Monday, August 25, 2014
  Walters Prize contenders: Living rough and a taxi to nowhere

 Published NZ Herald July 19, 2014

There's no cover charge for the Walters Prize this year. It would be hard to charge for a show that has so little to see, apart from Simon Denny's reportage of a conference that happened in another country at another time.
The panel that chose the finalists has instead come up with projects that lean heavily on process and performance.
Like much of what has been served up at past Walters, the preference is for work that needs to have words wrapped around it, like a rough nest of twigs or shredded plastic, as if the viewer's eyes are irrelevant -- art for the blind.
That doesn't mean it's bad. It's work made by people who take themselves very seriously. It just may take some effort to unpack, as you try to grasp the notion of what is contemporary art.
The Walters Prize is the way Auckland City Gallery Toi o Tamaki deals with contemporary art. It outsources the selection of the finalists to four people from elsewhere in the New Zealand art world who come together for a day to choose what are supposedly the best shows of the previous two years.
The gallery's curators then work with the artists to recreate those exhibitions or something similar, and two months into the show a foreign judge will parachute in and select a winner.
The winner gets $50,000, a residency in New York or similar, and the kudos of what the gallery is dubbing "New Zealand's toughest art prize".
This time, the panel has rewarded the gallery by asserting that the best current New Zealand art is not something that can be exhibited in an institution like Toi o Tamaki.
For an award named after a painter -- Gordon Walters -- who started to regularly exhibit only in his 40s, the Walters selections so far have shown a bias against older artists and object makers.
The making of aesthetic choices, which was a major part of Walters' practice, is also old hat to award nominees, who prefer to describe a process and let it run.
As to the question of what contemporary art is, the answer seems to be, "It's what contemporary artists do."
There seems to be an assumption in some quarters that Simon Denny is being set up to win, as his work All You Need is Data is the only one that can be seen in the gallery, and he's the one with the high international profile.
Since the judge, Charles Esche, will make his selection without discussing the works with the curators or the panel, it's not a valid assumption.
Denny, who is based in Germany, approached the organisers of the 2012 Digital Life Design conference for permission to use the presentations to create an artwork. DLD is a sort of European Nethui that looks at advances in technology, and it attracts many of the heavy hitters in the field.
From the evidence Denny presented on 90 stretched inkjet canvases, which are hung in chronological order on steel pipes snaking through the gallery, it's yet more buzzword-laden blather about the internet.
Denny is being called a "post-internet" artist, which kind of begs the question of what he was pre.
What's missing is the giveaways that are a feature of such talkfests. Maybe the gallery could make up for the loss of its entrance fee by renting tables to vendors who could give away pens and stress balls and the chance to win an iPad in exchange for a business card.
Maddie Leach's starting point for If You Find the Good Oil Let Us Know was 70 litres of what she was told was whale oil from a quenching tank at the engineering school at Massey University in Wellington.
Her research showed it to be mere mineral oil, which she decided was best used by swapping it with Holcim in Westport for the equivalent of the amount of cement that could be produced with that much fuel.
The cement was then cast into the sea offshore from Taranaki, where Leach had a residency.
Nothing about the work produced an exhibition. There were letters to the editor of the Taranaki Daily News by Leach and her guest contributors, which generated responses from the public. These were collected in a book published by the Govett Brewster Gallery, along with correspondence about her research.
For the Walters Prize reworking, a photo of the sea closing over the lump of concrete was run in the Daily News as a paid double-page ad. Some of the material is also available on a project website, so those who are interested have potentially a fair amount to mull over.
For his work Mo'ui tukuhausia, Tongan-born artist Kalisolaite 'Uhila is also choosing to sit outside the gallery, in his case literally. For the three months the exhibition is on he is joining the growing number of rough sleepers living around Albert Park and the central city. 'Uhila first did the work at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga. That was for two weeks.
New York-based Tehching Hsieh did a similar work in 1981, living outside for a year. Unlike Hsieh, 'Uhila won't self-document his performance, but his association with a public institution means a level of attention other rough sleepers are denied, including monitoring by the gallery's security guards and direct involvement with the Auckland City Mission and police.
Worth noting is that the Walters Prize was opened by Mayor Len Brown, whose council passed a bylaw that includes a ban on "nuisance" begging. 'Uhila would have breached the bylaw when he pitched a tent alongside the gallery to shelter from the winter chill.
Luke Willis Thompson's piece inthisholeonthisislandwhereiam takes gallery visitors by taxi to a suburban house which purportedly is the artist's home.
I say purportedly because the work begs a lot of questions, or even whether we are allowed to ask such questions.
It's a very authoritarian work. Those fortunate enough to be in the gallery when the one taxi is available are taken on a prescribed route, let in by a gallery assistant who is instructed not to answer questions, left to wander through those rooms that are left open, and taken back to the gallery.
It's a villa that shows the marks of long occupation and little maintenance. It doesn't look as if it has been altered for the show, apart from bedroom doors being closed.
If this is biography, and I assume it is, given the envelope from IRD addressed to the artist sitting on a dresser in the hall, it begs some questions about the artist. The walls are bare apart from family photos, a crucifix, a print of an angel and a couple of landscapes that look like they have been there since someone's grandmother was in residence.
The bookcases contain nothing unusual. The only thing that hints at any aesthetic choice is the arrangement of magnetic words on the fridge door.
If that is where the artist grew up or still lives, that shaped his identity, as Esche suggests art does in his catalogue essay, what is here that made Thompson want to be an artist, or better yet, what is it about contemporary art in the early 21st century that makes him think this is what he wants to spend his life doing?
Good luck, Charles Esche, in making your selection.
Saturday, September 08, 2012
  Shigeyuki Kihara: A lament for the lost
Published NZ Herald September 7, 2012

