The Ouse Project
Vanity Case

Jo Torr


Getting a foot in the door may be difficult for young, emerging artists, but with ventures such as The Ouse Project, featuring Regan Gentry, Emily Cormack, Ros Cameron and Glen Hayward among others, thriving, it seems these artists are gaining equally important critical exposure in alternative environments. Organised by Shift, a not-for-profit arts trust, The Ouse Project was the first of a proposed series of short-term exhibitions held in varied sites around Wellington.

REGAN GENTRY Coffin 2004
Veneer panelling

The Ouse Project took over a neglected industrial office space on Kent Terrace, ironically located above a Porsche dealer, and invited artists to respond to the site in their work. Some artists responded literally to the previous use of the building, referencing the tedium of the nine-to-five lifestyle. By blowing up a quickease packet shredded into one, long, unbroken strip to a larger-than-life scale, Glenn Hayward’s Quickease embodied doodling and fiddling, the mindless relief of those tied to their desk, writ large on the wall. The inevitable fate of such an existence sat opposite, represented by Regan Gentry’s droll Coffin, a veneer-panelled coffin fashioned to contain the petrified shape of an inanimate figure in front of a computer.

GLENN HAYWARD Quickease 2004
3.5 biros, highlighter, Courtesy of Aaron Laurence Gallery

An alternative fate was witnessed by peering through the cracks of a newspaper-covered window, where the grotesquely enlarged stiletto-clad leg of a secretary lying in a trail of blood could be made out. Part-murder, part-mystery—was this an office affair that had gone too far—Mike Heynes and Chris Clements seemed to instil an element of B-grade horror to this office environment.

Gentry’s second work called attention to the surrounding environment of the exhibition, referring to the trend of inner city living gaining vogue in Wellington. A mound of rubble was precariously (it would surely not comply with OSH safety standards), but artfully, piled onto a stage of ironing boards. Although rudimentary in its components, when spotlit, this rocky mountain was unexpectedly enigmatic, offered crevices and gaps through which light filtered and its structure was revealed.

AMELIA HANDSCOMB Revue des fleurs 2004
Colour transparency in lightbox, 420 x 594 x 100 mm.

Other artists made more lyrical responses to the space. Emily Cormack’s sight and sound installation, Pocketfuls recorded the sounds in–between, in the buffer zones. Those sounds resonating in the space between roof and ceiling—the delicious sound of rain drumming down from above, voices and atmospheric noises—trickled down to listeners in speakers hung from the rafters. Following the speaker wires back up, the viewer’s eye was lead to monitors featuring black and white footage, abstracted and dreamlike, placed in gaps where ceiling panels were pushed to one side. The awkwardness of the act of listening and looking added an element of tension to this work, heightening the sensation of surveillance, both of sounds and sights, and, by implication, the viewer, inherent in the work.

James McCarthy’s Sightlines similarly reflected the resonances of the environment, but his was a curiously intellectual project, one in which the interior of the space was diagrammatically mapped in single-point perspective in piano wire. This work both negotiated the space, creating an object for contemplation, but also had musical potential. When played with a dishevelled violin bow, melodic lines of sound filled the space constructed from materials found on site by Kaleb Bennett and bounced off Ros Cameron’s severely polished floor.

If The Ouse Project sought to find a space for art in the unexpected environment of the street and the city, Vanity Case: Nine Wellington artists and designers, at the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery, attempted to bring the street into the gallery. It featured nine young artists and designers whose work was seen to embody an extremely broad curatorial concept, exploring ‘beauty, identity, fear, death, desire, love and loss’. Vanity Case demonstrated the curator, Sarah Farrar’s ability to source an aesthetically enchanting range of works. However, the curatorial rationale, which also attempted to explore ideas of ‘vanitas’, was less convincing and highlighted the advantage being able to conceive of a show as a whole, as was the case with The Ouse Project, where works are constructed in response to a similar agenda, rather than works being ‘made to fit’ after the act.

