The Ara Institute of Canterbury has added to its collection of murals with a new work from one of Aotearoa’s most successful urban artists. The urban campus received a striking facelift at the end of 2020 with the production of Dcypher’s illusionistic mural greeting the passing Madras Street traffic, and now internationally renowned Elliot ‘Askew One’ O’Donnell has added a striking new mural to the Tahatika block.
The mural commission was completed during O’Donnell’s stay in Ōtautahi for the exhibition Continuum, a collaborative undertaking with his photographer wife Jasmine Gonzalez held at Sydenham’s Fiksate Gallery. With a long connection to the city, the Auckland-raised, now U.S.-based artist’s work is already familiar, his large portrait-based murals, Paris in Sydenham and Kristen in Cathedral Junction, produced for the festivals From the Ground Up and Rise respectively in 2013, have become markers of place, while his graffiti roots are evident in the TMD collaboration for the 2015 ‘Ironlak Family Tour’ on the side of Sydenham’s Embassy skate store.
With the Ara mural, O’Donnell continues his exploration of digital image-making techniques, a fascination that also extends to his studio practice. In addition to the gestural, abstract surface imagery, the mural also displays his interest in the power of words. The artist’s recent mural works have incorporated single words such as ‘Empathy’, ‘Symbiotic’ and ‘Everything’, O’Donnell searching for terms that can encapsulate concerns of contemporary society.
Presented with an open brief, O’Donnell developed three treatments using the word ‘Innovate’, the word couched within the abstract contortions rendered through digital sculpting and glitching techniques. ‘Innovate’, a fitting term for an institute of technology, struck O’Donnell for its ability to evoke excitement and concern, revealing the artist’s interest in the nuances and complexities of recent history. Embracing the potential in technological innovation in his own work, the artist is also aware of the potential problems of constant growth.
Rendered with paint brushes rather than aerosol, the mural bridges its digital origins with the analogue process of painting, the complicated details realised with painterly gestures. Imperfections add to the conversation with drips and blends leaving traces of the artist’s hand. Within the sweeping and writhing ribbons, the word, ‘INNOVATE’ reveals itself, becoming apparent with greater distance as the viewer’s eye scans the surface. Separated into three lines, the jolted letters are camouflaged by the composition but demarcated by colour, the letters in reddish pinks and the background in blues. Like reams of water and paint, the image exudes a fluidity, the use of black and white highlights emphasising an overlapping sculptural quality and creating an alluring spatial dynamic.
This impressive production was not realised without challenges. O’Donnell has joked that he has developed a reputation for things going wrong (admittedly not through any of his own fault), and his time in Christchurch continued that trend. The deluge that soaked the Canterbury region at the end of May, largely bringing the city to a stop, halted painting after the initial sketch had been laid down. Finally returning to action several days behind schedule, the artist found sections had been washed off the wall. Determined to complete the mural, O’Donnell forged ahead only to find the mire of mud at the foot of the wall bogged his scissor lift, requiring it to be pulled free and boards put in place to create a steady ground. Despite the difficulties, O’Donnell finally finished the painting the day he returned to Auckland, leaving behind a sophisticated legacy as part of the city’s urban art profile, a reminder of the vast potential within contemporary muralism’s diverse visual approaches.
Askew One’s Innovate faces towards Moorhouse Avenue between Madras Street and Barbadoes Street
- Askew One, Innovate, 2021