When the judges did the initial cull of the 502 entrants for the Wallace Art Awards, all they saw of Shigeyuki Kihara's work were two stills. They did not see the whole 4.49 minute video until after rating most of the other 118 finalists, but as judge Warwick Brown said, all three judges immediately made it their top pick, the first time a multimedia work has taken the supreme prize.
More than anything else in the show, Galu Afi: Wave of Fire justifies the Wallace's status as a premier contemporary art prize - and with the cash and residencies totalling more than $160,000 it's also one of the most well endowed.
Kihara will spend six months in residence at the International Studio and Curatorial Programme in New York.
Born in Samoa in 1975 and raised in Japan and Samoa before coming to New Zealand to study, Kihara's art training came through immersion in fashion (including studying fashion design and technology at Wellington Polytechnic in 1996), theatre, dance, hip-hop and electronic music.
"Producing fashion shows and shoots and gigs led me to understand how I could use those production skills to pursue my own work," she says. "I pretty much had to source the studio, the models, the clothes. They don't teach you that at art school."
Kihara has built up a vocabulary of forms and techniques that allows her to move beyond core themes like racial and gender identity and colonisation to add a powerful poetic element.

Like the work Siva in the Home AKL show at Auckland City Art Galley, Galu Afi is an extension of The Last Taualuga, which was performed at the Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2002 and subsequently in Melbourne, with a recording of that performance now held by Te Papa.
That piece was inspired by an image of a Samoan woman wearing a Victorian mourning dress. It was taken by Thomas Andrew, a New Zealander who moved to Apia in 1891 and made a living making studio portraits and images for the booming postcard industry.
"When I found the photo, I wanted to understand the context of how this came about," Kihara says. "Then I thought, 'wouldn't it be amazing if I could see her performing the taualaga - maybe I should do this myself.' Whenever I am performing it, she is on my mind, she is the muse behind my performance."
In Samoan culture, the taualaga is a dance of celebration. Kihara wanted to explore how it could function as social commentary. The fact that many of the images of classical non-western cultures come through the colonial gaze and studio creations of photographers like Andrew has given many post-colonial and indigenous artists a tool to reclaim their image.
"Colonial administrators and missionaries enforced rules on Samoans to appear civilised, including wearing clothes. Only in the photography studio were we asked to take off our clothes and become the noble savage, dusky maiden, heathen cannibal, for the gaze of photographers who wanted to make money from the postcard boom.
"New Zealand was part of that image-making industry of Samoan people, and those early photographs set precedents for the racism that continues today."
Galu Nia and Siva are both laments for the 2009 tsunami in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga that killed at least 189 people, and were done in the same day-long session, with Rebecca Swan on camera and Kirsty MacDonald in the editor's chair. While taualuga also usually involves music, lyrics, sound, the artist has turned the dance into a silent movie.
"Performing the taualuga in silence was awkward at first but the more I was in the studio with my production crew, I did a couple of takes as soon as I found my rhythm then I was able to pursue it. It's shot in real time so in my choreography I have to manipulate and slow down certain movements based on how they would be used in post-production to show the tracking.
"If you YouTube taualuga you see the speed of performance is drastically different from mine, so I am not performing a taualuga but the movements are informed by it."
The camera was shifted from a vertical axis, which emphasised the full body undulations of Siva, to a horizontal shot that captured Kihara from the chin to the waist, with the attention on the hand movements which become multi-tracked. The effect could be seen as a metaphor for the inexorable movement of water swallowing up the horizon.
The early photographic references are to Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Morey, whose pioneering of stop-action photography to capture motion was a crucial step in the development of cinema. The title was lifted from a book by Lani Wendt, commissioned by the Samoan Government to gather recollections of tsunami survivors.
"I thought her translation of galu awhi as waves of fire was brilliant, water that behaves like fire."
Kihara's Living Photographs exhibition in 2008-2009 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York - the first New Zealander to show there - means there is already keen interest in her work in North America.
She will be breaking up her New York stay with commitments in Ottawa, Germany, Australia and Samoa, and also intends to reach out to diaspora communities in Utah and San Francisco. A priority is to spend time in the Margaret Mead Hall at the Natural History Museum going through the archived material behind the anthropologist's Coming of Age in Samoa.
"I want to unpack and repack the controversy. The book became a best-seller, it contributed to the feminist movement, modern thought and the ways Americans think of their own society, but after Mead's death many of the women she interviewed in American Samoa came forward to say everything they told her was based on lies."
How that will manifest itself in future remains to be seen. "All my work is research-based and the work is created in response to my findings, so it's a post-studio practice, where the studio is in my head," she says.
Who: Shigeyuki Kihara, paramount winner of this year's Wallace Art Award
Where and when: The Award Winners & Travelling Finalists, Pah Homestead, 72 Hillsborough Rd, to November 11; Salon des Refuses, Pah Homestead, to November 18
  The conundrum of blurring reality
Published NZ Herald August 25, 2012