Nonetheless, there were some treasures to be found in this vanity case, many of which seemed to explore less a present-day take on vanitas, than a pre-occupation with the obsessive and fetishistic. Particularly the title work in the show, Vanity Case by Kate Wyatt, a customised dressing table which revealed the obsession involved both in the act of making and the act of making oneself up. Inlaid with a melted and congealed array of blushers, foundations, eye-shadows, lip glosses and nail polishes, the work gave off a musty perfumed smell, reminiscent of great-aunts and backstage fantasies. Drawers opened to reveal shaving mirrors and hair embedded in flesh-tone wax and part-limbs constructed from stuffed stockings invoking a palpable tension between the ‘girly’, nostalgic aesthetic and a more vulgar and repulsive underlying element.

JO TORR Uelingatoni 2002
Plain and printed cotton and sea shells, 1500 x 3000mm

This instilled a sense of the uncanny, which was also present in Amelia Handscomb’s Revue des Fleurs. One of the most successful lightboxes seen in Wellington for a while, Handscomb’s work consisted of photographed lilies whose stamen had been replaced by Barbie doll legs. Kicking out in a parody of cancan dancers, the work appeared to revel in the fetishistic status of the female leg while simultaneously pointing to the phallic status accorded the lily stamen by photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe. Louise Clifton’s Delicates was similarly fetishistic, as she photographed a prosthetic leg clad in pantyhose presented as if in a kitsch department store display.

Mephisto Jones was perhaps one of the more interesting artists included in this show, partly because of the nature of his work. A prominent stencil graffiti artist in the streets of Wellington, here his work was executed directly onto the gallery wall. As is the case on the street, it was destined to be destroyed, but such inclusion raises questions about the relation of such work to the gallery space. Did he perceive this as a validating his practice? Does it add value to his work? Do such artists require or desire the validation of the gallery space, or are they deliberately operating outside these realms because they perceive that their work is more relevant to the social context of the street?

LOUISE CLIFTON Delicates 2004
colour photograph, 386 x 386 mm, Courtesy of the artist

A second inclusion that raises such questions was the Illicit Clothing t-shirt featuring a design by Martin F. Emond, Cowboygirl. Designed to be worn, the disembodied t-shirt stood its own on the gallery wall, but begs the question as to when we might see such design-focused work entering the greater space of museums and galleries in Wellington, rather than being relegated to the perhaps more ‘experimental’ space of the Hirschfield gallery.

Art Applied, at the Mark Hutchins Gallery, one of the latest dealer galleries to be established in Wellington, featured work in unexpected media by expected artists. Rather than bringing the designers into the gallery, this show explored works by established artists that have at some stage dabbled in ‘design’. While many of the works included in this show merely re-present the artist’s familiar iconography in a different media—including ceramic paintings by Tony Lane, carpet designs by Gretchen Albrecht and screens painted by Melvin Day—others were more seriously ‘applied’.

JO TORR A Dancer in the Pacific 2004
Nylon/lycra, nylon and feathers 1500 x 3000 mm

In a kind of intellectual exercise in wearable art, Jo Torr’s ‘costume’ style works combine fabric and dress design to explore cultural exchange between Polynesian and non-Polynesian peoples. The dresses are cleverly made in different styles to comment upon these exchanges at different times. Dusky Maiden is a Victorian style gown, made from cotton screen-printed with photographed torsos of bare-breasted Polynesian women, probably those taken by colonial artists in the nineteenth century. It speaks of the ‘colonial gaze’, the Gauguinesque fascination of the explorer with exoticising and eroticising the desirable and female ‘Other’. There also seems to be a reference to the impact of colonial missionaries who demanded that these women adopt European dress.

JO TORR Dusky Maiden 2003
Screen-printed cotton with shells and polyester boning 1500 x 3000 mm.

A century later, and the social circumstance is this time one of Polynesian immigration, not European, in search of opportunities in New Zealand. A 1950s style frock in tapa cloth design personifies this era. Lastly, A Dancer in the Pacific executed in lurid contemporary materials, neon netting and body cloth, this ensemble references the stereotyping of Polynesian culture—the hula dancer that sways interminably in plastic and real form in car rear windows and culture shows. Perhaps a shade too literal in their conception, especially when spelled out in the artist’s statement, these works nonetheless present a refreshing take on the issue of cultural exchange, particularly in their choice and use of media.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 113 Summer 2004-05