Exhibitions
Dunedin

PETER LEECH

Contemporary Art in Southern Perspective

A curious phenomenon of contemporary art is the subtle shifting which occurs in what, from city to city, are felt to be the artistic centralities - the truIy assertive voices of art. The phenomenon is of course characteristically magnified in America, where the East and West Coasts face each other off in a virtual state of aesthetic civil war. But it is a phenomenon which exists too in New Zealand, if not so highly dramatised. What resonates in Auckland may seem merely to whisper in Dunedin; what captures the imagination in Wellington may seem to have an uneasy grip in Christchurch.

But these shifts and tensions can be fertile. Properly acknowledged they may perhaps serve to diminish the nugatory belief that there is a univocal art for New Zealand. There is not; and so much the better, one wants to say, for the vigour of art and the aesthetic health of New Zealand.

What, then, of the Southern art temper at the change of a decade? Or more specifically, what art felt pertinent in Dunedin last year? And one speaks here not just of formal, critical appeal, but also of the observed manner of the gallery patrons - the sociology of the galleries, as it were.

There were several shows which had evident impact. Amongst the artists from out-of. town, the shows belonged to Richard Killeen, to Philip Trusttum, to Neil Dawson and to Peter Peryer. These were the artists who seemed to proclaim their art with that clear authority which' can engender only celebration. It is a matter here of directness and lucidity: the persuasion in art of whatever mode that there is simply no equivocation in the achieved image. Art is confidence (and no trick), and for Dunedin that confidence was manifest in the work of Killeen, Trusttum, Dawson and Peryer.

Of the artists with local connections, though no less national repute, there was a curious, and applaudable, coincidence of movement. Both Ralph Hotere and Jeffrey Harris presented new and impassioned exhibitions in the course of the year, with Hotere's exquisite light paintings escaping the brooding rigidities of earlier work, and Harris's reversion to chromatic style releasing his art from the entangled and baroque symbolism of a recent phase. Here too there was confidence - the confidence of style in an unfamiliar mode.

Though less specific, and less focused, there was a similar sense of passionate energy which communicated itself in the series of sculptural exhibitions centred in Dunedin in late September and October. This was a felicitous coordination of the work of locally based artists such as Peter Nicholls, Matt Pine, Jacqueline Fraser, Andy Cameron and Russell Moses, with the visits of the Mildura, the Carl Sydow Memorial, and the Bosshard Galleries' shows of Dawson and Christine Hellyar. And at about the same time, Derek Ball (one of the most sophisticated, though so often reticent, of New Zealand sculptors) was to reveal his stunning installation of a chromatically protean light screen and vacuum-formed ceiling, commissioned for Dunedin's Golden Centre shopping complex.

The apparent energies of these works, and their unavoidable public presence, had their rich reward in the city. For more than any other work, these sculptures were to arouse discussion, dispute, and, less happily, aesthetically destructive instincts. But perhaps there is a residual virtue in the aesthetic conservatism which from time to time erupts in Dunedin. For certainly reaction to the sculptures provided the most concentrated and unfatigued public focus on art in Dunedin throughout the year, Sculpture may again, in the coming year, achieve that power of provocation, but it is perhaps easier to anticipate the power in the work of the 1980 Frances Hodgkins Fellow, Andrew Drummond (and so often have the Hodgkins Fellows been nicely judged agent provocateurs).

What else may arouse and reveal the temper of the Dunedin art audience in 1980 will depend, of course, on the level of enterprise and emphasis - of the various agencies of art in the city. And it cannot go un remarked that the pertinent exhibitions of last year were; once again, the exclusive property of the Bosshard Galleries - Dunedin's sole access, it often seems, to the mandarins of current New Zealand art. But there are to be changes in 1980, and if the Bosshard Galleries will not cease to be the dominating force on the contemporary scene, some supportive alliances in that role may conceivably emerge.

The Hocken Picture Gallery, for instance, recently installed in new quarters, and with a similar reflective affinity for the currencies of New Zealand modernism, is likely to provide a pleasing complementarity to the Bosshard shows. And of course the interesting new gallery space at last promises a visually congenial location for exploring the interstices of the Hocken's extremely rich collection. Perhaps the flavour of the Hocken's future is caught in the first two projects for the year: a presentation of McCahon's The Wake, to be followed in April with new works by Andrew Drummond.

The Dunedin Public Art Gallery has been the source of considerable local agitation in the past, for it has practised a rather fugitive exhibition policy more concerned, it has often seemed, with ephemera and periphera than with the contralities of art. Under new direction, however, expectations are revived. And if the schedule for 1980 is not quite intoxicating, it will be good to see the Tony Fomison show later in the year, and the earlier British Council exhibition of Richard Smith's graphics. There will be an opportunity as well to see whether Michael Smither has re-emerged from a phase characterised more by flow than fecundity.

But it is, once more, the Bosshard Galleries to which one will be looking most regularly in 1980. And it is gratifying that, after a precarious financial history, the gallery has entered a new phase of expansion and security. With, now, a second gallery virtually complete in their present location, one would hope to see a more regular circulation of the impressive stock holdings, as well as commissioned exhibitions.

Two peaks in the Bosshard schedule for 1980 will be exhibitions of the works of Richard Killeen and Milan Mrkusich. And though neither artist seems to have achieved the potency of reputation in New Zealand which each deserves, that is certainly not for lack of favour in Dunedin. Both artists make definite appeal to the character of the Dunedin art audience. And if Dunedin is accustomed to being virtually the last stop of contemporary New Zealand art, it is not too shy also to lay claim to uttering the last word.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 15 Autumn 1980