists and neurologists. Academic psychologist Arthur Schapiro has a great website, Illusion Sciences, in which he discusses the mechanics of the visual illusions he creates to study visual perception. Several recall Walters's compositions. Strikes me I'd like to read a really good essay looking at Walters's work from this perspective.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Waiting for the tall dark stranger

Max Ginsburg, cover art for The Lady in Winter.
"...Put that sword away if you're not going to use it."

New Zealanders are not a romantic people. Put it down to our dour Presbyterian heritage, perhaps: but public displays of emotion make us distinctly uneasy, while grand gestures of love are likely to prompt only cynical remarks. Colin McCahon knew it, famously lamenting the lack of lovers in our landscape; in his curmudgeonly rant against 70s society, The Passionless People, broadcaster Gordon McLauchlan bemoaned our inability to relate warmly to one another. And I would doubt much has changed since. Consequently, where New Zealand artists examine the subject of romance, it tends to be along the lines of love-gone-wrong.

Here for example is Seraphine Pick's Untitled (Yeti II) from 2006.

And another untitled work on paper by Pick from 1997.

And Yvonne Todd's Simone Hartley, LED print. (In fact almost anything at all by Yvonne Todd.)

Yet New Zealand has produced a disproportionately high number of the world's most successful romance writers, and we're massive consumers of Mills and Boon romance books. It's a guilty secret of a surprising number of people, including at least one public gallery director of my acquaintance.

A book looking at 100 years of Harlequin Mills & Boon book covers is just out: Joanna Bowring and Margaret O'Brien's The Art of Romance traces the changing aesthetics of female fantasy, from the square-jawed heros of the 1920s through to the new men of the 1980s and 1990s, by way of World War II heroes and 1960s Dr. Kildare lookalikes. Featuring titles such as Romance Goes Tenting, Egyptian Honeymoon, and Beware the Beast, The Art of Romance reveals the way in which Mills & Boon books both reflect social history and play a part in it: did you know, for example, that the women of West Germany distributed 750 000 romance novels to their sisters in the East when the wall came down? No, neither did I.

From my own limited excursions into the genre, it seems that while you can readily read about extra-terrestrial love affairs, as well as romantic adventures with spies, spooks, doctors, and the extraordinarily popular subset of "sheikhs", romance novels which feature art plots are few and far between.

Here's a few uncovered by my researches.

Louise Allen's A Model Debutante poses moral, as well as practical, problems: "Modelling nude for an artist might earn her keep, but when Tallie comes into an inheritance and takes her place in Society her secret would ruin her. She finds herself constantly in the company of Lord Arndale - suspicious of Tallie's past he still captures her heart. But dare she trust him?" (I suggest not.)

The fierce-but-brilliant-doctor meets shy-but-beautiful nurse plot is given the art treatment by Patricia Wilson in Out of Nowhere: "She wasn’t welcome! Emma Shaw had escaped an uncomfortable situation by fleeing to Credlestone Hall, her uncle's isolated home in Dartmoor. But when she arrived late one foggy night, her uncle wasn't there. Another man was. A man named Jake Garrani. Jake, it turned out, was a friend of her uncle's and a well-known artist. He was living at the house because he needed a quiet place to work, and he didn't want Emma "hanging around", disrupting his concentration. If she stayed, she'd have to pose for him... It was the last thing the shy and emotionally battered Emma wanted to do. But she refused to be scared off by this ... this tyrant. And she refused to give in to the attraction that sprang up between them. An unwanted attraction -- no matter how exciting, how compelling, it might feel!"

Mary Burchell's Under the Stars of Paris doesn't quite count, as the hero is a designer. But nonetheless the plot (as recounted by Avid Reader) could translate readily to other art genres: "Anthea is persuaded to step in and model a dress as an emergency. She soon finds herself working for the great designer the remarkable Florian a very dificult and demanding artist. Anthea copes well and soon finds herself falling under his spell."

At one end of the romance spectrum is the sports hero; at the other end the artist, muses Debra Salonen in the up-to-the-minute His Real Father. But whatever you do, don't get them mixed up. "No one ever confused the Kelly brothers, especially Lisa Malden. Even if they hadn't been fraternal twins, there wouldn't have been a problem. They were nothing like each other. Joe was quiet, and Patrick the life of the party. The jock and the artist. Both deserved to be loved. Each was important to Lisa. But only one was the father of her son!"

