By Warwick Brown
RH/Godwit, $55 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

ACCORDING to the media release for this book, “In... Seen This Century – out just ahead of May’s Auckland Art Fair – Warwick Brown has come up with an up-to-the-minute list of the 100 “ones to watch” to have merged in our contemporary art scene throughout the country since the turn of this century.”

It’s a book “that taps into the vigorous art market in a canny manner” giving “the collector an invaluable tool by highlighting who is on the rise, who will become the next big thing and whose work should be bought now before prices skyrocket.”

I’m not sure that the art market is exactly vigorous at the moment, what with the recession and all. And I’ll always get frustrated with any publication that pushes the material value of art; that art is something you only buy as an investment. Admittedly in his introduction, Brown says “buy what you like, but” (to rephrase) do your research to make sure that what you’re buying is worth buying.

Beyond this sophistic quibble you can’t really criticise Brown’s credentials, having been in the art scene for decades and having written two similar (but different) volumes in the nineties. So he knows that if you write a list book like this you have to expect people to whinge. Apparently Brown is “expecting some flack for his deliberate decision not to cover performance and video/DVD art, film, and other work of specialist interest.” Whatever. For myself, besides that mentioned above, the main complaints I have are 1) there seems to be an Auckland bias, and 2) photography is under-represented.

To a degree I can understand the Auckland bias. It’s where Brown lives. And it’s where most dealer galleries are. Therefore it’s where Brown is most likely to have come across most of the artists included. As for the under-representation of photography, that’s just the opinion of someone to whom the photograph is very important. But I do think, bearing in mind that this book pertains to be a ‘collector’s guide’, it perpetuates the apparent subordinate value (financial and artistic) of contemporary photography as compared to other visual arts. Where’s Ben Cauchi, Andrew Ross, Edith Amituanai?

In his introduction, Brown states “I have only selected artists whose works I consider to be original and challenging.” So, fair enough. And it is a strong list, but it kind of takes it away from being a ‘collector’s guide’ when it’s only really the artists the author himself would consider buying.

However, there are a good number of people whose works I would love to own: Arnold, Couper, Maw, Crook, Birch, Foley, Thompson, Hurley. And, as one would expect, there are a few people here who I wouldn’t have included, even the odd artist who I don’t “consider to be original and challenging”. But that’s the nature of a list book. Every reader is going to have a different list. And mine would be biased towards the lower North Island and photography, so ...

The layout is similar to the five volumes of Contemporary New Zealand Art in that each artist gets approximately one page of text and three pages of imagery. Where these books differ is that Contemporary Art tends towards the long established artists, whereas Seen This Century examines the newer generation of artists. Seen This Century is also a smaller book, so more suited to putting in your handbag/manbag and carting around galleries (or Art Fairs).

The biographies are, as described by Brown, “constrained and subjective” and “do no more than introduce the artists”. They are succinct, giving a brief overview of each artist’s practice, concerns and history. The four pages given to each artist doesn’t allow for much more, but Brown’s text is easy to read and acts as a good initial commentary.

As a snapshot of early career contemporary New Zealand visual artists in 2009 Seen This Century is as good you’d expect it to be. And if you’re buying it as a guide to who to buy at the Auckland Art Fair in May, then it will come in handy. Although interestingly, it doesn’t list who each artist is represented by, so you’ll have to do your own research there.