Welcome to the Review Repository - an archive of reviews that were originally published in the Saturday edition of the Taranaki Daily News from September 2007 – April 2008.

The reviews were written for a general audience and therefore tend to be descriptive and educational in focus.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

More than eye candy

Botanical illustration is more than pretty flower paintings. The visual representation of plants have graced the walls of palaces and decorated textiles for thousands of years. Either venerated for their sustenance, mystical medicinal properties or the goods of trade and commerce plants have been depicted in numerous stylistic ways – each one fulfilling a particular cultural purpose. The same can be said for botanical illustration. By acknowledging the history, aesthetic decisions and function that inform the creation of such illustrations one can reveal the motivations and agendas that formed them – and help us understand what botanical illustrations might mean to us today.

The earliest known image resembling a botanical illustration is from a Greek papyrus dating from approximately 400 AD. It is assumed that these early illustrations were used to traverse language boundaries in the growing travel and trade of the ancient world and to increase the accuracy of information about medicinal herbs. Botanical illustration as we know it today, however, is often attributed to having emerged during the renaissance (14th -17th centuries) with the fine etchings of Albrecht Durer and the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci, who made their illustrations in the aid of early scientific enquiries. In the following period the enlightenment (18th-19th centuries) rationalism was thought to be independent of mystical belief and therefore lead to a golden age of science - which in turn caused some major developments to botanical illustration. Enlightenment illustrators strived to depict an objective realism of surface, form, structure and often showed the plants dissected and with exposed roots. Despite the pretension for objectivity and didactic purpose, the illustrations remained highly stylised and heavy-laden with particular connotations of romantic beauty. Later during Modernism (late 19th and early 20th centuries) botanical illustration became more refined, precise and symbolic of mankind’s superiority over nature. Since then there have been many new advancements science but nevertheless the quest for knowledge of the natural world continues. Botanical illustration has likewise continued to provide a didactic and aesthetic service for scientists. However, in our digital age one must ask what purpose paintings have to science when computer imagery is so proficient.

Well on exhibition in Puke Ariki’s Lane and Wall galleries are some contemporary botanical illustrations which give us some insight into such questions. The exhibition is called A Passion for Plants: Botanical Paintings by Susan Worthington. There is a range of plants represented from rare indigenous foliage to common wildflowers and prised rhododendrons. Humbly presented in simple plain black frames these powerfully seductive watercolour paintings need no fancy display to win respect from the viewer. Indeed, each work has an aura of sophistication and elegance. However, we must question why these paintings impress us so much.

For instance, one painting depicting a blooming kakabeak branch can tell us as much about human connotations of beauty than the specimen itself. Browsing the painting we are shown flowers from bud to bloom. Each flower has a vast range of different hues and colours from quinacridone reds, magentas, pinkish tangerines and slivers of daylight yellow. This careful rendering allows us some insight into the complexity of the plants photosynthesis. The branch holding the blooms seems to be surgically dissected allowing a central composition that draws our eyes further inward - rather than the edges which might make us question what is beyond the frame. The central composition is significant of the categorisation and taxonomy of science to reduce things in order to understand the whole. At the bottom right of the painting is a dissected example of a flower allowing us to study the petals inner chambers and stigma – further emphasising the deductive pursuit of the scientific eye.

The sterile depiction of indigenous plants also brings to mind the colonialist history of Botanical illustration. Voyages such as Cook’s Endeavour carried on board naturalists who were both scientists and proficient painters - to report on the natural resources of the south pacific for Britain’s quest for riches and power. Botanical illustration therefore is also not only shaped by scientific endeavour but also the imperialist prerogative of nationalistic exploit and economic dominance.

