City Gallery

Ian Wedde, ‘Imposing Narratives’ , Evening Post, 14 December 1989.

In a preface to the catalogue for Imposing Narratives: Beyond the Documentary in Recent New Zealand Photography, the director of the Wellington City Art Gallery, John Leuthart, located the present show in a lineage that includes such survey shows as The Active Eye in 1975 and Views/Exposures in 1982.

I think its genealogy is a bit different. As its nifty curatorist title might suggest, it belongs to a narrower band of exhibitions organised specifically within the City Art Gallery, under the curatorial hand of Greg Burke.

There have now been three of these very designer shows, each in its way promoting an idea of rupture or shift in its given territory.

In 1988, the first of these, Drawing Analogies, suggested craftily that it was time we rethought what we mean by “drawing”. Was it any longer still the fundamental preparatory discipline of art production? Or had it become part of a raft of strategies now adrift within many various recyclings of representation, of means of production, of value systems, of gender codes?

Earlier this year, Shifting Ground (the titles begin to sound related) suggested it was time we rethought what is meant by regional. The show did this by presenting the work of several locally based artists, all of whom had adopted different approaches to the relationship of figure to ground in their work, and to the relationship of their work to history or convention.

Imposing Narratives presents the work of nine New Zealand photographers who make, rather than take, photographs.

Six of these are women. Of this six, five make themselves actors in their own frames, as subjects of dramas, tableaux, or allegories whose truth is posed or constructed, rather than found, taken, or captured.

Christine Webster poses herself in sexual dramas that approach but then deflect the clichés of pornography and dominance. Marie Shannon includes herself in satires of domestic comfort. Megan Jenkinson is herself the ‘model’ in elaborately composed and collaged studio allegories. Margaret Dawson sets herself up as types of womanhood whose failure to “live up to expectations” she then sardonically records. Rhondda Bosworth includes her own figure, or representations of it, as a fragment in assemblages suggesting the fractured recall of self. Fiona Pardington does not frame herself, but she is careful nonetheless to ward off the predatory or opportunist functions of photography.

What is being documented here is, in fact, a moment of refusal led significantly by women. They have too often been on the receiving end of the camera’s roving eye, entrapped in ways predicated to the male gaze (or leer), caught unawares by the camera’s ability to take, shoot, capture, or frame. They here declare their refusal to trust the documentary ‘moment of truth’ canonised by Cartier-Bresson and made plausible by high-speed reflex cameras since the holy Leica.

Hence the large and even melodramatic claim in that ‘Beyond’ of the show’s title—a claim that links it to the vanguardism of its two predecessors, Drawing Analogies and Shifting Ground.

There can be no doubt that the refusal identified by curator Greg Burke and splendidly documented in his choice of works, is a significant one.

But the vanguardist claims made for it are a trifle smug and even exclusive. They ignore a persistent tradition of studio set-pieces as old as photography itself; of socially directed conventions such as wedding photographs; or portraiture; of elaborately dramatised sightline in action, especially sports, photography; of the entirely conventionalised rhetorics of snap-shottery; not to mention the ways in which ‘the accidental’ can be directed and even serialised by socially committed photographers like Peter Black; and so on.

The show has, to an extent, mythologised a documentary opposition in order to aggrandise its own rupture with that opposition. Appropriated to this vanguardist programme, some of the work in the show suffers a loss of intertextual richness. This situation is not helped by the imposition of any entry fee to the show.

The result is a ghettoisation of what should have been an expansive and liberating moment.

Lita Barrie, ‘Pretension Gets in the Way of Art’ , National Business Review, 2 February 1990.

It seems that the harder it is to justify the relevance of New Zealand art to a general public, the more it is couched in pretension. The curator’s trademark show over the last couple of years wins the prize for pretension, but ironically, this genre of curating—in which the curator takes the centre stage as interpreter—arose to allow the public a wider cultural view of art.

