ARTISTS Eve Armstrong, Ruth Buchanan, Fiona Connor, Simon Denny, Selina Foote, Jacqueline Fraser, Robert Hood, Fiona Jack, Patrick Lundberg, Roman Mitch, Dane Mitchell, Kate Newby, Ava Seymour, Sriwhana Spong, Peter Trevelyan, John Ward Knox CURATOR Kate Montgomery
City Gallery presents the fourth instalment of its periodical show Prospect. Gallery Director Paula Savage established Prospect in 2001 as an opportunity—and imperative—to monitor the pulse of the national art scene. Ten years on, it’s time to assess the project’s relevance and legacy. Savage changes the subtitle from 'New Art New Zealand' to 'New Zealand Art Now’.
Twenty-nine years old, Kate Montgomery is the youngest Prospect curator to date. She presents a distilled selection of just sixteen artists, all but three are her own generation, born between 1973 and 1985. In the slender risograph-printed exhibition guide, she writes, 'Shifting our thinking about the form of the exhibition from a concept rooted in the idea of provision and persuasion to something more provisional, contested, and complicated; just like the Prospect exhibitions which precede it, this exhibition dedicates itself to the creation of space for shared conversation and debate about the significance and value of contemporary art, right here and now.' There are no explanatory wall texts or labels.
The tone is set in the foyer, which features just one work. John Ward Knox's sculpture—a piece of tensile steel linked to a stainless steel chain spanning the space, running wall to wall. Although one half is firm and the other flexible, it creates a continuous smooth curve.
Downstairs, Fiona Connor's installation Notes on Half the Page (2009) appears to be an accumulation of empty newsstands—both local and international—offering viewers a chance to consider these sculptural forms as hard-copy journalism is on the wane. The newsstands look found, but are scrupulous fakes—replicas. Connor also produces a publication Newspaper Reading Club Daily (2011), documenting a series of soundworks in which participants read aloud from daily newspapers.
Prospect opens on polling day. Near Connor’s work, Fiona Jack's Election Day in New Plymouth, 1893 (2011) presents a blow up of an archival photo thought to be one of the first taken of women voting in a national election—New Zealand being the first country to grant women suffrage. Jack initiated a conversation with a group of Wellington women about the image and distributes a free publication of its transcription.
In order to see one of Kate Newby's Just Enough to Feel Stronger and a Little Bit Fond (2011), visitors must consult the map in the guidebook, which instructs you to approach a gallery host who will open their hand to reveal a small collection of cast objects, including stones, a match, a little brass hand, a button, and the ring from a soft-drink can. In the evenings, the collection of objects is taken home by various gallery hosts who act as custodians and collaborators, warming the work in their hands. Newby's other works are outside. For Walks with Men (2011) she filled a 'hole' cut out of the bricks in the Square with concrete, smooth stones, and trinkets. It becomes a puddle, collecting rainwater and refuse. Why Don't You Be Helpful and Tell Them (2011) is a small sloped volume of pebbles, piled against a low concrete retaining wall in the Square.
Made from pencil leads, Peter Trevelyan's sculptures are drawings in space. Node, a large freestanding pencil-lead sculpture, is 'a chaotic clustering profusion of graphite that bubbles up organically from the gallery floor’. He also displays a line of small graphite sculptures along a ledge, each depicting a different theory of perspective.
Patrick Lundberg is represented with four incised found paintings on board. One of Lundberg's chipboard 'paintings' dangles from a chain in the ceiling. He also collaborates with Roman Mitch on a wall drawing, Use This as a Guide (Found and Altered Diagram) (2011), which features lines of abstracted scribble, glass and sanding applied directly to the wall.