Faced with Jude Rae's paintings of bottles and vases, the cursory observer might drop the M word: Morandi. More rewarding may be to ask why they are not like the work of the Italian master of the still life.
"I am much more attached to describing than Morandi was," says Rae, back briefly to open the show from her base in Sydney. "I would not presume to have the extraordinary ability Morandi had of combining description with something that is more to do with the way paint sits on canvas in a sort of abstract, non-figurative way.
"I flail about at the descriptive end of things and I would love to be more in command of what I am doing but then I don't want to be Morandi either. He is as much of a touchstone for me as Chardin, or Cezanne."
It was Morandi who declared, "Nothing is more abstract than reality," something that resonates with where Rae has gone. Most of her work is still life, although there is the occasional exquisitely rendered figure.
She describes still life as "the lab rat of genres" - which is why it was so important at the turn of the 20th century when painters were coming to terms with the impact of new technologies like photography.
"Still life is not just about formal relationships. To me it is about the ability to sit there and question my perceptions in a very quiet sort of frame and the obvious comparison is when I substitute objects like bottles for a person and that is an entirely different experience.
"It nudges philosophical and existential questions in a very practical way - there is another person in the room, and that is a very confronting and complicated situation and I find it sort of horrifying and fascinating at the same time."
Assembling elements for a still life is the starting point for a painting, not the end point. It's about making choices, but also setting limits. "The interesting thing about working in a representational or realist idiom is that it sort of mucks up the formal perfection of your own little world, you can't just do what you want to do. There are elements of chance. There are other considerations, such as me wanting to neutralise a lot of the suggestive or symbolic freight that certain objects carry with them, that tends to bleed through to a lot of still lifes, so there may be a nostalgia or there are readings attached to an object."
The latest work has more colour than other recent shows, something Rae thinks is cyclical in her work.
"It comes and goes. I think I am getting more confidence," she says at the age of 56. "I don't have to worry so much about what I do and that brings me more engagement with the palette. I think it is pretty arbitrary, it just happens to be the framework I work in. I just want a reason to put a cool blue against a warm French blue and I'm referring to the background and the tabletop, but it sort of doesn't matter."
She occasionally leaves underpainting exposed, in particular a translucent burnt sienna.
"Most of the paintings are cool, so the red functions to enliven a primarily cool palette," she says. "I used it strictly as underpainting for a long time. Then I started contriving to reveal it in ways that were a self conscious allusion of the constructedness of the technique."
That is part of Rae's broader agenda as a figurative painter to use elements from the 20th century abstract tradition.
"Having looked a lot at Robert Ryman and other painters who approach painting as object, I am sorting my way around. I suppose it's part of my attempt to understand painting for myself.
"It articulates for me the growing certainty that there is no such thing as representational painting, all painting is abstract, and painters since time immemorial have approached painting as object, but the foregrounding of that in the 20th century caused a chasm to develop between painters."
Rae says her painting is a dialogue with her father, a gifted painter who was unable to pursue his passion.
"He studied at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney which was like this 19th century colonial outpost of the Slade and he came of age just at the point after the war when the finer points of figurative painting weren't exactly in the forefront of anyone's mind ... As one inherits from one's parents, I grew up with his sense of disappointment. I also now realise he wasn't actually fitted to operate in the art world, he was too internally tumultuous and contradictory."
Rae herself earned a diploma in drawing and painting from the Julian Ashton school before completing a bachelors degree in art history.
She moved New Zealand in 1990, doing a fine art masters at Ilam in Christchurch. She says the shift was the best thing she could have done. "It got me out of the place [where my father was] and allowed me to invent myself.
