Texts / Press

Pick and Mix

Mark Amery, 2012

James R Ford, Sweet Snake Pi, 2012

A good title can only take you so far. Sometimes however that can be quite a way. Particularly when the art backs it up. A great example is Never Mind the Pollocks, a small, smart exhibition currently on at {Suite} Gallery on Oriental Parade.

Never Mind the Bollocks was the title of the Sex Pistols’ first album, effectively summing up punk’s offhand witty stand against the ponderous and laborious musical statements of prog rock. Featuring four male artists, with his twist on that title, artist/curator James R Ford also takes a stand against the stereotypical male art as producing the big, weighty and earnest (a la Jackson Pollock). This is light, quick-witted work, which also at its best crackles with deeper ideas about the world.

It’s not that art by the New Zealand male has been light on humour – the 1980s saw the likes of Ronnie Van Hout, Terry Urbahn, Peter Robinson, Julian Dashper and Michael Parekowhai begin to wittily twist cultural norms. Local painter Rob McLeod is a master. Yet the image of artist as a serious man casts a long shadow. You have to search hard to find humour in a McCahon, Mrkusich or Woollaston.

Youle, Kerr and Ford all often employ joke tactics as hooks into their work, and aren’t afraid of the small and the light. At their best their work makes you look at the world differently, at other times you may just not get it and it comes off plain silly. They would at least ask that you have the patience you give an abstract painter’s slaps.

The exhibition starts with the painting that faces the door, Wayne Youle’s Beast. A Malevich style tilted square canvas, much like a road sign, has within it the word Beast stencilled, with the letters made up of abstract expressive strokes. This was the weakest work for me, but speaks most obviously to the title. It delivers its load quickly, leaving me little to chew on. In this show I like Sook; a smaller painting featuring an eye, with the eyebrow above it replaced by a bone, both are leaking Pollock-like drips of paint. In the art world big men do cry. Sook is a piece of eye candy and I keep being drawn back to it, with Youle proving you can be witty and poignant in one sign-like motion.

Speaking of candy, opposite it is a shiny red set of scales full of writhing, brightly-coloured gummy snakes, entitled Sweet Snake Pi (mix). On closer inspection just enough snakes have been added to ensure a weight reading equivalent to the rough approximate of pi of 3.14 on the dial. The delicate placing of sweets might be equated to that of abstract marks on a canvas, and there’s something of Marcel Duchamp in such a pop readymade.

This is part of Ford’s ongoing series of visualizations of pi. Playing with memories from childhood they play with how the smallest and most childish of things are part of the most serious things that bind us. Pi is the mathematical constant that gives us the circle. It’s a mystery of endless digits that, like an artwork, people continue to try and crack for some deeper meaning. Art can be considered to also be operating in a kind of loop, where the newest of ideas always represents the oldest. “Pop will eat itself” as the saying goes, and in a drawing here Ford represents a snake creating a circle as it devours its tail, its scales displaying the number of Pi.

Should artists bother trying to chase some divine sense of mystery, this exhibition seems to ask. Don’t we just go round in circles? At the very least, Ford seems to suggest, we should have a sense of humour about it. Kerr’s video Run Artist Run is another kind of loop, the artist shown running round and around a suburban traffic island, with the words ‘artist run’ on his t-shirt. It makes you muse on the artist’s angst in creating a distinct practice that is their own “artist run space”, but which can find themselves bound to run around the same block of ideas their entire career.

The slightly odd man out here is Linden Simmons, but his three small watercolours of images of enormous bits of crashed aircraft are exquisite. The images are lifted from newspapers, and Simmons’ painstaking care over their rendition is a moving counterbalance to our media obsession with wreckage. Where they do fit in this company is as the antithesis of the big shiny muscular statements of male pop artists before him.

Originally published: The Dominion Post, NZ, 19th January 2012