And in quite possibly the classic of the genre, Valerie Parv's The Love Artist: "She would never repeat her mother's mistake. Her mother's life had been ruined by the irresponsible actions of her artist husband. Now Carrie faced a double threat--the desire of her sister, Krys, to follow in their father's footsteps, and her own growing attraction to Roger Turkan, globe-trotting cartoonist. Roger was handsome, talented and adventurous, but he lived from hand-to-mouth. He didn't even have a home of his own. How could he give Carrie the love and security she so desperately needed?"

Globe-trotting cartoonist indeed. Run, Carrie, run.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Buller's chilly bin

Life in the South Island's no picnic for Bill and Walt.

"Creating a Victorian-esk ambience Cox appropriates William Morris’s imagery and the Buller’s Birds by juxtaposing images and combining silkscreen motifs."

From the press release for Michaela Cox at Fisher Galleries Christchurch, 24 July - 18 August

Five on Friday: Manet's Olympia

Of course, Manet himself was inspired by the Venus of Urbino, but there's no excuse for any of this...

Mel Ramos, Manet's Olympia 1972

Paul Spooner's automata, from The Southern Arizona Chapter of the arizona designer craftsmen

Susan Herbert, After Manet II; Olympia (detail)

Archemedes, Manet's Olympia Found in Translation, from Worth1000

Rosalind Trigg, After Manet's Olympia (Borzoi), from

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I put a spell on you

Once upon a time, before the Labour Government of 1984 did away with trade restrictions and brought us out from behind Muldoon's iron curtain, all the best music (that wasn't put out by Flying Nun) was imported into New Zealand by a handful of individuals in a few record shops round the country. If you grew up in Christchurch and fancied being somewhere else as soon as you could, you bought your music from Roy Montgomery at the EMI shop in Colombo Street, or Rob McLaughlin at the University Bookshop at Ilam. These guys were the tastemakers: when Roy Montgomery ordered up large on Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart, it debuted at #1 on the New Zealand Top 40.

If I added it up, I have probably literally spent months of my life flipping through LPs in record shops, an arcane and now outmoded pastime. While I like the convenience and immediacy of iTunes, I miss the physical presence of holding a record in your hand, a real object purchased from a real shop; the ritual of flipping through all the bins, the thrill of the chase and the final choice of the record, maybe something heard on the ZB All-Nighter, which I used to listen to under the covers, notebook in hand; then the transaction, paid in cash, with the obligatory banter from the record shop guy, the breathless moment as he quietly approved your choice; then the journey home on the bus, clutching the record shop bag; at home, flipping it out of the sleeve, poring over the liner notes, putting it on the turntable and setting the needle down, playing it at least half a dozen times back to back...

I've been thinking today about all that, and the first "import" record I ever bought, from Rob at UBS Records, the day after I saw Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise in 1984: Screamin' Jay Hawkins's I Put A Spell On You, which featured several times in the soundtrack. I don't think the sheer thrill of the moment when I bought the LP could ever be repeated; but then that's what every generation feels about the music that they grow up to. Screamin' Jay first recorded I Put A Spell On You in 1956, but his particular brand of voodoo jive backed my teenage years in Christchurch in the 1980s. Such a terrible hammy old schtick: Screaming Jay Hawkins starting his stage act coming out of a coffin, wearing a glittery Elvis cape, eyes rolling, face painted with white boot polish, a skull called Henry clutched in his hand. It all makes a terrible kind of sense in retrospect.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

Ed Ruscha, Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles, 1967, Detail of Dodgers Stadium, 1000 Elysian Park Ave, from Tate Online

News that Ed Ruscha and his friend Laddie John Dill are battling the City of Los Angeles over the right to keep working in their open-air studio in Venice Beach (cue Joni Mitchell -- yes, the city wants to put up a parking lot) has prompted a flood of op-ed pieces, mostly coming down on the side of the artists. While the New York Times comments: "The project has quickly emerged as a fight between the artistic values that led to the renewal of Venice and the commercial interests that are reshaping the community’s character," the local Venice Paper queries: "Has Venice become a place that values asphalt more than two artists who have made huge contributions in making Venice Venice. Must we rush so quickly to mediocrity?"

The problem, as ever, stems from the gentrification of the district, following the usual scenario in which artists in search of cheap space and interesting architectural character move into a run-down area, inadvertently make it fashionable, push up the property prices and have to deal with new demands for the shabby spaces no one previously gave a second thought to, as well as navigating neighbourhood streets suddenly clogged with MumVees and mobile coffee carts and developers in Porsches. (Like Grey Lynn fifteen years ago, or Mt Victoria ten; though they're still waiting on Linwood...)

