Nobody Likes A Show Off, Séraphine Pick, Inner landscapes: 15 New Zealand Artists with Canterbury Connections

A few years ago, 2004 to be precise, Richard Lewer had a show at Enjoy Public Art Gallery in Wellington. In Between consisted of a DVD of Lewer’s drawings used to animate interviews conducted by then Enjoy curator Charlotte Huddleston. It was a ghost story, and a great work; subtle, engrossing, smart, and humorous, and unlike a lot of video work really held my attention. Shortly after this—it may well have also been at Enjoy—I came across Lewer’s book Goodnight, a non-narrative comic of sorts set in Wanganui, which highlighted his crude line drawing style. I liked it so much I bought copies for friends. Since then I’ve seen Lewer’s work in various galleries up and down the country.

Lewer has been based in Melbourne since the mid-1990s and recently Monash University Museum of Art put together the first major survey of his work. In Nobody Likes A Show Off, the catalogue of that show, he is described as a significant artist at mid-career. In a succinct description of the show and Lewer’s practice, it goes on to state that the exhibition (and book) “covers the scope of this artist’s practice, encompassing painting, drawing, animation, installation and performance. Marked by a skeptical humour and a focus upon the darker sides of human behaviour, place and social identity, Lewer’s work involves close observation and highly subjective encounters with family, religious, sport and criminal subjects, leading to insightful and absurd narrative reflections on good and evil, life and mortality.”

Although a small book, it demonstrates the breadth of Lewer’s oeuvre—his use of different media and medium’s, and subject matter, as discussed by curator Kirrily Hammond. Other texts examine Lewer’s numerous series of Catholic imagery, and his 2008 series True Stories – Australian Crime. Stylistically his work is changeable; he doesn’t have such a definitive approach that you can immediately spot a Lewer, not that this is a bad thing. Amongst other things, like so many NZ painters before him—McCahon, Hotere, Robinson, Reynolds, etc.—Lewer is enraptured by text, making works closer to the Robinson Reynolds school of language of the everyday.

It’s great that someone has felt that Lewer deserves a survey show at ‘mid-career’, and it makes sense that this has happened in the city where he now lives. I wish I had seen the show, and it would be nice to think that one of our public galleries might consider bringing it across the Tasman. In the meantime this little volume is a nice addition to the Lewer library.

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I can’t remember exactly when I became aware of Séraphine Pick’s work, but it was probably around the turn of the new century. What I do remember is that, while I appreciated them as beautifully executed paintings, they didn’t particularly interest me as images—fantastical, surrealist images, which I’ve never been much into as a genre in any medium.

This self-titled volume (NZ$80) is the catalogue accompanying the Christchurch Art Gallery survey of Pick’s works from 1995 to present. The show, or a version of it, will be at Wellington’s City Gallery during the 2010 New Zealand International Arts Festival (and presumably in other parts of the country after that).

In the book’s foreword, CAG director, Jenny Harper remarks: “Memory, fantasy, imagination, identity. Despite several bold shifts in style and subject matter over the past two decades, these have been the constants in Séraphine Pick’s oeuvre.” Pick has explored a number of subjects and styles in her paintings and the fantasy works are but a small part of her canon.

Felicity Milburn’s introductory chapter details Pick’s works, interests, influences, and life. Lara Strongman writes about the use of memory in Pick’s work, and the changes in private/public lives over the past couple of decades (thanks in part to blogs, Twitter, etc.). Strongman suggests Pick’s main subject is the “treatment of the private self”—seemingly autobiographical paintings.

The works are sequenced more or less chronologically, and it is those which appear either side of her ‘fantasy’ works that appeal most to me. Her early ‘white’ works, oddly, remind me of Richard Lewer—not so much in the works themselves, but in the similarity of drawing style. The layering of imagery clearly anticipated the surrealism that was to follow, and while there are strains of this in later works, the settings are less fantastical, everyday even. Her style has also shifted from vaguely realist to a more impressionistic approach (broader, less precise brushstrokes rather than pointillist).

This is a substantial survey of an artist who is clearly still evolving, still playing with the possibilities of paint while retaining a strong link to her over-riding tropes. The numerous texts help to shed light on the art and the artist, and the volume is rounded off with a short story by Elizabeth Knox. It’s well worth the investment.

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Séraphine Pick is another fine example of Aaron Beehre’s marvelous book design work. And speaking of Beehre, he not only designed, but also appears in Inner Landscapes: 15 New Zealand Artists with Canterbury Connections (Canterbury University Press, NZ$60; Edited by Sally Blundell). The publicity describes it as a collection of verbal self-portraits by artists who share a connection with the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts.

Justin Patton introduces the book, questioning the regional specificity and pits the artist against the rugby player in the game of provincial representation. As the book’s title makes clear, these artists are not literal landscape artists, and there is an emphasis on ‘Canterbury Connections’. I’m not sure of the necessity of the argument, but Patton points out that the people presented to us do not represent Canterbury in any meaning of the word.

From Don Peebles and Barry Cleavin to Joanna Langford and Aaron and Hannah Beehre the book covers a few generations of artists who have either studied or taught (or both) at UC SOFA. Each artist gets six pages—title, portrait, mini photo essay, text, works. The text covers their individual practice and is illuminating. It doesn’t concern itself much with the biography or technique; instead it’s more about the philosophical approach, what drives the artists. As is the nature of democratic publications like this, there is a sense that there are bigger stories to be told.

It’s difficult to see it as much more than an advertisement of the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts, but the way tertiary education has changed over the past couple of decades means that books like this may become more common as the various SOFAs around the country try to define and differentiate themselves. Inner Landscapes is a nice book, and while I can’t see it as being a significant volume, it ticks all the boxes for what it set out to achieve.

‘Nobody Likes A Show Off’ can be purchased from Parsons in Auckland or Monash University Museum of Art.

This entry was posted in Arts, Books, Visual Arts

One Comment

  1. Jennifer Buckley
    Posted March 19, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Hi Andy – I came across your review of Richard Lewer’s ‘Nobody likes a show-off” which was a lovely surprise and I have forwarded it to him in New York where he’s currently working. I’m sure you already know this but just in case, the show has come to NZ in the guise of ‘I must learn to like myself” at Waikato Museum in Rich’s home town of Hamilton. It is a wonderful show and in some ways, more comprehensive than the Monash one. There is also an amazing 11 x 6 meter charcoal wall drawing of his old house. It’s worth a trip to Hamilton for sure. Cheers Jennifer
    http://www.waikatomuseum.co.nz/news/pageid/2145847565

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