In an effort to define the relevance of New Zealand within a critical discourse curators are misapplying barely understood concepts from overseas theory to local work, which has little or no connection to this imported writing.

Overseas theory—like the art it is applicable to—is culturally determined by the cultural conditions it derives from. Used tactically, this theory can be useful for locating the different issues that surround the production and reception of New Zealand art. But the cargo-cult use of theoretical jargon in recent curators’ trademark shows makes a farce of the complex theory it is borrowed from and creates unnecessary obfuscation around artworks.

Rather than opening work to multiple readings, this dictatorial genre of curating uses art to illustrate some borrowed overseas idea, instead of trying to extrapolate ideas from close critical scrutiny of the work in its particularity (which requires more intellectual ingenuity) and inevitably limits the readings to which the work might otherwise be susceptible.

Imposing Narratives—a large-scale exhibition of recent New Zealand photography curated by Greg Burke for the Wellington City Art Gallery, which is touring the public-gallery circuit during 1990 and 1991, is the most expensively funded example of this genre of curators’ trademark show. Its predecessors are Wystan Curnow’s Sex and Sign and Putting the Land on the Map, Priscilla Pitt’s and Robert Leonard’s Exhibits, and Leonard’s Nobodies.

The exhibition includes 100 works by nine photographers—Laurence Aberhart, Rhondda Bosworth, Margaret Dawson, Megan Jenkinson, Fiona Pardington, Peter Peryer, Patrick Reynolds, Marie Shannon and Christine Webster—in an obvious attempt to favour women artists through the gender imbalance. This does, however, reflect the influence of feminist theory on women photographer’s interest in the way images are read.

The confusing exhibition title has already caused heated debates in Wellington City Art Gallery’s programme of forums, since, in spite of the cant accompanying the exhibition presentation, what is meant by “narrative” in the context of still photography remains unclear. Presumably, the title is a rather confusing re-statement of the old cliché that “every picture tells a story”. But the narrative form is a particular way of telling a story in a linear sequential construction, which is seldom the form textuality takes in single images.

The exhibition’s subtitle, ‘Beyond the Documentary in Recent New Zealand Photography’, creates even more confusion, particularly when obviously documentary photographers like Aberhart and Peryer (in these recent works) are included. The debate over whether photography is art or documentary dates back as far as the 1850s and there continue to be exponents of both schools. While, this exhibition includes mainly non-documentary photographers, it certainly cannot anticipate an historic process when documentary photography continues as a major force, particularly in photojournalism.

The exhibition seems to try to make a statement on the interest many photographers now have in the cultural codes that predetermine the way images are read. Bosworth, Dawson, Jenkinson and Webster use images of themselves to comment on the way a woman is positioned as passive object of the controlling masculine gaze. Bosworth provides the most evocative treatment of this theme in her Self Portrait (1985), in which she mimics the feminine stereotype in a supine pose only to invert this logic by looking out at the viewer who seemingly traps her in this passive position.

Dawson’s masquerade of New Zealand feminine stereotypes is excessively derivative from Cindy Sherman’s use of masquerade but, unlike Sherman who exposes the photographic conventions that support voyeurism, Dawson merely impersonates familiar feminine “types”. Her most recent work explores a more personal mythology through surreal objects, but has not been resolved fully enough for exhibition.

Pardington also reverses the logic that structures ‘looking’ as a masculine position, by trying to create a place for feminine spectatorship in slick Mapplethorpe-like informed and accomplished, I find her attention to hand-crafted elements such as collage, too prissy and reminiscent of early 1970s feminist art which elevated traditional women’s craft. Shannon’s photo-sequences also have this excessively handcrafted element, which is anachronistic in a mass-media age, when technology has been used for the effects which have most power in reinforcing sexual stereotypes.

Webster’s large cibachromes are the only works in this exhibition which supposedly addresses the politics of photographic representation, that make any connection with the seductive attention-grabbing tactics of media images. But while she uses text, to reverse various clichés used to enforce feminine stereotypes her images have an unhealthy fetishistic atmosphere, which becomes repelling.