Laura Wilson, Ed Ruscha takes a break with Butch in the streets around his Venice studio, 2007, Wallpaper*.

I've been thinking lately about the way in which officialdom treats artists -- which seems to me something of a measuring stick for a society's degree of civilisation. (To this end, I'm keenly anticipating the impending launch of The Complete Written Correspondence between the Rt Hon Richard Meros and Creative New Zealand: Volume One.) With a few honourable exceptions, almost all of them to be found in the capital, NZ's record on bureaucratic artist-friendliness at a local level is pretty woeful. It's not that commercial interests need necessarily always to be pitted against artists: both are important in the lives of communities.

Why, for example, do city councils not work with developers to provide cheap studio space in otherwise unoccupied "land-banked" buildings? Keep the artists happy on the one hand; look at giving the developers a rates rebate on the other: the result being an interesting and attractive place for people to live. It's something that art collector James Wallace used to do with his buildings on the Auckland waterfront, pre the Viaduct development. In particular, the Christchurch City Council would seem to have a few possible sites on its books currently, courtesy of beleaguered property czar Dave Henderson.

Artists, bureaucrats and property developers generally come together, of course, when there's public sculpture in the offing. Lately we've seen the rise of the kind of slightly dubious public sculpture that stands as a memorial to something that's been knocked down in order to make way for the development which commissioned the sculpture. (It's been reported that a public artwork commemorating the historic air force base is on the cards for the new Ngai Tahu-developed subdivision at Wigram.)

Ed Ruscha, Utopian Slumps

The old Arts Bonus Scheme in Wellington, however, resulted in several useful public works being attached to new developments, including the definitive Culbert/Hotere collaboration, Fault, on the exterior of the City Gallery Wellington. Regrettably the Resource Management Act has put paid to this sort of "percent for art" scheme in New Zealand: you're no longer allowed to get away with building an extra floor or two if you also put a decent work of art in the forecourt. National have said that they're looking at reviewing the Resource Management Act in relation to a number of issues, including urban design. I hope whoever's in the government benches come November does; the RMA is endlessly problematic when applied to public sculpture, and a complete minefield for artists to deal with.

Meanwhile, more power to Ed Ruscha's arm in sorting out his real estate problems in Venice Beach. He's not saying anything publicly about it of course: he never does. (If he were a New Zealand artist, the media would call him reclusive.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008

Taking one for the team; or, Never mind the Pollocks

One of the great advantages of having retired from the corporate life is that I no longer have to participate in team-building exercises. As it was, I generally had to be forced to do so almost at pistol point; I am not one of nature's joiner-inners, particularly where there are humorous relay-races, group problem-solving activities, or anything even remotely hinting of theatre sports on the agenda. I am much less interested in breaking down barriers than in strictly maintaining them at all times, for everyone's personal safety and peace of mind.

But it's all behind me now. No more forced jollity with people you'd rather cross the street to avoid. No more "breaking the ice" with a revealing personal introduction when the bean bag is tossed to you, or "learning to trust" (as if!) one's appalling colleagues on some muddy assault course, or being "forced out of one's comfort zone" when the kayak overturns in the choppy waters of the Abel Tasman. (Of course, one might argue that every day at home with small children is a team-building exercise of a sort. Certainly I often feel at the end of the day as if I have completed half a dozen army assault courses in the company of some fairly insubordinate underlings. But at least I am the boss, and if I say no beanbags, then that's how it is. OK?)

This week I'm feeling a bit sorry for the big guy, who is being made to go on some dreadful Olympic-themed team-building exercise (Special Olympics more like). I can only imagine the sheer Ricky Gervais-ish vileness of it all. The red team. The blue team. The jolly facilitator. The sweaty fool from IT. The cringeworthy sad sack dying to show leadership qualities. The bouncy slide. The bean bag toss. The curling ham sandwiches and stewed Cona coffee. The horror, the horror.

A friend once did an art-themed team-building day with his office. One of the activities involved collaborating as a group on a Jackson Pollock-esque drip painting. Needless to say, the results were not good; the resulting "artwork" looked like the floor of the gents after a drunken paintball fight. (Which on due reflection might have been an entirely appropriate result; Pollock himself was renowned for sprinkling it about. As well as for being a CIA stooge. But I suspect he wouldn't have suffered team-building lightly.)

Today is the 52nd anniversary of Jackson Pollock's death, which took place behind the wheel of his mint green 1950 Oldsmobile 88.