"From that distance I was able to embrace the idea that has pretty much pushed me along, that it must be possible to find a contemporary articulation for the sorts of values that informed the best of his painting and the best of the painting that came out of the 19th century."
What: Jude Rae New Paintings
Where and when: Fox Jensen Gallery, corner McColl and Roxborough Sts, Newmarket, to September 29
Saturday, July 14, 2012
  Home AKL: Celebrating Pacific art
Home AKL for Paul Tangata is now the Grey Lynn bungalow his father bought in 1957 for £12 10s. It's here he's been living what he calls a "subterranean" existence, with few aware it houses Porima "Paul" Tangata, a one-time rising star in Cook Island politics who went down in flames only to emerge again as that country's senior public servant. Even artist contemporaries don't realise Paul Tangata, the first Pacific Islander to graduate from Elam, had returned to live a stone's throw from them. Tangata's story is one of the many surprises of the Auckland Art Gallery's first, and long overdue, survey of work being done in the world's largest Polynesian city. The conflict between "art for art's sake" and the expectations and responsibilities of community are still there for many of the younger artists in the show...
Thursday, May 17, 2012
A throwaway comment at The Standard had me thinking the heat had gone off John Banks because the spin that the law was in some way unclear was working. Read the Act people. What don't these people understand about the meaning of anonymous? Here's the transcript of John Key talking to Leighton Smith, Newstalk ZB May 15: "People can criticise the way it might have all worked out in terms of the donations and I don’t need to know all the ins and outs and I don’t because all I need is a clear assurance he hasn’t broken the law. "But I will say this. The Local Electoral Act, which is the act that covered taking of donations for the mayoral campaign, is a very liberal and loose act. So the previous Labour Government changed the act when it came to central government, chose not to do it for local government. "Under the old local government rules you can go and talk to a donor, I can say ‘Leighton I would love you to give to me.' You can say to the donor ‘look you may not want to be identified so you can give anonymously.’ You can tell them how to do it. And in the end unless you don’t absolutely know that they’ve given, you’ve complied with the law. "Now that might seem like a crazy law, but that’s the way the law was constructed. And you can’t hang someone for complying with the law.' The Labour-led Government and local government minister Sandra Lee did change the Act. There is nothing in it about schooling people on how to donate anonymously. In fact, the sections relating to anonymity seem to be so the candidate doesn’t have to account for every dollar dropped into a bucket at a rally, rather than allowing the old game of “hide the donor” to continue. There’s a clear definition of donations, including a formula for working out the value of goods or services donated at a discount, and a discussion on aggregation – so the idea of splitting donations to anonymise them is on another planet. There is a limit as to how much can be spent, depending on the population size of the area being contested, which didn’t exist in local government before 2001. The candidate, not their agent or campaign, is required to sign the schedule of donations and expenses. They must list “the name and address of each person who made an electoral donation to the candidate and the amount of each electoral donation.” If an electoral donation of money or of the equivalent of money is made to the candidate anonymously and the amount of that donation exceeds $1000, they must list (i) the amount of that donation; and (ii) the fact that it has been received anonymously. Anonymous “means a donation that is made in such a way that the candidate concerned does not know who made the donation.” If “know” means the same as former justice ministers Doug Graham and Bill Jefferies were supposed to “know” what their finance company was up to, the question of Banks’ knowingness has to hinge on “made in such a way”. By that standard he had to “know” the origin of all cheques made into campaign accounts under his control, because it says so on the cheque or the deposit slip. Even if it was routed through a trust, that has to be disclosed. It would seem the only way large donations could come in anonymously is cash in plain envelopes, delivered by strangers in darkened rooms.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
  Matisse: The line that pulses with life
Published NZ Herald Jan 21, 2012

