Pleasures and Dangers: Artists of the 90s
Trish Clark and Wystan Curnow (eds),
Longman Paul, $34.95
This volume is a refreshing challenge to several assumptions that have become the dead wood of art theory and scholarship in New Zealand, and, most importantly, to the marginalisation of artists according to gender or sexual politics. The book, and the film which accompanies it, shows the work of eight ‘artists of the 90s’ without labeling them as women artists or feminists. This avoidance of outmoded classifications includes a refusal to take part in debates concerning regionalism versus internationalism. Thus we can enjoy the achievements of Alexis Hunter, for example, without worrying that her 20 years in London may have tarnished her badge as a New Zealand artist.
The book’s declared purpose is rather broad, to present eight contemporary artists who have made an impact on the New Zealand art scene, ‘and thence, from its relative obscurity, inaudibility, onto the international scene’. The book deals with those artists who ‘have already shown offshore’, as if they can be awarded some new colour of badge, as paid-up members of the global village. Yet the editors have succeeded in presenting a book which avoids the clichés which have tainted earlier coverage of New Zealand art, those smug tones of self-congratulation for tendering the spiritual quality of an appropriated landscape. These are the clichés which Merilyn Tweedie has satirised in her installation ‘Art to Express New Zealand’.
What remains is iconoclasm, which may offend, as in Judy Darragh’s kitsch reworkings of Goldie, or can entertain, as in Fiona Partington’s cheerful admission of her artistic interest in male genitals. A governing image for the work of the eight artists represented is that of the body, the parts of which are de-constructed and recomposed, from perspectives that are poetical and political. The interview with Partington conveys her struggle to re-claim the body erotic along non-patriarchal lines. Such interviews describe artistic development and process with a commendable clarity.
They can be contrasted with certain essays the appreciation of which will require cerebral gymnastics. At least the challenge of reading Pleasures and Dangers is made easier by the sumptuous illustrations. They provide pleasure to offset the dangers of contemporary theory as it reaches convolution point.
The agenda of this volume remains an admirable one: the production of an elegant and serious survey which does justice to the artists, and ensures that each artist is valued from the widest possible perspective.
Jonathan Else studies Fine Arts at Elam, Auckland University, specialising in discussions of sexuality and spirituality.