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.

Saturday, 29 March 2008

Junkshop Universe

artwork by Ben Davis

Life is a list of fantastic but very odd phenomena. Due to this, our brains are continually filtering and ordering the world so that we can grasp understanding and be productive. This cognitive process is influenced by biological, experiential, societal and cultural factors that determine each person’s idiosyncratic take on the world. There are many ways in which to study or analyse the complexity of our cognitive processing. Observing a persons collection is one good example of this. The act of collecting is not merely the acquisition and possession of objects. Rather the significance of collecting is found in the collector’s specific selection criteria and in the meaning that s/he derives from the objects themselves. Once collected the meaning that is invested in an object extends far beyond anything related to its original use - to the point where objects can be transformed from the banal to the sacred. Therefore, collecting acts as a tangent connecting objective and subjective perception through which one can create understanding. This betwixt rendezvous of imagination and reality allows both the collector and the observer the chance to experience a personalised slice of the world.

This week I visited the studio of artist Ben Davis who’s current artwork could be defined as a collection of the odd and unsightly. Despite being a recent art school graduate Davis has amassed an intriguing body of work. Davis’ art is based on an intuitive process of collecting that is unconsciously informed by an eye for the strange and a habit of reading randomly assorted literature. His work slips between many conventions of contemporary art including assemblage, installation, experimental sculpture and photography. Revealing that Davis’ practice is not media specific but rather reliant on the skills and materials that are immediate to his use. The result is a complex and ever-growing collection of things and stuff – that is to say - strange ephemeral sculpture, found objects and digital photographs.

Davis’ ephemeral sculpture could also be described as experiments. One work for instance consists of marmite smeared upon a clean white wall. However when your eyes adjust a boldly illustrated self-portrait begins to emerge from the sticky substance – referencing Jesus or Mary faces that people claim to mysteriously appear in clouds etc. The fact that the marmite resembles a foul excretion also references the Freudian claim that faeces are ones first creative act. In another work a mysterious white wax form rests tentatively on a Formica tabletop. The ambiguous shape resembles a sublime glacial landscape or an exotic fungal growth. Despite being repellent and abject these sculptural experiments evoke a surprising beauty. Creating a type of debased catharsis that melds the sacred or pure with the squalid.

Viewing his found object works add more insight to this. Of particular note is a new and currently untitled work pictured above. On a white plinth sporting scrapes and dings from an abused past life, rests a gleaming glass object. The glass form seems to be made of a thousand or so pearl tinted glass spheres of various dimensions. The multitude of glass spheres has an alluring effect much the same as gazing at the stars. Indeed, the spherical form resembles a scientific model of the universe or a molecular structure. Investigating the object further you discover that it is actually an outlandish kitsch lamp shade. The exploration of the sacred and profane or the humble and profound is further emphasised in Davis’ photography. Here Davis uses a camera as a receptacle to collect odd phenomena and refuse – and thereby rescuing fleeting moments and discarded rubbish as if precious gems.

For instance, a series of photographs that documents a roadside industrial area in North Taranaki draws attention to something that most people would unwittingly drive by. One photo in particular features a pile of gravel that has been labelled “contaminated” in spray paint. Framed by an enclave of Native bush this documentation insights question about our supposedly clean green country or evokes the many urban myths of suspect environmental infringements within the province.

Davis’ work escapes easy analysis. However, at the core of his practice is a collection that investigates the odd and dysfunctional. A type of collecting that is governed by an elusive process of intuition and coincidence - an odd practice that is more akin to a type of meandering with a sense of wonder. However futile or incongruous this may seem Davis’ work nevertheless exposes the myth of normality and leads us to celebrate the strange occurrences of daily life.

  • Dear readers I am sadly leaving Taranaki to curate an exhibition in Chicago. Instead of reviewing exhibitions I have decided to dedicate my last three reviews to Taranaki based artists that I haven’t had the privilege of writing about. Next weeks article will feature the artist Leonie Smith.