Strip away the colours, saturated and pulsing, look past the flat plane of the pictorial surface, and you come back to the line, a single line that pulses and sings, turning everything into rhythm and light.

There have been many shows highlighting aspects of Henri Matisse, but Drawing Life at Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art is the first to focus just on works on paper - drawings, prints and stencils.

The idea came from the painter's grandson Claude Duthuit after the Brisbane gallery organised a major show of Matisse paintings in 1995. Duthuit died last May, but was instrumental in getting many of the loans for the show.

Since the 17th century, French law has required that not only a copy of every book published be put in the national library, but a copy of every print edition as well. That means the Bibliotheque Nationale has more than 14 million items, including significant collections of the major French artists.

Add to that holdings from other French galleries and collections, North American and Australian galleries, and the Hermitage in St Petersburg to which his last model and companion, Lydia Delectorskaya, donated works, and you have a comprehensive overview of this aspect of his work.

In an era when making art can be reduced to writing up the specifications for a giant plastic bunny, putting on a show of over 300 drawings could be seen as radical.

Matisse drew with whatever was in his hand - pencil, charcoal, steel etching needle, lithograph crayon, brush dipped in India ink or the scissors used for the late stencils.

It's a show that rewards close study. While there are a few paintings to give a touch of colour to rooms and put particular drawing sequences in context, most of the show is small black-and-white works.

It starts with drawings, laboriously rendered charcoals in the classical style, describing the form and volume of the models.

What stands out is their ordinariness. There is no obvious sign of the genius that would come thousands of drawings later.

Hints of it, though, can be seen in the more experimental "autoportrait" from 1900, where a single line charged with character shows the artist standing with a sketch pad, perhaps looking in a mirror.

By this time Matisse was in his early 30s but still feeling his way.

After quitting a nascent law career, he studied in the studio of Gustave Moreau, who urged his students to not just copy the old masters in the museums, but to draw in the streets.

As Matisse said later: "We were trying to draw the silhouettes of passersby, to discipline our line. We were forcing ourselves to discover quickly what was characteristic in a gesture, in an attitude. Didn't Delacroix say: 'One should be able to draw a man falling from the sixth floor'?"

It was a time of discovery. Exposure to works by van Gogh, Gauguin and Cezanne came not through visiting museums, but by being introduced to the dealers and collectors who held their work.

Processing the innovations of those artists, the Impressionists, Japanese prints and the landscape around him, Matisse came up with the expressively brushed and colour-driven paintings that were dubbed Fauvism - after fauves, wild beasts - when they were first shown in 1905.

Fauvism is generally considered the first Modernist movement, but it was a movement without a manifesto, and Matisse was not an artist who needed a movement to thrive.

Drawing Life includes early Fauvist watercolours done around the bustling fishing town of Collioure in southeast France. It was here that Matisse abandoned the neo-Impressionist technique of divisionism, which tried to capture the effects of light by laying down close-knit dots of pure colour. Instead he divided his compositions into coloured planes.

For the nude, a constant element in his work, "I go into the woods in the mountains with my wife at six o'clock in the mornings and she poses for me undisturbed".

Around this period, Matisse produced three woodblocks after seeing Daniel de Monfried's collection of Gauguin paintings, sculptures and prints. The results are bold and expressive, but Matisse did not persist with the technique because he found it painstakingly slow.

What did appeal was various etching techniques, where he could draw straight on to a plate at speed, capturing a face or figure in a few lines.

