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The Monday Excerpt: What do curators do all day?

Te Papa curators talk about the artworks in the national collection that make them swoon.

Curators! What do they do all day? No one knows. Certainly much of it is spent in soul-destroying forensic analysis of catalogue numbers; many turn to drink. But sometimes, in quiet, precious moments, they get to do what they got into the curating racket in the first place: marvel at awesome works of art. A new book from Te Papa features 10 of the museum’s curators writing about 10 of their favourite works in the national collection. Herewith, a selection of four luscious images.

Tulips, Invercargill (2007) by Peter Peryer. Inkjet print, purchased 2016

Athol McCredie, curator, photography: “Sometimes there are works that just say ‘Yes!’ when you see them. You know immediately there is no question they should be acquired. That’s how it was when I saw this photograph spotlit in an Auckland dealer’s window. I would have written out a cheque then and there if I had been so empowered. The photograph struck me for the way its euphoric riot of brightly coloured patterned petals is only just held together visually by snaking green stems. The composition seems barely under control, pointing to the limits of what makes an intelligible image….Combine this formal confusion with the sexual association of flowers and you have an emotional punch of lurid, seductive disarray and abandon. How anyone could have walked past that window without being overwhelmed I’m not sure.”

Wellington Harbour (1894) by James M Nairn. Oil on panel, gift of Miss Mary Newton, 1939

Rebecca Rice, curator, historical New Zealand art: “For me, this painting provokes questions: Who is that anonymous woman, fashionably dressed in red cape and feathered hat? Where has she been? What has she been doing and with whom?”

Scared (1976) by Colin McCahon. Acrylic on paper, purchased 2008

Charlotte Davy, head of art: “When I first unpacked this work from its travelling crate an uncontrollable shiver went up my spine, it was so raw and immediate. I still have a visceral reaction when I see it today….McCahon makes every brush stroke count. A sense of complete doubt is conveyed in the intense black: the painting seems to be saying ‘I’m so scared, I don’t know what to do with myself and I question my place in this existence’. But then ‘I stand up’: I’m still doubting, but I exist. There’s something powerful about that. Courage and faith will win out.”

Hampden, Otago (2008) by Peter Black. Inkjet print, purchased 2015

Athol McCredie, curator photography: “If I was travelling to Mars and never going to see Earth again, I might want to carry Peter Black’s photograph with me when I left. The photograph would take me back to a late afternoon summer’s day in anyplace, New Zealand. I’d remember the country smell of road dust (hinted at beyond by the tyre tracks) combined with the scents of weed flowers, dry grass, and macrocarpa (from the tree at right). The photograph depicts a transition zone where everything points off-stage: the girl turning left, the road sign giving direction, the caution about unseen children, the unknown destinations of the three road branches. But I know that home and its comforts are just around the corner.”

Ten x Ten: Art at Te Papa edited by Athol McCredie (Te Papa Press, $45) is available at Unity Books.

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