The Associates are a group of artists that first came together as part of an initiative by CoCA Toi Moroki in Ōtautahi which eventually took on an impetus of its own. (The Associates are: Sarah Anderson, Janneth Gil, Karen Greenslade, Lee Harper, Sarah Harper, Mikyung (Amelia) Jang, Viv Kepes, Stephanie McEwin, Gaby Montejo, Gaby Reade, Olivia Isabel Smith, Mark Soltero, Nicki Thorne, Akky van der Velde and Susanne van Tuinen)
Their exhibition A Stone to Strike and a Rock to Stumble Over at the Ashburton Art Gallery shows what can happen when artists have space, time, and mutual support. For a highly diverse group of artists from multiple cultural backgrounds, working in vastly different media, there is a surprising cohesion to the whole. Certain themes harmonise and repeat – our relationship with nature and the world, human and natural environments. Each artist has their own take on what they are doing, in part, that just acknowledges the organic, holistic process of art making in general.
Some of the artists make a direct appeal to nature as a source of beauty and/or something worth protecting. Viv Kepes in her characteristic macroscopic soft-focus painting style zooms in on a rare Banks Peninsula manifestation of a native dwarf broom plant in the triptych Carmichaelia Corrugata, highlighting its fragility by dramatically expanding it on the canvas. Stephanie McEwin, inspired by the way Japanese craftsmen repair ceramics with precious metals (kintsukuroi) translates the flora, fauna, and foragers of wetland ecosystems verging irrigation ditches à la japonaise into flat decorative compositions on gold and silver leaf grounds in Golden Dreams and Silver Linings. Gaby Reade’s delicate solar-etched collagraph prints of moths making up Symphony for the Seemingly Insignificant likewise emphasises the vulnerability of the creatures we share the planet with.
Sarah Anderson and Karen Greenslade take more abstract approaches to appreciating and speaking for nature. Anderson’s Vegetable Outlaws meticulously detailed drawings of tangled forms seem almost microcosms of the human emotional inscape as much as exuberant celebrations of organic form. Their slow withering, mimics our own lifespan in an elegant memento mori. Greenslade’s vertical hangings of handmade flax paper, Where the Creek Runs, with their echoes of Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting, incorporate collaged pieces of plastic refuse gathered in the Waimea/Awarua catchment area as a warning against this negative intrusion into natural space.
Olivia Isabel Smith’s, also painterly and abstracted imagery, is more concerned with human space in My altar, my echo chamber series of still lifes, reminiscent of Gorgio Morandi’s still lifes as mini cityscapes, though much softer and less distinct, being painted while viewed through glass. The bottles, stones, and shells are altars of offerings that invite our contemplation.
Mark Soltero is also interested in human space, though in his case filtered through memory and mechanical/digital processes. Taking a found photographic image of a cinema interior from his 1970s youth in San Francisco, Soltero digitally removes all but tonal skeleton of the scene, reflects the image along its central vertical axis, and paints the result in greatly expanded form in silver and black on the canvas with squeegees. The painting, Cinema of the Rorschach – Silver, without context, has the appearance of abstraction, but perhaps is a statement of the unreliability and temporal nature of memory. Like a Rorschach test the painting invites us to project our own interpretations and desires upon it.
The relationship between human and nature finds expression through culture in the elaborate, organic and maximalist installation of knotted and interwoven harakeke fibre by Mikyung (Amelia) Jang, channelled through the rural craft traditions of her native Korea. The result is The Connected, a huge, encompassing net with unrolling satellite balls of fibre which perhaps invokes a desire to engage with a new homeland and a visualisation of Gaia, the interconnected whole. Diamond Harbour-based Sarah Harper’s idiosyncratic earth-fired ceramics with their enigmatically poetic titles, on the other hand, forge an allegorical and explicit connection between the connection of clay pot to the earth, and to the body as a symbolic container of emotions and experiences.
Sometimes the artists are more directly interested in the human relationship with the land. Akky van der Velde, draws on her family farming background and her familiarity with Canterbury dairy farms in Thinking about it, to celebrate the cow in rich black oil stick drawings and highlight concerns that the special relationship between farmer and cow is being eroded as farm turns into ever more efficient productive units. Nicki Thorne likewise refers to this relationship in her atmospheric black and white photographs, Not just Tea and Scones, concentrating on the lives of dairy farming women. These are portraits of strength, endurance, ingenuity, and resolve – the female backbone of Canterbury.
Lee Harper’s Wall relies on the metaphorical potential of materials to explore the complexities of the human condition. The installation of hanging linen sheets in the middle of the gallery space is a reference to recent upheavals in her and her family’s life – moving house, loss of employment, a death. For her, the linen has healing associations – bandages and bed sheets – recalling Joseph Beuys’s use of felt. Her “somoars” (a contraction of “soma” – Greek for the body, and “bezoar” – a ball of hair found in the stomachs of ruminants and believed to have healing powers) are heavily worked organic forms made from soap, hair, fabric, and other materials. They are curiously feminine, decorative little objects born of artistic catharsis. The use of soap, and the little pieces moulded as chocolates, suggests Beuys’s symbolic use of lard – healing, energy, transformation – and Janine Antoni’s Gnaw works in their associations between materials, consumption, the body, and female experience.
In a related instrumentalization of art as a kind of affect therapy, Janneth Gil contributed The Significance of Life and Death from her ongoing Darkness into Light project, documenting the Christchurch mosque attacks of 2019 by archiving the emotional landscape around those horrific events and the grief and healing of the survivors. As an immigrant herself, and familiar with the violent social upheaval of her native Colombia, Gil is an able interlocutor. A hanging sheet – an echo of veils and curtains – is printed with statements from Ambreen Naeem who lost her husband and son, its faintness forcing the viewer to get up close and share its intimacy. It is stained, indirectly suggestive of blood, but actually a pigment extracted from the flowers left outside the mosques by the community in the aftermath. At its base, the sheet seems pinned by a wooden journal, a poem by Talha Naeem, handwritten on a lined notebook and etched onto a block of wood.
Two of the Associates make an indirect response to the Covid pandemic in their work. Susanne van Tuinen took as provocation the now overly familiar word “cluster”, everywhere in the media, creating abstract, minimalist clusters of folded oblong aluminium tubes in a restrained chromatic-scale palette. Gaby Montejo’s Eye4eye, in a significant departure from his performance-based installations, contributed collages of human faces excised from album covers, cut up and arranged in circular compositions – a reference to the loss of all-important human contact during Covid lockdown. These faces were put on album covers as a kind of idealised engagement to entice their purchase, making them an apt source for a consideration of what we most value in our engagements with others.
A Stone to Strike and a Rock to Stumble Over is both cross-section and snapshot of practices, connected by a shared context of experience, events, community, and landscape, despite their unique individuality.
The Associates, A Stone to Strike and a Rock to Stumble Over, Ashburton Art Gallery, 327 West Street, Ashburton, 18 April – 18 June
- From Left: Viv Kepes, Carmichaelia Corrugata I, IIand III, 2021, oil on linen and Sarah Harper’s pit-fired stoneware clay vessels