Onkar Kular, Game Merchandise: Jack the Dripper Pedal Car

As you raise a glass to him tonight, you might want to reflect upon some of the tributes various artists have made to his memory.

The Etchasketchist, Jackson Pollock

Onkar Kular (again): The End of the Road, proposal for a Sony PSP car racing simulation game in which players choose from a range of 20 drivers and corresponding automobiles all based on famous celebrity car deaths. Pollock's Oldsmobile has a special "abstract expressionist oil spill option".

A Jackson Pollock kitchen rangehood, custom-made for "a museum curator" by Metallo Arts. (They've also done a Jasper Johns.)

Or you could always while away the afternoon on your own drippy masterpiece.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Last of England

English words I had no use for after 1979.

1. Aniseed balls.
2. Lollipop lady.
3. Weir.
4. Abbatoir.
5. Milk float.
6. Belisha beacon.
7. Washing-up bowl.
8. Nil-all draw.
9. Pelican crossing.
10. Third division.
11. Pier attractions.
12. Copse.
13. Viennese fancy.
14. Walnut whip.
15. Water diviner.
16. Plimsolls.
17. Radiator.
18. Ace.
19. P.E. kit.
20. Leylines.
21. Lean-to.
22. Allotment.
23. Scullery.
24. Chukka boots.
25. Whelks.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Gracious living

I am a nosy beggar, as well as a bit of a cheapskate, so when the latest editions of Urbis or NZ Home or NZ House and Garden are out, I pop into our local newsagent to have a quick read. I scan the contents page to see if I vaguely know anyone featured (tragic behaviour, I'm well aware), and then I flick through the magazine to have a quick shufti at the art.

Following this highly scientific research methodology, I've identified four kinds of art collection featured in lifestyle magazines. There's the "decor collection", which features coloured rectangles chosen by interior designers from affordable art shows and the kind of galleries which, as John Hurrell says, also specialise in framing; these works look like art, but aren't at all. Then there's the "generic Auckland collection", which includes a work on paper by Gretchen Albrecht, a small Bambury and perhaps a Gimblett, with a bronze by Paul Dibble or Terry Stringer on the window sill.

There's a figurative variant found throughout the country which includes a Fomison painting, probably a Frizzell or two, maybe a Richard McWhannell; possibly also, depending on the age of the collector, either a Shane Cotton and a Tony de Lautour or a Maddox and a Clairmont. (In last month's NZ House and Garden I admired Hamish Keith and Ngila Dickson's Fomison and Frizzell paintings, as well as their extensive collection of art cushions.) Finally there's the sort of top-end collection that includes a free-standing figure by Ronnie van Hout, a bulbous excrescence of paint by Rohan Weallans, and an installation by et al featuring tape hiss and a tangle of speaker wire.

I've had several friends and acquaintances over the years who've had their homes "done" by design magazines. As a consequence, I know that houses featured in design mags are to real life as the catwalk is to gardening clobber. I have stored dodgy furniture and cardboard boxes full of crap and knicknacks for a neighbour who was going for an uncharacteristically minimal look in her spread; I also helped her move in the flash new furniture she had borrowed for the occasion. Her place was unrecogisable when the the magazine came out. Other friends have appeared to entirely lose the enormous TV that habitually dominates their lounge, or to have acquired several tasteful pieces of Scandinavian furniture immediately prior to the shoot.

It's similar, I suppose, to the kind of massive clear-out and smarten-up that you do when you put your house on the market. (We rented -- and entirely filled -- a storage unit with objects removed from our last house in order to sell it.) Oh yes, I always live with all surfaces completely bare of objects and an enormous vase of tulips in the kitchen... it's gracious living all day everyday round at our house.

For the nosy beggar, real estate listings can also provide a means of checking out other people's art collections, though you're more likely to see a faded print of The Haywain than a previously unexhibited Donald Judd. Real estate listings also supply another extremely guilty pleasure likewise provided by interior design mags: the opportunity to marvel at the extreme foulness of other people's taste.

Imagine, then, my great joy at coming across It's Lovely! I'll Take It!, a blog which deals solely with unfortunate real estate photographs. (The photos above are borrowed from it. Rather than being taken at my house, in case you were wondering.) Not much art hanging on the walls at It's Lovely!, but in a way, each image is a work of art in its own right. Great stuff.

*I got to It's Lovely! I'll Take It!, courtesy of Christchurch journalist and photographer Adrienne Rewi. It's one of her favourites, too.