Christine Jeffs Passage, 2018 (Detail)

The great contemporary art road trip

Yes, it’s still summer and, en route to that final festival or beach bolt-hole, the season of the road trip. Here Spinoff Art co-editor Mark Amery runs down some of the best North Island contemporary art stopovers, and the mavericks behind them. We cross the Cook Strait next year, promise.

Back in 2000 Gregory Burke and Hana Scott curated a group exhibition at New Plymouth’s Govett Brewster Art Gallery entitled Drive. Considering the impact of the car and the highway through art, the pair were smart to the fact that a huge proportion of their audience spent hours in a car tailing a milk or oil tanker from Auckland or Wellington. Only last year New Plymouth dealers Anderson Rhodes (their gallery now sadly defunct) told me nearly all their sales happened in February and March when the WOMAD and road-trip crowds come through. 

So here for your passenger-seat reading pleasure are some current picks outside Te Ika a Maui’s two biggest arts centres     

New Plymouth

The Jewel and the Jeweller workshop

Next weekend the Govett Brewster celebrates its 50th with a giant Reuben Patterson glitter cake and an exhibition as brave as Drive and the Leon Narbey modernist light and sound fantasia they opened with way back in 1970. Jim and Mary Barr wrote recently for The Spinoff on Ruth Buchanan’s radical rehang of the collection. 

The Govett Brewster has had its teething problems while it settles into its partnership with the new Len Lye Centre. But really, with the zinginess of Lye, the dazzling sensory charge of the Andrew Patterson temple and cloak-like architecture, and the excellence of the visitor hosts, stumping up the recently introduced $15 entrance fee is a no-brainer. 

While Anderson Rhodes and longtime dealers Kreisler Gallery aren’t currently open, there’s always someone in town working the edge. Right now that’s jewellery artists Sam Kelly and Jennifer Laracy with The Jewel and the Jeweller, tucked down a boardwalk downtown. Community participation through workshops is front and centre of their open studio practice, including a ‘Craft Master Series’ of sessions at WOMAD. With their Redecorating Taranaki project they’re rather ingeniously working with locals to create new medals to playfully celebrate current local stories, before adding them to the local museum Puke Ariki’s collection.

Opening this week round the corner at gallery and shop Kina is work by ambitious street artist Milarky. The last show under his other moniker D-Side included a great conceptual gag: attendants came in halfway through the show’s crowded opening and rollered over the pretty paintings in grey paint. 

Matakana 

Christine Jeffs Subject to Consent, 2018 and Christine Jeffs Mother, 2019

When I think of the summer sultriness of Pākeha beach bach life north of Auckland, I’m back soaking up each frame of Christine Jeffs’ debut feature film Rain. It was filmed on the Mahurangi Peninsula and just down the road until 22 March, at The Vivian on the outskirts of Matakana village, the filmmaker and photographer is holding her first solo exhibition since gaining an MFA at Elam School of Fine Arts. As exhibition title Subject to Consent suggests, a key theme (as it was in Rain) is the relationship between adult and child, photographer and subject.

One hour north of the big smoke, Matakana (increasingly a satellite suburb of Grey Lynn) can’t escape sounding like a brochure: cafes and farmers markets give way to beaches, vineyards and cultural experiences. Like Sumer, Parlour Projects and Paul Nache (who’ll we’ll get too soon), The Vivian has been bold with the dealer gallery model. Director Scott Lawrie hosts discussions and lures visitors with energetic online vlogs and podcasts. Onsite there are numerous gallery spaces and sculpture gardens, and his artist selection mixes lesser-known New Zealand artists with a range of internationals, from Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini to Californian painter Cruz Jiminez. It’s an odd but interestingly idiosyncratic stable, befitting a place where those with some coin enjoy resting up. Sawmill Brewery is across the fence and the excellent Brick Bay sculpture trail 10 minutes away.

Tauranga

Installation image of Kelcy Taratoa, He Kauhanga Tawhiti, Sumer Gallery

This city on growth steroids still doesn’t have a museum to house its taonga, and has placed many heritage buildings in a colonial village ghetto which houses community and arts organisations near the motorway on the outskirts of town. Yet Tauranga is getting that emergent hipster feeling.  

