Contemporary art in the spotlight

Local artists (from left) Ed Ritchie, Alexandra Kennedy, Justin Spiers and Octavia Cook have been...
Local artists (from left) Ed Ritchie, Alexandra Kennedy, Justin Spiers and Octavia Cook have been selected to exhibit in Suite 20-21 at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. PHOTO: GREGOR RICHARDSON
Four artists significant to Dunedin’s contemporary art practice have been selected to show their work at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Rebecca Fox talks to the artists about their varying works.

The skin of a sea slug, painted over graffiti, flamingos and air shafts.

Each informs or is part of the contemporary works of four Dunedin artists who have been brought together to highlight the creative landscape of the city during the past two years.

It has been a long time coming as the show was originally planned for March last year, but Covid-19 intervened and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery show was postponed.

Since 2014, the gallery has been holding a biennial exhibition series aimed at focusing attention on the changing aspects of contemporary art in Dunedin.

The way it did this has varied from show to show. After Covid’s interruption it was decided to split the exhibition into two parts.

So, late last year "Suite 20-21: Part One" featured Ayesha Green’s "Wrapped Up In Clouds" exhibition.

This year, in "Suite 20-21: Part Two", the works of painter Alexandra Kennedy, installation artist Ed Ritchie, photographer Justin Spiers and jeweller Octavia Cook will be exhibited.


S (sea slug) brooch, by Octavia Cook
S (sea slug) brooch, by Octavia Cook
Jeweller Octavia Cook admits people will have to be in the right frame of mind to wear her latest works.

The large colourful acrylic and silver brooches feature skin patterns — from sea slugs to a locust wing.

Another features images of her own skin — moles and all.

Each work has been carefully chosen and with great thought as the series of brooches, called "S.H.A.L.L.O.W", revises the tradition of "Dearest" acrostic jewellery popular in Victorian and Edwardian society.

In Dearest jewellery, a series of different gems — diamond, emerald, amethyst or alexandrite, ruby, emerald, sapphire, topaz or tanzanite — were set together as a material expression of the word dearest.

They were a token of affection between the giver and receiver.

Cook chose the word shallow for a few reasons: it is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the history of questioning jewellery’s place in galleries as well as to the nature of skin.

"Shallow can be seen as a derogatory word, but I’m reclaiming it."

Also, her work is often influenced by ideas concerning consumption, desire and luxury goods.

"The ultimate in luxury is often thought of as the skin of an animal, like a leopard. Why do people lust after a Chanel bag or covet crocodile skin?"

While she is known for her cameo jewellery, which often features her own silhouette, Cook decided it was time for a change, to go more abstract.

"The cameos are accessible, familiar to people; these push the boundaries."

Her latest brooches are made from inlaid acrylic with each piece designed to fit into the other to create the skin patterns she chose.

"It [the material] is slightly familiar, but taken out of context. They’re flat, big and colourful."

It has taken hours of painstaking work to create the brooches, something that could possibly have been done on a laser cutter.

"I had to do it myself. I like the quirks that happen when you make something by hand. They’re not too perfect or clinical."

As well as the moles, sea slug, and locust wing, others feature an anaconda, a locust body, an owl and a face she found in the wood of a tree. The first letter of each spell shallow.

"I didn’t want to go with the obvious. I wanted things you wouldn’t normally put on your body. It was fun, but harder than you think."

Originally from Auckland, Cook moved south nine years ago and settled in Port Chalmers.

This is her first major show in Dunedin for many years, and she appreciates being selected for the show in her adopted home.

"It was an amazing chance to make something without the pressure to sell."

‘Urban Erasures’

Urban Erasure (002), by Alexandra Kennedy
Urban Erasure (002), by Alexandra Kennedy
Alexandra Kennedy is fascinated by erasure, in particular the overpainting of graffiti in the urban landscape.

The Dunedin abstract painter and Dunedin Art School lecturer sees the erasing of graffiti as a repression of life in the social space.

Her latest work has been informed by research into the history of abstraction and the way certain aspects, specifically non-objective painting, are oriented towards purely mathematical, reductive methods.

"I wanted to bring a poetic dimension to that kind of work.

"Rather than using a hard-edged grid it becomes a kind of painterly provisional kind of presentation. Possibly a provisional experience for the viewer as well."

Space is important to Kennedy, and in this exhibition she works with different kinds of space.

"The gestures of erasure in social space is an expression of the unconscious and repressed life of the social space."

