The Auckland Art Fair is on this weekend.

Tunnel vision: Three takes on this year’s Auckland Art Fair

The Auckland Art Fair runs from May 2nd – 5th at The Cloud on the waterfront. Three critics – Megan Dunn, Mark Amery, Ioana Gordon-Smith – cast an eye over what’s on offer.

On the opening night of the Auckland Art Fair one artist said, “It gets worse the further in you go.” Another told me, “You can smell the shampoo in here, it’s too clean.” I looked around The Cloud. Suddenly it seemed full of heads of wantonly shampooed hair. Later I ran into someone I went to art school with over twenty years ago. His painting had sold for $45,000. “I’m happy,” he said.

Someone else told me you pay for everything here, even the lights. Gow Langsford Gallery at Booth 8 is very well lit. I watched a succession of bright, slick Max Gimblett paintings extracted from the wall and then replaced. They appeared to be going like hotcakes.

Cynicism is the first line of self-defence. The value of art, the difference between a $45,000 painting and a $300 gold leaf, is often oblique. Apparently, the American conceptual artist John Baldessari once said that for an artist attending an art fair is like watching your parents have sex. So if you’re an artist, the Auckland Art Fair at The Cloud this weekend is an opportunity to watch your parents either get laid or go their separate ways. If you’re a collector it’s a chance to fall in love.

Séraphine Pick, New Behaviour V, 2019. Image courtesy of Michael Lett.

And the $300 gold leaf is upstairs at Mercy Pictures, D4 on the map. I found it attached to a speaker stand. The leaf has a magnet on the back and is an artwork by Jerome Ngan-Kee. He demonstrated how it could be used as an accessory and attached to the corner of another painting. Mercy Pictures is an artist-run space in central Auckland run by Ngan-Kee and Teghan Burt. Their booth is laid out like a café. Three tables are dressed in printed black and white tablecloths. Each contains a sweet little scene of a tabletop. Trompe l’oeil, but not quite. I looked down at the open lips of wine bottles shared, New Zealand passports, an iPhone, a folded newspaper, and a pile of loose change. I was peering at a night in the lives of Mercy Pictures, a print of a photograph of a pre-drinks table in an apartment on Wall Street, now turned into a tablecloth. A cute gesture but art is a social beast.

At Mercy Pictures, I also loved the fugly Tim Webby painting of a stork against a glitter-glued night sky. In this one-of-a-kind canvas apples fall from a tree, part allegory, part Nightmare on Elm Street.

Most booths are a hodge-podge of artists because if you don’t like this you might like that. I flirted with a large Emma Fitts felt wall hanging, a dinky little Simon Blau painting and a photograph from Alexis Hunter’s Tattoo series. How to sort the good from the gauche and the important from the expensive?

In the clamour, Michael Lett’s booth possessed composure. New Behaviours is a suite of recent Seraphine Pick paintings. In swooning lines of wavering paint, a woman holds her iPhone up to the frame, as though it’s a mirror. Snap. Pick’s compositions are filtered through an older idea of what painting is and can be. Those overlapping brush strokes, now faintly Monet, now a little Munch. Then I left The Cloud worried my hair was too clean. / Megan Dunn

Installation view of Michael Lett stand featuring work by Séraphine Pick at Auckland Art Fair 2019. Image courtesy of Josef Scott.

First up, it’s a fair. Hard surfaces, bright lights in a hangar. It doesn’t pretend to reflect the world outside. It’s a shopping mall, just less inclusive. There’s boggling multifariousness and intense clashes of pattern and surface. Your eyes will glaze over. Your head will hurt. But let the mind rest on the sparkling Waitematā outside. Chat to dealers and artists. Find work that sings.

In the glare and glaze I gravitated towards textiles, as if capturing a more tactile time. An enormous tapestry by Ry David Bradley (Gallery 9, Sydney) is a ravishing abstraction of what could be a reflection in a puddle of people in the rain. Blurred memory. At Millers O’Brien, Erica Van Zon presents Samoan holiday snaps as brilliant beaded and embroidered miniatures. Kooky and nostalgic, her breezy pleasant surfaces are framed by snorkeling masks and breezeblocks. Van Zon evokes the warm, distorted glass through which a holidaymaker snatches meditative moments.