Across from happening foodie, designery and craft beer pop-up container village Our Place is Tauranga Art Gallery. It opened 13 years ago and is currently one of our most dynamic regional galleries. There’s a stronger than usual commitment to mana whenua, bold new artist commissions (love the Kereama Taepa Space Invaders installation in the lift) and outstanding, nationally significant shows. Last trip, the gallery was crowded with youth for the only NZ appearance of Jess Johnston and Simon Wards’ National Gallery of Australia-commissioned VR installation Terminus, while upstairs were surprising, excellent survey shows of local artists new to me: photographer Kapua Joy Bennett and carver Lewis Tamihana Gardner. 

Across the road, down a laneway, and marked by a poutama zebra zigzag wall painting by visiting Dutch painter Jan van der Ploeg, is dealer gallery Sumer. The gallery is run by New Zealander Dan du Bern, recently back from Melbourne. Du Bern has had the nerve to locate one of our edgiest new dealerships here, showing a range of strong new artists and partnering with other dealers. When I last popped in, Michael Lett from Auckland was being hosted with a group show and Du Bern showed me works he was about to exhbit by Raukura Turei, uku (clay) on canvas creating shimmering waves of pattern reflective of bodily motion and emotion. 

Until February 29, Sumer is showing the work of established local painter Kelcy Taratoa – smartly, at the same time as a survey of his art at the public gallery. Working to the boxy architecture with giant pixelated abstraction, Minecraft-like blocks of data spread across both canvases and the walls of the gallery, responding in part to the poutama pattern outside. Taratoa has consistently painted about urban alienation, and the Minecraft analogy makes me think of those modular housing blocks and their attendant roading systems extending out like topsy across the Papamoa plain. 

Whanganui 

Simon’s Treasures, Quartz Museum of Ceramic Arts

History has been swirling down the Whanganui River for centuries, silting up, co-mingling on an elbow near the ocean. Last year Whanganui edged out Lower Hutt for New Zealand’s most beautiful city award (how could this be?!) and is now the first place in New Zealand accepted into the ‘League of Historical Cities’. Fine examples of heritage architecture – from the wood and stone of the Victorian and Edwardian era to Brutalist concrete – sit cheek by jowl. Then there’s the magnificent Sarjeant Gallery, currently under restoration, and what must be one of the most creative community-spun concrete playgrounds in the world, Kowhai Park. And it all stays fresh because artists can afford to live and work here.

On that elbow near the river is Moutoa Gardens, site of Māori protest occupations and dubious colonial statues. Close by is the former Whanganui Computer Centre, home to the police’s ‘national law enforcement mainframe’ where in 1982 anarchist Neil Roberts succeeded in blowing himself up. A few steps up Bell Street, former Sarjeant Gallery director Bill Millbank runs superb contemporary gallery WH Milbank in a colonial stone store. He is currently showing local sculptors, father and son Peter and Kirk Nicholls.

Across the gardens is New Zealand’s best private art museum, the Quartz Museum of Ceramic Arts. Sited in the sort of daring light-filled angular concrete-and-glass ‘70s office building that elsewhere has been bowled, Quartz is run by one of our finest senior potters, Rick Rudd. 

Rudd is known for his whimsical black teapots where cubist form is counterpointed by serpentine line, extending form into an otherworldy animated fantasia. His work looks stunning, lovingly arranged on the carpet and shelves upstairs, but he is equally generous in showcasing others. As well as solo shows – a former bank vault space currently shows the stunning uku figures of Paerau Corneal – one room of Rudd’s collection tells pretty much the entire glorious history of the ceramic arts. Last year one of New Zealand’s greatest ceramic collectors, Simon Manchester, passed away and much of his collection was donated to Quartz, and is now on show. If you ever want to understand just how dynamic and varied ceramics is in New Zealand, Whanganui is now ground zero.     

Masterton

Works by and modelled by Noella Godinet, Janet Palmer-Langley, Noelene Donald and Rick Wallace, in ‘Richard Reddaway – the body of the work / it does no harm to wonder’, Aratoi

Home of the Golden Shears, Masterton gets a rap for being a conservative farming service centre where division and disparity between Māori and Pakeha is cringingly evident. But its arts scene, heavy with homespun creativity and a strong focus on object-making, is building bridges. Talented wood sculptor Harry Watson has just opened his own dealer gallery The Watson, launching with a series of charming Youtube videos where he pokes the borax out of himself, and demonstrates plans to turn the toilets into a miniatures gallery. 