Reynolds plays upon the conventions of nature photography in images which are finally gratuitous. As the newcomer in an exhibition of over-exposed artists, his work is a welcome change. Aberhart and Peryer are the most senior photographers in this show and, while their work is at odds with the show’s confused rationale, their technical brilliance with the photographic medium provides the major focus. Aberhart’s project continues a tradition begun by the Burton Brothers of showing New Zealand’s cultural history, however humble, worthy of recording.

Richard Dale, ‘Photographers Assert Equality’ , Herald, 9 August 1990. [Review of Imposing Narratives, Waikato Museum of Art and History, Hamilton.]

If photography has been customarily viewed as some poor relation to painting and sculpture, then this exhibition of nine New Zealand photographers asserts a position of equivalence.

The situation has changed here in the past three years with more dealer galleries and curated shows including and promoting photographic artists as regular exhibitors on a par with other by artists. As an example, the Gregory Flint Gallery, previously established in Wellington, opened in Parnell this week with its first exhibitor, Anne Noble, showing her Song without Words series of images.

The significance of any possible trend can hardly be ascertained, especially when one considers that Auckland’s only gallery devoted exclusively to photography, Real Pictures, closed last month after ten years. Presumably it never recovered from the shift when His Majesty’s Arcade was demolished and now the future for many photographers to show their work seems precarious. The contribution made by Real Pictures must certainly be acknowledged.

Imposing Narratives is a touring photographic exhibition curated by Gregory Burke, of the Wellington City Art Gallery. Each artist is well represented by work covering a five-year period, there being 100 exhibits in total (Christine Webster also has pre-1987 work included in the Look into History exhibition in the upper gallery). Much will be familiar to Auckland viewers, as six of the artists are based in Auckland.

The exhibition is imposing and allows for an appreciation of each of the artists’ concerns, encouraging their own internal narrative as signature and—with the inclusion of seven short texts by New Zealand theorists in an impressive catalogue—a set of narratives between the artists.

There is no forced argument for a movement: stylistic diversity would tell us otherwise. Yet these artists share a critical relation to their tradition of image-making, both within photography and in mass visual production.

The point of departure is seen as the documentary tradition. This has always assumed an immediate identity between the photographic image and the real world it captures on film, a direct transaction of the signified.

This fiction, that of the ‘decisive moment’ and its renderings of linear narratives, is renounced by these artists.

Instead, each work can be thought of as a constellation that addresses a number of issues surrounding the problem of self-representation, holding several narratives as alternative constructs of meaning to the ‘real’.

In this sense, and through various distancing devices of collage, the inclusion of words, double exposure and multiple images, they are anti-naturalistic, an undermining of illusion and pronouncement of the death of the ‘decisive moment’ in photography.

Foremost is their relation to other images and language, textual or visual, in a network of signs and codes ranging from high culture to the mass media.

For Patrick Reynolds, the codes of landscape and nature contest spatial and cultural dichotomies. Peter Peryer looks into text-related photography, Christine Webster the Graeco-Christian tradition, Marie Shannon the domestic and suburban environment, Rhondda Bosworth existential and familial relations, Laurence Aberhart photography’s formalism and discovered textual objects, Margaret Dawson portraiture, Megan Jenkinson classical and philosophic rhetoric and Fiona Pardington symbolism evolved in Western history.

These are taken as fabrications producing other narratives that dissolve further fictions about sexuality, the self, culture, nature and photography’s own history.

To a degree there is an ambivalence to mounting such an exhibition. Undoubtedly seminal for introducing a new wave of artists—and it should be encouraged to tour internationally after its circuit here—there is a certain ‘arriviste’ component to the enterprise, affirming the artists as it institutionalises them.

This exhibition is both timely and welcome, acknowledging as it does the importance of the medium and these artists’ place in the forefront of New Zealand art and its relevant concerns.