Later on he would take up linocutting, which he saw not as a cheap substitute for a woodblock but a method with its own expressive characteristics, as the engraver changes the pressure on the gouge.

Matisse made significant contributions to the evolution of the artist's book, and Drawing Life includes many examples, including a lithograph edition of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, of which only five copies were printed because of a problem with the plates.

Odalisques and arabesques, figures in interiors and figures in nature, Matisse would produce dozens of variations as he drilled into his arms and shoulders the rhythms that would come through in the paintings. Spontaneity takes practice.

Sometimes he would take a break from a painting to dash off a drawing, a quick release of tension. Other times drawing would be all-encompassing as he worked his way through series, often treating them as a game with variations. Lydia Deletorskaya describes how Matisse would go into a trance while producing a drawing.

After rooms full of black lines, Drawing Life builds to a big finish.

First there is a room devoted to the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, done between 1946 and 1951 at the behest of one of his former nurses, Monique Bourgeois, who became a Dominican nun.

As the culmination of his life's work, the secular Matisse considered it an art piece for which he designed everything, from the shape of the building to the stained-glass windows to the priests' vestments.

While this was going on, he was also producing paper cutouts and drawing with thick brushes dipped in Indian ink. These drawn interiors, still lives and portraits seem to generate light.

Visitors to the initial show at the reopened Auckland City Art Gallery would be familiar with the Jazz stencil series from the Robertson Promised Gift. The set in Brisbane is displayed as a block of colour and shape.

Discovering a new technique late in life and turning it into an aesthetic gave Matisse a new burst of creative energy, despite his fading physical powers, and allowed him to create even larger works. What started as a patch to cover a stain on the wallpaper in his Paris apartment became the two Oceania panels, drawing on memories of his 1930 trip to Tahiti. It's a spectacular end to the show.

Curators Celine Chica-Castex from the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and Emilie Ovaere-Corthay say it was a special show to put together.

"Drawing was the most important medium he used all his life. It underlies all his other work. In the paintings we chose for the exhibition, he drew also," Ovaere-Corthay says.

"The drawings and prints bring us to the intimacy of the artist," says Chica-Castex. "We had the impression when we were doing this exhibition to be like members of the family, and also to be with him."

What: Matisse: Drawing Life
Where and when: Queensland Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, to March 4
Monday, November 07, 2011
  Where Art Belongs
Art needs words. Catalogue essays, reviews, books, artist talks, words to explain and expose and extend the object or concept. One of the more influential writers on contemporary art made a brief return visit to Auckland last month to read from her latest collection of essays, Where Art Belongs.

So how did Chris Kraus become someone the art world reads? Kraus was born in New York but grew up in New Zealand. She started working in journalism at Wellington's Evening Post and the Sunday Star aged 17 in the mid-70s before heading back to her birthplace to become an artist and film-maker.

"It was tough. I was very much coming back as a New Zealander and, most importantly, I hadn't gone to school with these people in New York, because where you have gone to college becomes a very important part of the social milieu that you move into in your adult life. But it was New York, it was the late 70s and early 80s and it was still possible to use the city as your MFA [Master of Fine Arts] programme and make your way by meeting other artists. I sought out all the people who were my idols from a distance in New Zealand.

"There was a kind of fandom you had in a small isolated country where culture becomes such a lifeline to the outside world, so it was thrilling to go to New York and actually go to talks, go to performances and meet these people who had been so legendary.

"Then you discover these legendary performers sometimes have only 20 people in the room."

For a while, she became an assistant to artist Louise Bourgeois, who died last year at 98. "She was amazing. She was formidable. I met Louise Bourgeois about the time she was turning 65, when most people are starting to pack it in, but she saw herself as just starting.

"She wasn't that well known and she was strategising about how she was going to become well known and did it brilliantly. Being photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe in the penis coat, this old woman with this latex sexual organ garment, she really played every card right and it was so amazing to witness that, the early stages of her career.

"It didn't make sense to me until years later what she was doing."

Where Art Belongs was published by Semiotext(e), an imprint best known as the first American publisher of French thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard and Felix Guattari, which Kraus has been part of since 1990. She believes a sense of being outsiders gives Semiotext(e) its edge.

"None of us is completely American so that makes us better able to function within American culture because we have some distance from it," Kraus says.

