A Jolt to the Senses

EXPECT TO BE CHALLENGED BY A CLUTCH OF ART GALLERIES IN PUTIKI STREET, SECRETED AWAY BEHIND MCDONALDS IN ARCH HILL. 

Five galleries within steps of one another. Each with a radically different agenda. The juxtaposition could not be more dramatic.


Had I not taken this short tour as part of Auckland’s highly recommended ArtExplore  group guided by New Zealand’s foremost art critic TJ McNamara, the experience would have been entirely different. Be warned, the Putiki Street walk is not art of the decorative kind. As an art experience of contrasts conveying many messages that expand your appreciation, it is both informative and enriching.


First stop, Toi Ora, emitting a strong odor of waxy crayons, it recalls the busy ramshackle atmosphere of a kindergarten. Because this gallery is not just a show space. It promotes art as therapy with positive messages for mental health. Gallery director Faye Norman explains it is a working studio offering well-being through creativity, and specialises in creative projects, art classes and workshops. It’s well-documented that the concentration involved in creating art helps calm.


Featured artist Andrew Blythe is known for his unique style of drawing using noughts and crosses – symbolizing the confusing information going on in his head before he makes decisions. Initially TJ explains he didn’t review Andrew’s work because he regarded it as a form of therapy. “I thought it was intensely personal. I thought, where is it going? It belongs to a thing called Outsider Art, which is internationally recognized but by no means naïve. But these works by Andrew are interesting because they are so varied and complex.”


A few doors along, a courtyard embraced by rusty Corten steel walls is a poignant introduction to the colour and surface themes found inside the voluminous Fox Jensen gallery space. TJ explains the gallery is a branch of the Jensen Gallery in Sydney – which always show avant-garde art, mostly abstract. “There are only about 20 to 25 serious galleries in Auckland that have survived (since the 1960s) if they can find a place in the spectrum.
This is one.”


Currently on show are 20 year old works that are typically Jensen, “Not about story telling but rich exercises in colour and surface,” explains TJ. The exhibition of extreme colour field abstraction features Maria Lalic’s plain and complex surfaces in steel, wood, linen and zinc.
 

Julia Morison’s remarkable shaped pieces explore our understanding of how value is assigned by the viewer rather than innate. Her unusual shaped pieces contrast the precious and rough, untouchable surfaces - in gold, ash, silver, blood and excrement.

Two Rooms focuses on hand-thrown ceramic works. But not as we know them. TJ explains, as people became adept at creating hand-thrown pottery in the 1970s, the work risked too closely resembling the commercial ceramics they had originally reacted against. So the artists became deliberately subversive, creating familiar shapes like pots, vases and teapots but they were unusable and considered sculptures rather than utilitarian objects.


Most of the works in the Handbuilt Made In Clay show curated by Denis O’Connor are reactionary. Vases don’t function as vases. Teapots don’t pour. They are impressively skillful, extraordinary, beautiful, even revolting but curiously compelling.

Upstairs, an exhibition by Lauren Winstone has all the skilful pottery techniques but familiar pieces like bowls are rendered unusable with leaning pieces spilling from them. “This is sculpture, not pottery. It uses pottery techniques that are inventive and clever.”

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Over the road at Orexart, we enjoy superbly painted portraits by Tongan artist Paul Jackson. Orexart, previously Oedipex Rex in Kartoum Place, encourages the development of promising newcomers. Director Rex Armstrong enthusiastically explains the works are not portraits – but emblems by this highly skilled draftsman. At first we see heavily tattooed Maori faces but Jackson weaves in assorted mythologies showing the influence of colonial England and Christianity in a vibrant collision of cultures. They are bold and intriguing. Rex’s commentary draws you enabling appreciation of the minute detail.

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Each gallery survives if it finds a place in the spectrum. This is at the extreme end of the spectrum.” Hopkinson Mossman, which is easy to miss, occupies two crisp rooms in a 1960s warehouse. It has represented winners of the Walters Prize, contemporary art widely recognised and debated as a feature of cultural art life.


Having followed the Walters Prize for several years, I was ready to be challenged by Fiona Connor’s installation, Brick, Cane and Paint. To be honest, I was more than perplexed by the lack-lustre notice board in the first gallery, pinned with mundane instructions, notes and business cards. Art? You’re joking!


Thankfully, director Danae Mossman emerged to shine some light. “She takes objects out of context and puts them into the context of a gallery. It reminds us of the way galleries translate objects into art.” She explains all the notices come from a brick factory in California and O’Connor painstakingly reconstructed every piece with a high level of detail, recreating surfaces, screen-printing notices, adding paint splotches – in a very conscious way.” By juxtaposing real life objects in a brand new way, she gives a heightened contemplation of objects. 


We were reminded art is often as much about the idea and the process as the outcome.


Danae’s informed comment gave a new understanding forcing you to look beyond the obvious. 


Completing this short journey feels like a short sharp jolt to the senses. The art is edgy and challenging, just as it should be in an emerging suburb gaining a reputation as one of the coolest most creative city fringe places in Auckland.


Walking tours are held Saturday mornings through Spring & Autumn in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, with local art expert guides.

See the website http://artexplore.co.nz for more information and to sign up for tours.