When it comes to contemporary painting, seriousness has a way of turning into solemnity, and solemn art is just asking for it.
Unfortunately, since the really big shake of 22 February, the same corridor has been filled with trestle tables loaded with civil defence gear – water bottles, stationery, clipboards, can of spray-paint, hi-vis vests and all the rest. Mark's painted characters have endured this interruption in the same spirit that Mark himself endured aftershocks when he was up a ladder making the mural – in good humour.
So let's be grateful to those artists who like to put a few banana skins in the path of painting and stand back to see what happens.
Though you wouldn't always know it from the official accounts, which make painting sound about as funny as a tax-audit, some of the most vital contemporary painters are those who see the joke – artists alive to the tragicomedy of painting's persistence in an age of mass media.
Overseas, Ashley Bickerton has made some of the most radiantly stupid paintings you'll ever clap eyes on, one of which I hope makes it to the walls when Auckland Art Gallery reopens in September (if it does, you can have a lot of fun watching kids read the scatological fine print). In New Zealand, the list would have to include Roger Boyce, Ronnie van Hout and especially Mark Braunias, who, back in October just after the first big shake, filled our education corridor with a high-hearted parade of goofy and gorgeously drawn monsters.
It’s always a mistake to look at an autobiographical work and assume the artist is speaking directly about the events of his or her own life. For the past couple of decades, Ronnie van Hout has used his own likeness, and sometimes his childhood memories of growing up in the Christchurch suburb of Aranui, as the starting point for his work. The figures are him, but they’re not him. “It’s a form of acting, a kind of masking”, he’s said. “I’m interested in childhood and revisiting sites of the past. It’s very hard to go back. But in the visual arts, things stand for things; they’re not the actual things, they’re just in place of. You’re pointing to something that points to something else.”
Ersatz is a German word meaning stand-in or replacement. It’s typically used to refer to something that’s of inferior quality than the original. Ersatz coffee, for example, is something that isn’t coffee at all. Ersatz (Sick Child) is one of a number of ‘sick children’ that van Hout has made in his own likeness. Each wears boy-sized pyjamas but has the head and hands (and in this one’s case, also the grubby feet) of a full-grown man. He leans precariously against the wall on two legs of a chair, as if eavesdropping on adults in another room. The silence is filled with his own whiny voice emanating from the speech bubble-shaped speaker above him, as if his need to be noticed were drowning out even his own thoughts: “Look at me. Listen to me. Pay me. Pay me your attention.” Works of art always demand your attention, but this one has the temerity to say it out loud.
(Your Hotel Brain 13 May 2017 - 8 July 2018)
Ronnie van Hout’s installation recreates his childhood home in Aranui, a suburb of eastern Christchurch, and his primary school in nearby Wainoni. A looped video replays his daily bike ride between the two locations. Together, these elements present the story of van Hout’s beginnings.
Familiar architectural structures, however, are taken beyond the ordinary by the presence of a hovering, makeshift UFO, whose surveillance results appear on a nearby monitor. Can we read this as a picture of suburban childhood experience as an alien might see it, or as the artist’s memorial to the need for imaginative survival and escape? (Above ground, 2015)
Mark Braunias has applied a kind of speculative genetic engineering to the work of Walt Disney, Andy Warhol and the surrealist Jean Arp, resulting in giant, amoeba-like versions of comic-book characters that appear ready to spring to life. A master of reassemblage and reinvention, Braunias makes his ‘quick draw’ from a vast cache of popular cultural and historical sources, while applying a quiet dose of wry intent. (Op + Pop, 6 February – 19 June 2016)