Watson works at the excellent creative space King Street Artworks, within a few steps of a recently established Te Pātukituki, a Māori cultural and community hub; Conart, an arts container village; private sewing space Come Sew With Me; and regional gallery and museum Aratoi. Now Aratoi continues to fight for public funding, mixing up significant national contemporary exhibitions with the work of Wairarapa artists and works from a fine collection (celebrated in a recent publication edited by Lydia Wevers). That collection started in 1963 when some forward-thinking locals banded together to buy a sculpture by British artist Barbara Hepworth. 

Aratoi continue to boldly invest in art by helping develop significant contemporary shows. Currently that’s the first major survey for Wellington-based sculptor Richard Reddaway, known for extending the figure in ways that speak to the relationship of our bodies to objects and sound. There’s humorous, human kookiness bound up in such work, amplified by the school and a community projects Reddaway has undertaken to engage with the locals. He has collaborated with local craftspeople from the Spinners and Weavers Guild to the Men’s Shed, asking them to follow a series of simple rules to extend their craft t0 interact with the body in new, fantastical and thoroughly unfunctional ways.      

Tairāwhiti/Gisborne

Installation of ‘Singles and B Sides’, Rhys Lee, Paul Nache Gallery

Paul Nache Gallery has been based in Gisborne for over 10 years, proving you can be a player nationally and internationally a long drive from anywhere. First impression is always the sparkle of gregarious director Matt Nache. With surfie shades and tousled hair, he’s more likely to be mistaken for a rocker on a summer beach tour than an art dealer, but that’s just part of his Tairāwhiti roots: grounded, smart-casual, able to mix across the social spectrum. 

Nache is showing Rhys Lee, an excellent Australian painter little known here, until February 29. Like many in Nache’s stable, Lee upsets the contemporary apple cart by painting joyfully irreverent, punk-and-comic fired figurative riffs on modernist classics. Prior to that, Nache showed an excellent Wellington painter, Valerie Bos. I’ve never seen her work in Wellington, yet she’s been showing in Tairāwhiti for as long as Nache has been around. Bos’s speciality is spooky yet gorgeously tender portraits in acrylic ink and paint.

Ever happy to bend the boundaries of being proper, Nache has built his reputation attending art fairs (he’ll be in Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne this year) and has no doubt helped colourful, rhythmic abstract Auckland painter Evan Woodruffe enter corporate collaborations with Jaguar Singapore, BMW Australia, Strangely Normal tailors, and last year, Scapegrace gin. 

Hastings

Eve’s Interlude, Grace Wright, acrylic on linen

Pretty art deco Napier’s plain sister is arguably more reflective of the richness and diversity of its cultural soil. Recent directors have got the Hastings City Art Gallery’s ‘70s hexagonal honeycomb-designed galleries buzzing as a site for emerging art practices and creative communities, including a strong commitment to different ethnic and indigenous viewpoints. 

The gallery is currently showing photographer Richard Brimer’s Harvest show about seasonal vineyard workers (local vintner and writer Toby Buck wrote about it for The Spinoff late last year), as well as the first survey show of excellent Samoan New Zealand painter Andy Leleisi’uao, Kamoan Mine; a documentary collaboration between photographer Ans Westra and writer Adrienne Jansen, The Crescent Moon: the Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand; and bright formal modernist work – a neat stylistic fit for the building itself – by an emerging painter getting strong national attention, Leanne Morrison.  

Stunning pou of Heretaunga ancestors by local carvers guard the gallery outside, and there’s a heartbreaking mural of wounded World War II soldiers by Peter McIntrye worth checking out in the next door War Memorial Library.  

Round the corner from the city gallery you’ll find Parlour Projects, another dynamic regional dealer prepared to pick up strong emerging artists ahead of the big city galleries. Now in its fourth year, Parlour reopens on March 14 with the luscious, squiggling baroque painting of Auckland’s Grace Wright. Another recent Elam Masters graduate, Wright also shows with Matakana’s The Vivian.


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