Erica van Zon, Manini, 2019. Image courtesy of Millers O’Brien Gallery.

At once grotesque and conceptually smart, Kai Wasikowski (Michael Bugelli Gallery, Hobart) comments on how we feather our nests with nature. Using a 3D hydrographic water transfer method, South Island alpine scenes have been printed onto a wall’s worth of indoor rock climbing holds. Yes, really. The landscape becomes foot and handholds. The small video works in the booth were just plain awkward, but there were also eye-teasing studio photographs of the artist and sculptures made from camouflage-printed Crocs.

Occasionally there are simple elegant hangs that take all the crowding away. Fine Arts Sydney gives space to four great disparate works: a Gretchen Albrecht hemisphere, a Simon Denny vitrine, a Julian Dashper ‘80s abstract and a Yona Lee cube of snaking stainless steel piping dressed with a lampshade hat. It didn’t need to make sense.

Lost a little amongst it all are some small projects curated by Francis McWhannell. I say curated but McWhannell’s generous ploy for non-market-led diversification is to get last year’s project artists to nominate this year’s – it led to a lack of bite.

However, two projects stand out for the way they ground The Cloud. In Layne Waera’s video Free Air a static dashboard camera fixes on roads, roped off grass and gravel carparking areas. Vehicles swing in and out of frame performing burn-outs, raising spectacular clouds of dust. Other cars cruise through. We’re all implicated, voyeurs in some kind of contemporary ballet.

Also holding space differently is the artist Nikau Hindin, speaking and demonstrating to visitors her revival of the lost Maori practice of tapa clothmaking (aute) from paper mulberry (I had no idea!). She makes quietly mesmerising patterns that are sensitive in their vocabulary of shape and tone. Her works are star charts, set against the horizon line and inspired by Polynesian waka navigation.

In place of selling, I gravitated to different experiences: Mercy Pictures with its artist-made walls, clever screen printed tablecloths, gold spray painted leaves and smart attitude. Samoa House Library were at the fair physically cataloguing books donated by galleries. They’re also selling an array of witty quickfire works by artists. Each work is inspired by a book that has influenced the artist and retails for the price of that book on Amazon. With sales, Samoa House, will then purchase the books for their library. In the cracks at the fair there are some smart new economies of exchange. / Mark Amery

Lianne Edwards, Rise of the Jellies I, 2019. Image courtesy of Whitespace Gallery.

The Auckland Art Fair is a tunnel. Walking the corridor through is like parting the sea. This year’s fair is more spacious but also more subdued than before. The purpose is to sell so it’s no surprise to find a heavy representation of painting and well-known artists. Everyone’s on the lookout for a revelation.

Join us and help make
independent journalism happen!
Find Out More

This year it took longer to find that new discovery. Mine came at the very end of the tunnel. In the Whitespace Gallery booth is a selection of work by Lianne Edwards. Edwards has pulled apart plankton nets to create a sculpture of luminescent white strands. Tailings of jellyfish forms rise to shoulder height. In a series of circular wall works, parallel threads of plastic float between two panes of glass like wispy feather strands in water. These are overlaid with coins and teeth and are reminiscent of women mats. The compositions resemble large pendants; literal mantels you could wear.

Edwards rescues her haunting materials from the ocean: broken swordfish bills, albatross leg bands, thermometers dropped by illegal fishing enterprises. Her work is driven by an ecological impulse, but the ultimate lure is simply that they’re beautiful. The transformation is the hook.

Once I’d found my discovery, things slowed down a bit. Chris Charteris’s whalebone carvings hung on the walls of the FHE Gallery booth are sheer elegance; long, narrow curves that stretch over huge widths of space. A few booths over, Michael Lett’s single line hang of Seraphine Pick paintings feels more like a traditional gallery hang, and it works. This booth invites a close-up. I’ve always loved Pick’s paintings. Her impressionist paint strokes focus on the female figure, barely outlined women sketched in emotive, evocative gestures.

In the past at the Auckland Art Fair, I’ve always been drawn to the bombastic, the obnoxious even. This time round, it’s moments of quiet focus and careful detail that stand apart from the wealth of art on display. / Ioana Gordon-Smith


Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.