The Artists' Co-op: Barry Thomas; Eva Yuen; Ian Hunter; Ross Boyd; Terry Handscombe
Robin White

The most notable events on the Wellington art scene of late have been the establishment of the Artists' Co-op with 31,000 square feet premises in the old Dalgety's wool-store building on Thorndon Quay; the National Gallery's discovery of photography as an art form, announced last year by the beginning of a photographic collection and more recently by the mounting of an exhibition of contemporary Wellington photographers; and the vacancy at the same gallery of the directorship created by the appointment of previous director Melvin Day to the newly established position of National Art Historian.

The Artists' Co-op has been founded by a group of artists who, for the most part, work outside the traditional areas of painting and object sculpture, in the more ephemeral realms of performance and conceptual art. With the aid of a $3000 QE II establishment grant the Co-op provides, for all interested artists in any field, studio, performance and exhibition space outside the public and dealer gallery set-up. It aims to protect and nurture artists' interests, to make art a more vital force in the community and to connect New Zealand artists with an international network of similar and like-minded organisations.

The Co-op programme to date has included workshops, seminars and a project week-end held in May. Their most recent venture, ironic as it may seem for an organisation dedicated to providing an alternative venue to the established institutions, is an exhibition of five of their members' work at the New Zealand Academy. Over the last few years the Academy has done much to shake off the fuddy-duddy image long associated with it. This exhibition however is the most adventurous step it has taken yet to come to terms with recent art movements. The exhibition, entitled Work, is a documentation with photographs, tapes and video of recent work by Barry Thomas, Eva Yuen, Ian Hunter, Terry Handscombe and Ross Boyd - all of them Artist's Co-op committee members. Of the five, Barry Thomas is the most well-known. He sky-rocketed to fame early this year with his cabbage plantation on the demolished Duke of Edinburgh/Roxy Theatre site in the centre of Wellington. This cabbage patch, planted in such a way as to spell the word CABBAGE immediately captured the imagination of both the media and the public and engendered a flurry of other activities on the site, culminating in a week-long festival recently when the cabbages were ceremonially harvested.

On the walls of the Academy, Thomas has mounted a full record of his Cabbage Piece over the several months that it remained, astonishingly unvandalised, as a living, breathing sculpture in the heart of the city. Thomas' environmental and ecological concerns so brilliantly stated here are developed further in two other projects also documented: a large kowhaiwhai mural executed on the concrete playground walls of Clyde Quay School and a household directory of the inner city neighbourhood in which he lives.

Eva Yuen is a Hong Kong artist who arrived in New Zealand at the beginning of the year via Cleveland Ohio, where she completed postgraduate study in sculpture at Case Western Reserve university. Since her arrival here her work has been intimately concerned with the land. One of the first works she executed in New Zealand was a one-foot-square block of marble installed on the tideline at Baring Head. This work is distinguished by the simplicity and formal elegance of its conception in which the artist is working hand in glove with nature: time, tide and weather being essential elements of the sculpture.

In this exhibition she has mounted photographic documentation of works executed during a week spent on Kapiti lsland. These include sand drawings, rows of sticks and stones, a box of stones, drawings on rock with found charcoal and a record of games played with children met on the island. Apart from the strong formal qualities of her work, the educated drawing and selection of materials, these pieces are all invested with a simplicity and a child-like involvement with the natural world. As New Zealanders we are all familiar with sand drawings and games with sticks and stones from the long seaside summers of childhood. Eva Yuen, from a quite different cultural background, is discovering the New Zealand which we know so well but which is buried in memory.

Ian Hunter provides here documentation of work executed during two years spent in the United States and since his return to New Zealand late last year. These latter works include a photographic record of the jettisoning in Cook Strait of a small bag of cooking oil from a light aircraft. This work commemorated Hunter's return to New Zealand and was a replica of a similar piece executed exactly one year previously when the artist despatched small bags of salt into Lake Erie. Also included is the record of an installation in the exhibition area of Victoria University library earlier this year of four sets of shelves. An essential part of this work was an interview with the carpenter who erected them. The artist acknowledges a 'Duchampian irony' as a main component of his intention in 'exhibiting' shelves in a library. However most viewers of this piece found any point it might have been making too obscure and remained completely bemused by it.

Terry Handscombe has hung working studies and supplementary pieces to an exhibition also mounted this year at the University library. If the subject matter of Handscombe's work is, for the most part, baffling - combining as it does elements of mathematics, Greek language and philosophy and Buddhism - both the quality of his draughtsmanship and his innovative and imaginative use of modern reproduction technology will not be disputed.

The five artists exhibiting here clearly typify five quite separate aspects of conceptual art, Post-object sculpture, 'New Art', call it what you will, anyone misnomer being as good as another. Barry Thomas' work is the most outward looking, being directed into the community and inviting community response; Eva Yuen's is the purest in a formal sense; Ian Hunter's and Terry Handscombe's are the most intellectual, although Handscombe is the most traditional of the five in-so-far as he is making marks on paper, and Ross Boyd is the most literary. His contribution consists mainly of lists, of the objects on his desk, of pubs he has been in and of his own vital measurements.

The point of much of the work in this exhibition is lost on me. In fact the point of so much art of this kind does seem to be its complete pointlessness. Duchampian irony perhaps but also utterly sterile. For work of this kind to have any relevance beyond the purely subjective and self indulgent (Hunter's solitary airdropping rituals and Boyd's penis measurements for example) it must elicit a response in an audience other than headscratching bewilderment.

Over the last few years Robin White has emerged as one of the most successful and well-known image-makers in this country. It therefore seems incredible that her recent exhibition at the Peter McLeavey Gallery was her first one-man show in Wellington.

ROBIN WHITE Mere and Siulolovao
screen print (Peter McLeavey Galleries)

Although she is best known as a screenprinter, it is as a painter that Robin White commands serious respect. Working within the realist/regionalist tradition which began with Christopher Perkins in the early 'thirties and reached full flowering in the work of Rita Angus and those painters who emerged in the 'sixties, notably Don Binney, Michael Smither and Brent Wong, the influence of both Rita Angus and Binney on her work has been enormous. On the strength of this exhibition, in terms of the clarity of her imagery and the authority of her painting, she can be seen as Rita Angus' natural successor.

Like the doyenne of New Zealand regionalist painters, Robin White paints aspects of the landscape that are peculiarly our own and restricts herself to a narrow range of imagery, which includes railway stations, pubs, old vehicles, churches and her friends painted against a stylised landscape.

It is as a portraitist that Robin White excels and the watercolour Glenda at Portobello is quite the finest painting by Robin White that I have seen. A major theme in her work to date has been the portrayal of poet Sam Hunt. However, the over-romanticised portrait of the perennially gum booted bard exhibited here is perhaps the least satisfactory of the several portraits of him she has executed over the years.

Unlike some other painters painting in the regionalist mode, who have either painted themselves to a standstill and have stopped painting altogether or are at best imitating themselves, Robin White continues to grow in stature.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 10 Winter 1978