These paintings reveal that we find nature beautiful only when it is depicted as empirically ordered and controlled. Which perhaps suggest a deep seeded fear within the human psyche of our inherent transience and mercy on natures baffling complexity and wild unrelenting power. Furthermore, the painstaking skill of these paintings also helps us understand the benefits of painting over digital media. The subtlety of water soluble paint and the intricacies that the human hand can record on paper are far superior than any laser printer and computer programme. The exhibition also gives us some insight into the skill, patients, research and understanding that is required to produce botanical illustration of this calibre. Overall the great thing about this exhibition is that it will captivate anyone who has a pulse.
Exhibition closes on the 13th of January 2008.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Culture Clash

Parallel universes II by Erica Sklenars

Considering a culture’s art can yield insight into the social dynamics of the people. Despite whether an artwork is appealing or not, or even if it is understandable or not, art will always contain significance. Often the significance or beauty of an artwork is found once you consider who made it and from what social / cultural context it was created. Decorated vases from ancient Greece for example, often depicted in elegant, illustrative style the daily occupations and leisure activities of the day. Looking at these vases historically they reveal to us the Greeks’ perspective on bodily beauty, gender roles, fashion and social hierarchies. Viewing contemporary art in a similar manner can reveal to us about the current societal condition. The Wanganui Arts Review on show at the Sarjeant Gallery presents such an opportunity to consider the diversity of our nations social/cultural make up. An annual event open to artists based in the Wanganui region, entries are filtered and edited by a panel of judges who select a list of finalists for exhibition. This year’s judges are Wellingtonians Mary-Jane Duffy from the Mary Newton Gallery and Aaron Lister, from the National Library Gallery. Their choice of artwork seems to emphasise all of the weird, macabre, humorous, na├»ve and insightful artistic talent that Wanganui has to offer. What is interesting about this year’s selection of artworks is what it reveals about the subcultures that inhabit Wanganui.

Two artworks on show particularly emphasise this. One of which is a work by the Rayner brothers entitled ‘Breakfast at every street’. The work depicts a quirky tea party where the guests and hosts of the gathering are the actual serving implements and vessels. The stage of the party is a Formica table. The guests are strange hybridised vessels, something in between a tea cup and an oversized egg cup. Each figure has a ceramic cup bottom, knitted woollen body and an overtly caricatured ceramic head. The host, much larger than the others, takes centre stage on the table, in the form of a ceramic headed tea cosy fitted on an oversize teapot. The oddly fashioned ceramic heads are a typical group of middle class Caucasians in their forties, who despite their ‘cultured’ and austere characteristics, appear as a snobby, conservative clique. The fascinating thing about this quizzical work are the personalities depicted and the perceived social situation at play. Some of the guests have a conceited manner about them, while the others seem jovial and overly polite. The host is the most revealing of all. Obviously a man conscious of his own appearance, with dyed blonde hair or toupee and gold-framed glasses, and the snazzy technicoloured woollen jumper, and a facial expression that resembles Julius Caesar. This host is one of inflated ego and self-asserted social superiority. Considering the work as a whole, it suggests the oddness of social gatherings, the personalities at play, what it means to belong, how we form groups of friends and why.

Parallel universes II by Erica Sklenars

Similar critique could be obtained from Erica Sklenars’ work entitled ‘Parallel universes II’. Consisting of two video works presented on separate TV monitors, Sklenars’ work juxtaposes subculture ideology with third world reality. In one video, we witness still frame footage of a group of neo-punk hipster white kids in their 20s enjoying a drunken fondue evening. The still frames are animated to some experimental electronic pop music, giving the footage the appearance of a low-budget music video. The young adults’ evening spirals into a hedonistic bender as clothes swapping shenanigans take place. The neighbouring TV monitor displays an entirely different world of a sewing factory in India in what appears to be sweatshop conditions. This time, it is amateur camcorder footage of a poor quality as if it was done covertly. The footage is also edited so that frames are repeated and looped, enhancing the mechanical nature of the women’s work. Comparing the two realities seems to draw attention to the inherent contradictions of youthful activists’ ideologies of such ‘alternative’ subcultures. It could also be understood as the comfort we take for granted in our country and the bourgeois lifestyle of small-town students.

The Wanganui Arts Review is an exhaustingly large exhibition which despite it being cram-packed with 177 artworks, is hung and organised well, divided into thematic groups which guides the viewer through the bewildering cacophony of art. There is plenty of work of high technical ability, a fair amount of conceptually clever work and some that is just out there. If anything, this exhibition proves that Wanganui is a twilight zone of creative talent and an enclave for interesting social / cultural groups.