The paintings are physically oriented around a grid, which is an example of modernity and is a reference of the concept of mental space, she says.

"Mental space is like rational space, geometry, that kind of thing. I’m bringing two different kinds of space together — mental space and representational space, conceptual space with lived space."

Using translucent layers of pigment, tone, texture and form, Kennedy has built up a series of erasures through the painting although visible traces of earlier forms can still be seen.

"They function the same way as the sites around the city with the history laid over it, time and time again."

While her earlier works were random, she has used a predetermined system drawing on colour mixing charts in this series.

"It’s taking my own decision making out of it. I’m not using my gesture, I’m using someone else’s."

There is an aspect of logic being applied, but this, at some point, fails, she says. Those vagaries become a third kind of space.

"It’s not dualistic, it’s not two opposing things. There is a third space."

She believes the grid and erasure are different manifestations of the zero gesture used in her earlier works.

A teacher at Dunedin Art School for 15 years, Kennedy came to Dunedin to complete her master’s degree and never left. She now co-ordinates post-graduate students and teaches art history as well as doing her PhD through the Australian National University in Canberra.

She is happy to have been selected for the show.

"It’s great they’ve got this forum as part of the gallery’s cycle of exhibitions."

‘Central Heating’

Hopper (moss), by Ed Ritchie
Hopper (moss), by Ed Ritchie
Ed Ritchie is making a series of discrete interventions, modifications and additions to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery space.

Having lacked a sense of orientation and place in relation to outside while working inside the gallery, Ritchie thought about ways in which he could open the space, physically and conceptually.

"I began thinking about all the mechanisms operating between the spaces, how we are constantly connected to other spaces and sharing the same air through these inner networks."

That led him to think about the properties of mesh and the role it plays in filtering, ventilating or heating the spaces people live in and how the designs of those systems are incorporated into interiors.

"How they can visually stand in for each other."

An important part of Ritchie’s practice is using found material.

"For this exhibition, most of the found material was sourced from just outside buildings — a space where things collect and become weathered, but not destroyed and not fully useless."

The exhibition has also allowed him to use photography and structural interventions, which he has not had the resources to do before.

Ritchie says the work describes the sonic, thermal and ventilative mechanisms that are constantly regulating the spaces people are in "not by simulating them, but by insinuating them through their assemblages".

Ritchie, who graduated from the Dunedin Art School in 2017, is interested in the transient nature of space.

"Part of my work describes the by-product of these changes and the traces of shifting decisions."

Alongside this is a fascination with how temperatures can change people’s experience of things, such as interpreting time going slower or faster.

He also looks at how that is filtered or regulated from the outdoors to the indoors and how the design of the process impact peoples’ experience.

"And how these inner workings of buildings, the ventilation/heating systems, can become both traps and habitats for the natural world as we often limit those natural habitats in our backyards."

The opportunity to show in the DPAG exhibition is significant for Ritchie given he is an emerging artist.

"It is an incredible opportunity for this stage in my career — the gallery have been very supportive in helping facilitate my ideas and made me feel like nothing was unachievable ."

‘The Kingdom’

A death that keeps dying, by Justin Spiers
A death that keeps dying, by Justin Spiers
Dunedin photographer and gallery owner Justin Spiers’ fascination with the relationships between humans and animals is central to his new exhibition.

For 15 years, he has photographed interaction between man and animal, whether it is companionship, cruelty, entertainment or exploitation.

"The Kingdom" amalgamates areas of his photographic practice where ideas around relationships between humans and other animals are present.

Spiers is known for his "Pet Photo Booth" (in collaboration with Yvonne Doherty), which creates studio portraits of house pets with humans complete with a scenic wallpaper backdrop.

"The images reveal a somewhat awkward beauty in the bonds we make with animals. In ‘The Kingdom’ this absurdity will converse with broader depictions of these interactions."

The works are all photographic, essentially documentary in nature, and range from depictions of ancient rock art to zoos in Asia and recent works from around Dunedin.

"There are castles, swans, rabbits, teddy bears and flamingos present, it’s quite fun. Animals are so present in our world that the scope is quite broad ...

I think a fascination with animals is elemental to everyone. Our childhood stories and language are filled with animal depictions and references. Humans consume them, play with them, wear them and they permeate our psyche."

Being selected for the exhibition has given Spiers, who has exhibited around New Zealand and Australia, a unique opportunity to see how his distinct projects sit together and inform each other.

"Suite 20-21: Part Two’", Dunedin
Public Art Gallery March 20 - July 18

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