Semiotext(e) was started by Sylvere Lotringer in 1974 shortly after he moved from France to teach at Columbia University in New York. Initially a conventional academic journal about semiotics, the study of signs, it was changed by Lotringer's exposure to New York's downtown clubs and art scene.

"He organised a conference at Columbia inviting luminaries from both worlds. Foucault was there, Guattari was there, Kate Millet was there, John Cage was there, people from the art world and the activist world in the United States meeting with the luminaries of French theory and it was a real food fight.

"People talked about it for years after and the Schizo Culture issue came out of the energy of that event, where artists of the lower Manhattan scene of that time were put alongside critical texts by Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari, that was a radical thing."

Semiotext(e) eventually switched from being a magazine to publishing then-unknown writers such as Baudrillard. A biographer of Deleuze and Guattari describes Lotringer as the "ferryman", bringing French theory to an American readership. "At the time, none of their people were being published by university presses. These little black books would fit into the pocket of a black leather jacket and everybody read them.

"I joined Semotext(e) in 1990 and I was living with Sylvere and I was appalled they had not published any women, though the books were so hot and so cool. Sylvere didn't want to publish any woman theorists because he thought [of] the French women, they're so psychoanalytic. So I said, 'how about you publish American women writers?' I was working at the St Marks Poetry Project so I knew a lot of writers.

"We did them with colour covers and called them Native Agents and that kind of ran its course. By the end of the 90s, I was publishing other people, a different generation of female first-person anti-memoir writing. And then Hedi [El Kholti] joined us and kind of opened up a further channel, Hedi being gay and Moroccan, and he brought in a whole other way of republishing some classic gay texts."

Semotexte(e)'s latest series is Interventions, which gave it a surprise best seller. The Coming Insurrection by the Invisible Committee was written by a French collective who ended up being labelled the Tarnac Nine after they were arrested on terrorism charges for cutting the power on a commuter rail line.

"We published it in a way looking out the side of our eyes thinking it's such anarchist kitsch, but it was a huge hit and we realised later it really did fall right in a certain moment.

"Glen Beck denounced it three times on Fox News. He called it the most evil book in America and he kept saying, 'you owe it to yourself to read this book.' Every time that happened, it would go to No 1 on non-fiction Amazon. People who bought this book also bought Sarah Palin and Glen Beck. So it was a hit of the religious right."

Kraus' first foray into creative writing, 1997's I Love Dick, also caused a scandal. "I didn't expect that. I misjudged how conservative the art world really is. It's a chronicle of my experience in real life having an infatuation with a critical theorist, Dick H, and writing him love letters, which Sylvere, my husband at the time, collaborated with. We kind of did a Madame Bovary and fell in love with him together in a way and then it just went further and further and further to the point where I moved out of the apartment and moved to the country alone and started writing to Dick and there were some real life encounters with Dick and, eventually, by the end of the book the Dear Dick fades away completely and I'm just writing.

"It turns out to be an adventure in writing and realising that you need an addressee, so after I Love Dick came out I became a kind of motivational speaker for young women and for people wanting to write because it just kind of clicked."

Kraus came to art writing with a clean slate, having never studied art history nor any of the other conventional entry points. "After I published my first book, I happened to be teaching at an art school in California which had a very hot MFA programme, so people assumed I knew something about art and I would be invited to write about art and talk about art and do these studio visits with MFA students. I didn't really know the language so the best way I knew to lead off on was a more journalistic vein, just sort of talk about what I saw in the work, talk about the experience of viewing the work, and to talk about maybe the story outside the work, that always interested me.

"I started to enter the art world more as an anthropologist than a complete 100 per cent participant."

Kraus reconnected with New Zealand when she returned in the early 1990s to make a film funded by Creative New Zealand, Gravity and Grace, and she has maintained those links with art circles here.

* Elam Art School is showing Gravity and Grace at 6pm on Monday at the Design Theatrette in the School of Architecture, 22 Symonds St.

Published NZ Herald November 5, 2011
Sunday, September 25, 2011
  Exhibition seen in a foreign light
Frank Hofmann stares out of the frame, literally, larking it up with his mate Eric Lee Johnson, cigarette smouldering on his lip, whisky glass clutched in his hand.

It's 1952, just over a dozen years since the photographer fled Prague ahead of the Nazi invasion. He'd settled in New Zealand, married, found work as a commercial photographer, and set about creating a culture around him of pictures and music and books and architecture.

