Art Seen: 12 December

In this week's Art Seen, Robyn Maree Pickens looks at exhibitions from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Philip Trusttum, and a joint exhibition from Ophelia King and Amy Unkovich.

 

Persephone returns to Demeter, by A. Lois White.
Persephone returns to Demeter, by A. Lois White.
‘‘The Circle’’, various artists (Dunedin Public Art Gallery)

In a perfect world, this exhibition would be installed in a circular gallery space — not only to manifest the formal arrangement indicated by the exhibition’s title, but to bring into closer dialogue the intimacy of these works, and in some instances the intimacy of the artists themselves, such as Frances Hodgkins and Dorothy Kate Richmond.

The key intimacy particular to this grouping of artists is their gender — women artists making art during a time (late 1800s-1950s) when it was harder for women to dedicate their lives to art, and indeed for their work to be received seriously — and their focus on the female form.

In a range of formal modes from painterly figuration to modernist leaning flattened forms, the curated works of all seven artists, whether expatriates or Aotearoa-based, take as their subject either the clothed or nude female form. Such a subject was considered appropriate for a female artist to paint, whereas the nude male was not.

However this double standard (men could paint either gender) did allow intimate relationships between women to exist, even if under the guise of Greek mythology, such as Persephone returns to Demeter (1933), by A. Lois White.

As the wall text accurately notes, there is little apparent age difference between the two women to suggest a mother-daughter relationship, and this equivalence heightens the work’s erotic charge.

Among the female subjects are Maori women, which are discomfiting due to the historical absence of paintings by Maori women.

 

Dance Dance, by Philip Trusttum
Dance Dance, by Philip Trusttum
‘‘Look Look’’, Philip Trusttum (Brett McDowell Gallery)

The double imperative in the title of Philip Trusttum’s most recent exhibition at Brett McDowell Gallery captures a measure of the breathless energy pulsing through these mixed media on paper (including Nepalese paper) works from 2012.

The title also alludes to the ongoing presence of Trusttum’s grandson, whose toys have featured previously in the artist’s large-scale unstretched canvases and in these predominately smaller drawings.

When viewing these works it is easy to imagine the excitement of a small child willing attention from an adult. Finally, the doubleness of the title could be interpreted as an allusion to the hybrid forms and figurines at the centre of each work.

This hybridity is evident in a long slender work titled Top and Tail which comprises a smiling yellow doll-like toy wearing a bright orange jumper and an upside down brown bear’s torso. The arms of each, and the head of the doll, are figuratively pierced with oversized drawing pins, as if caught by an entomologist, and drawn.

As with other drawings, the ground (the paper) is glued to create additional drawing space, as is the case with the doll’s arms, or to add further areas of texture and pattern. There is a sense in these drawings that the pictorial story-space could be continually enlarged and expanded.

Along with the figurines and oversized pins, this group of works also features a reoccurring knife, which counteracts any ‘‘cute’’ factor associated with children’s toys.

 

‘‘Apples and Oranges’’, 2019 (installation shot), by Ophelia King and Amy Unkovich
‘‘Apples and Oranges’’, 2019 (installation shot), by Ophelia King and Amy Unkovich
‘‘Apples and Oranges’’, Ophelia King and Amy Unkovich Laurel Projects

The title ‘‘Apples and Oranges’’ suggests two quite different entities, yet there is such cohesion between Ophelia King and Amy Unkovich’s works that I initially thought the exhibition was entirely collaborative.

Perhaps the title, like aspects of the exhibition’s repurposing of materials and environments, is playful. Perhaps, as the fourth time these two artists have exhibited together, there is an anticipatory fluency that allows for a measure of diversity and complementarity to commingle.

In any regard, King and Unkovich had to agree to paint the walls in the main gallery yellowy-green (‘‘Citrus Grove’’), the ceiling burgundy (‘‘Ruby Rose’’) and the reading room (with books removed) pale blue. And hang white net curtains over the bottom half of the two main gallery windows. If the intention is to create a domestic environment, then this is an uneasy domesticity, which seems plausible.

Within this uneasily domesticated gallery environment, King and Unkovich have each installed five works that are primarily positioned in close, dialogic relationship with each other.

In different yet complementary ways, both artists draw on materials and forms from domestic construction, such as kitchen tiles, plaster, gate-like steel shapes, and possible architectural remnants. King combines kitchen tiles, plaster, and photos of roses to create small built worlds of lightness and weight that she then frames.

Unkovich works in two modes in this exhibition: flat, shaped paintings, and sculptural works that make a play between positive and negative space.

-By Robyn Maree Pickens

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