Ruth Buchanan’s three multimedia pieces explore feminism, writing, and interpretation. Her video Several Attentions AND Less Mirror than He Was Used to (2011) is projected at floor height. It shows the back of Buchanan's head as she looks at a microfiche reader in the British Library, retracing the research Virginia Woolf undertook when writing A Room of One's Own. To experience Sculptor (2010–1), viewers sit in a chair facing a mirror, backed by an apricot-hued curtain, then listen to a recording on headphones. Screening continuously in the auditorium, the slideshow Old Lovers Etc. (20o7) presents a case-study of obscure New Zealand painter Flora Scales. The images are 'narrated' through a series of wilfully obscure, invented, and repurposed texts. For instance: 'Each generation has something different at which they are looking … One must allow the object its private life.'
Eve Armstrong's Taking Stock (2010–1) takes on the question of plastic waste. A collection of plastic objects—clean, translucent, and pearly—flow from a wall like a massive glacier. Mirrors laid beneath sandwich boxes, soap pumps, and empty biscuit trays send their reflections into a glimmering underworld. She also presents a collage series, Rise and Fall.
Selina Foote’s abstract paintings reflect her interest in the geometries found in other paintings, particularly portraits held at Te Papa. For instance, her Untitled (Asterié) (2011) subtly recalls Edward Poynter's Asterié (1904).
Upstairs, where gallery floors are painted black, viewers are first greeted by the late Tony Fomison’s library—one of four works by Christchurch artist Robert Hood (the only Prospect artist from the South Island). Hood has located Fomison's library in the place his painting The Ponsonby Madonna (1982–3) occupied in the previous show, Oceania. Hood is interested in the subversive meanings that can be invested in the found image or object. To figures in album covers and celebrity posters, he collages plastic bags, as if bursting from their orifices like ectoplasm. Displayed in its own room, his floor installation The Wrecked Kilometer (2009) is an array of busted and forked shards of red-and-white road markers. It nods to Walter de Maria’s famous The Broken Kilometer (1979). Aluminum Ingots—seven oblong aluminum globs made from Hood's car—are hung on the wall.
Dane Mitchell plays on the threshold between invisible and visible realms. He presents three works from his Radiant Matter series (2010–2), which has already rolled out across three New Zealand art museums. Epitaph (2011) is a large, apparently empty vitrine, with a circle cut out at face height. Viewers are invited to step up and sniff the scent within, made by French perfumer Michel Roudnitska. Diabolical Object (2011) is a large rock of glossy black obsidian—a type of volcanic glass used in divination and healing rituals. Spoken Heredity Talismans (2011) is a series of glass vessels. The glass blower uttered a name of one of Mitchell's ancestors as each bubble was blown.
Critics are mostly consistent in their praise, if not effusive. In Eyecontact Megan Dunn says, 'Prospect is a brainy show, or an austere show, or perhaps both in equal measures. It’s an exhibition that’s confidently curated, a strong sense of restraint evident in both the practice of the artists and the juxtapositions of their work on display.' On National Radio, Mark Amery calls it a 'pointy-headed triumph'. While in Fishhead magazine, Courtney Johnson says, 'Trying to look back from the future, I’d say this Prospect is not going to be a crowd-pleaser or crowd-puller: it doesn’t have that key work that catches the broad public imagination and fuels word-of-mouth chatter. But of the four editions, it is the most likely to be looked back on as a strong statement of a smart mind and curious eye’s take on what was going on, what was at stake, at a certain moment.'
However, for Artforum critic Anthony Byrt, not enough was at stake. For Byrt 'charm' was the show's problem and he calls this Prospect out for its New Zealand aesthetic, '...a kind of lo-fi, apolitical cool that often seems finicky and far too concerned with its own looks to step outside its comfort zone. Its potential for fussy self-regard was reinforced by the lack of a contextualising voice: There were no wall labels and the throwaway catalogue made no attempt to create links or frictions between works.'
It may be the last one, but Montgomery's Prospect is arguably the best. It's certainly the most prescient, catching numerous stars as they ascend. In 2012, Newby wins the Walters Prize. In 2015, Denny represents New Zealand in the Venice Biennale and is acquired by New York's Museum of Modern Art. In 2018, Buchanan wins the Walters. In 2019, Mitchell will represent New Zealand in Venice.