There's another photo, taken in Albert Park in 1969 by Geoff Studd, of one of the concerts organised to defy a ban on music in parks. Among the young crowd stands a tall, thin older man cradling a camera as if it were an extension of his hand.

It's Hofmann, involved yet detached, looking for that combination of figures and light and movement that would make an image.

The photographs taken by Hofmann over the years, from the early pictures back in Prague to the commercial portraits, the interior and exterior shots of buildings by his friends in the Group Architects, and his modernist art photographs, show peerless technique and an aesthetic sensibility that did not emerge from his adopted country.

"Czechoslovakia had a major innovative avant-garde. He was informed by that. That is the milieu he comes from," says Leonard Bell, who curated the exhibition at the Gus Fisher Gallery as part of his ongoing exploration of expatriate, refugee and travelling artists.

During the 1940s Hofmann worked in Clinton Firth's commercial photography studio at 110 Queen St, which is where some of the earlier portraits in the show are from.

"Firth had an eye for the American, or more particularly Hollywood, style of the 1930s and 40s. Many of those photographers were refugees from central Europe who brought expressionist, or noir style lighting," Bell says.

That means architect Vernon Brown gets shot like Clark Gable, and conductor Juan Matteucci's profession is indicated by the shadow of a music stand on the wall behind.

A portrait of his wife, the writer Helen Shaw (or Hella Hofmann to her friends), is meticulously composed, the figure standing backlit alongside the wall, the plume of smoke rising from her cigarette testament to the time taken setting up the shot, the side of her face reflected in the glass.

From the late 1940s Hofmann worked for Christopher Bede Studios, a national chain that did advertising work as well as wedding and family portraits.

When that folded in 1975 he formed Bede Associates with Karl Jobsis and continued doing family portraits to pay the rent.

Hofmann's architectural photographs would have been the way most people saw the buildings being created by friends like Brown and Ivan Juriss, and his knowledge of European New Objectivity informing the way he emphasised the modernity of the spaces.

This show is the first time the portraits and architectural photography has been gathered together and identified as Hofmann's.

In 1989 Peter Ireland curated an exhibition of his art photographs for the National Art Gallery in Wellington, some of which are reprised at the Gus Fisher.

"He kept his art photography or personal photography deliberately and self-consciously separate from his commercial photography," Bell says. A quote on the wall cues into Hofmann's thinking on the matter: "It isn't true the camera doesn't lie. It can turn everyday objects into completely abstract patterns."

Bell says: "He wrote a lot about photography both for photographers and also for people who wanted to start taking photos.

"He was involved with camera clubs, which contrasts with the art photographers who emerged in the 1970s who were pretty patronising and snooty about camera clubs. He wasn't. He was an enthusiast and advocate for photography. He gave radio talks."

Bell became aware of the photographs held by Hofmann's sons Stephen and Michael after he was asked to contribute a chapter to a book about artists in New Zealand from German-speaking countries. "They were sitting in Stephen's basement, waiting to be looked at."

Bell has written extensively about cross-cultural interactions in art history, starting with Maori and Pacific contacts.

"This was part of that, the movement from one place and culture to another was integral to it so I became intrigued and researched travelling, emigre and then refugee artists, writers and photographers."

Family connections with people who came to New Zealand as refugees triggered academic research.

"I found that for a relatively small country with a relatively small number of refugees let in, there were a significant number of very good artists, photographers, writers, musicians, people involved in the arts in one way or another. You had central European intellectuals of multi-lingual, high sophistication living out their lives in Mt Albert."

Many of those people turn up in Hofmann's portraits, such as pianist Lili Kraus (a resident in the 1940s after her release from a Japanese internment camp), Ernst Specht and Greta Ostova.

His own involvement in music went further, playing in the Auckland String Players and helping found the Auckland Symphonia. Bell suggests that Hofmann's photographs fit the modernist tenet "All art aspires to the condition of music".

Hofmann's work can be found in music programmes and record sleeves for the Kiwi label, the Yearbook of the Arts, Landfall, and the short-lived Here and Now.

The exhibition can be seen as here and not here - an artist who contributed to this culture by bringing to it a light and shade from elsewhere.

What: From Prague to Auckland: The Photographs of Frank Hofmann (1916-89)

Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to October 29
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