Making Sense of it
The Found and Stuctural Art of Greer Twiss,
Christine Hellyar and Terry Stringer

ALISTAIR PATERSON

For those who are not familiar with their methods and style of operation, there is a measure of difficulty in coming to terms with the work of artists who recreate household furnishings and furniture, construct the kind of scaffolding workmen erect around holes in footpaths and roadways, or produce bronze castings of seaweed, crabs and snails. However this may be, there are three Auckland artists who are currently giving serious attention to such work and, in the process, causing a modest measure of confusion. The artists concerned are Greer Twiss, Christine Hellyar and Terry Stringer.

TERRY STRINGER Armchair in Perspective: Floor Seen on Edge 1981
assemblage of painted pieces
(RKS Art)

Terry Stringer's recent exhibition at the RKS Gallery illustrates the point. Most of his exhibits represented household furniture constructed so that the natural perspective was distorted to the point where the pieces seemed neither useful, nor, at first glance, particularly easy to comprehend. Worse, Gordon H. Brown, in his criticism of this exhibition, described Stringer as being 'in the truest sense . . . neither a particularly good sculptor nor an especially good painter'.

This might lead the less knowledgeable to ask: 'How do they get away with it? 'and: 'What kind of art consists of such pieces as Armchair in Perspective: Floor Seen on Edge; or Medicine Cabinet?'

TERRY STRINGER Mementoes 1981
painted aluminium
(RKS Art)

Christine Hellyar's exhibition (New Vision Gallery, 17-28 August) which might reasonably have been expected to clarify matters, was initially of little help: the exhibits were confusingly small scale, often presented in strangely shaped, white, ceramic containers, and consisted of groups of items listed as Rock Nooks, Rock Layers and Rock Insulations.

As there is almost always a measure of sense in what artists do, gallery goers ought to exercise a measure of persistence: a visit to Greeer Twiss's studio, perhaps, would be productive of a wider view. After all, Twiss works in bronze and metal, and nobody takes up such intractable material unless he or she is serious about the work.

It is not Twiss's earlier work that causes any difficulty: rather, what he has been doing recently. The earlier, human figures (vaguely reminiscent of the work of Henry Moore) are easy enough to deal with: but his later and current sculpture? Scaffolding? Carpenter's rule? Spectacles cast in bronze and fastened to some kind of a plinth by a G-clamp? Constructions that are strictly non-functional?

TERRY STRINGER Medicine Cabinet 1981
painted aluminium
(RKS Art)

Viewing these works it is impossible to avoid thinking about such problems as the relationships between the various kinds of aesthetic experience that art provides: to consider its connections with the aesthetics of natural objects and the utilitarian articles designed to assist in the everyday world of work. Attending a Stringer or a Hellyar exhibition, looking at what Twiss is presently doing, giving consideration to the work of such overseas artists as Anthony Caro, Don Judd, or Mark di Suvero, one is forced to re-examine the question of what is expected of art, of its function and purpose, its place in contemporary society, of whether or not there really is a distinction between those artefacts specifically designed to elicit an aesthetic response and those which are constructed for other purposes.

Perhaps the distinction between art and utilitarian artefact, between art and the wide variety of objects found in nature, is not as clear as most of us tend to think it is. Perhaps we should begin considering that 'art' is not something 'out there' so much as 'what goes on in the head' and affects the emotions of both the artist and those interested in art. Is it the experience rather than the object (the artefact) that is primary? Should we give more attention to how we respond to an aesthetic experience than to the stimuli that promote it?

TERRY STRINGER Tennis Player
bronze
(Peter Webb Galleries)

In the case of Christine Hellyar, it is fairly obvious that her intent is to give some kind of permanency to those accidental and occasional aesthetic experiences we obtain from chance encounters with fish, seaweed, sponges - marine objects and creatures the sea leaves curiously and mysteriously in rock pools as it recedes. Her group and individual titles certainly suggest this: and the structure of her recent exhibits reinforces it. She works in the 'new' tradition of the 'found' object: but extends this by providing a context - one which suggests (in a surrealistic manner) the original surroundings in which the central item is found. Another quality in her work (and one which she holds in common with Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), and the New Zealand ceramic artist Dennis O'Connor) is the element of 'privacy', which provides an intimacy unobtainable in larger works and which is ultimately and delightfully endearing.

CHRISTINE HELLYAR
from Rock Nooks series 1980-81
slate, lead & kauri
(New Vision)

Hellyar's Rock Nooks consist of boxes with slates (held by flat-headed, galvanised nails) and interior layers of hollowed wood containing bush slugs, seaweed, limpets, snails, and similar objects. Related techniques are used in her other exhibits - many consisting of ceramic containers (white, unglazed) which enclose appropriately shaped pieces of pumice surmounted by ferns cast in bronze, or crabs and snails moulded in lead. In her more 'minimal' pieces, the natural surroundings of the objects she uses as points of focus have been reduced to little more than ceramic slabs or pockets composed of these. One of her most interesting pieces (not included in this exhibition, but related to it) is the curiously conceived form of a fish resting on a wheeled trolley - possibly one of the most effective wordless statements so far made in this country on the subject of conservation.

CHRISTINE HELLYAR
from Rock Insulations series
pumice lead & fired clay
(New Vision)

While the work of Greer Twiss is similarly based on 'found' art, it possesses the additional attribute of being 'constructional'. That is to say, his most recent pieces are composed of re-created objects that require the skills of the conventional artisan and structural engineer as well as the mind and sensitivities of the artist. In fact, his willingness to take risks, to attempt new ways of doing things, is the attribute which has been most pronounced over his last thirteen to fourteen years, and which impresses one with a sense of his artistic integrity, determination, commitment to his personal vision, even when it runs counter to what might be conventionally expected.

CHRISTINE HELLYAR
from Rock Layers series 1980-81
slate lead & fired clay
(New Vision)

His general development since 1967 has been from relatively conventional sculpture and Pop Art influences (reflected in his earlier 'beach figures'), through a period of increasing 'abstraction', towards 'found' and 'minimal' art, and his present structuralism - a structuralism that carries with it a highly individualistic and personal element.

CHRISTINE HELLYAR Meals on Wheels 1975
latex and assembled materials
(Denis Cohn Gallery)

A characteristic worthy of note, and held in common with a similar attribute in the work of Hellyar and Stringer, is a concentration on subjects excluding the directly human, but implying its presence outside the immediate point of reference or line of vision. The latter is obvious in such works as his plinth with spectacles (the spectacles themselves being cast in bronze), Doors constructed of sheets of iron and loosely fastened with cord (c.f. the related work, Fresh Widow, 1920, by Marcel Duchamp), or his plinth with carpenter's rule, a G-clamp, and accompanying shadow.

GREER TWISS Inspection Plates 1978
steel and aluminium, 320 x 3000 x 1000mm.

Twiss's most curious sculptures, however, are those that appear to follow the work of Caro - scaffolds and scaffolding such as work-men use to warn motorists and pedestrians of obstructions in the road - and including the usual fluttering cloth (in the present case, cast in bronze). As with Anthony Caro, Twiss's scaffolding possesses a raw and indefinable beauty that occupies space without limiting it; that has 'an open-ended spatial involvement' not obtainable in conventional, solid, or uni-structural sculpture. It requires a detailed and concentrated observation if the full effect is to be experienced.

GREER TWISS Scale Shift 1974
bronze, 500 x 500 mm.
(collection of Todd Motors, Porirua)

The work of the third artist, Terry Stringer, is in some ways more difficult to come to terms with. In the first case, and in spite of increasing familiarity with his work, it contains an element of surprise, of the unexpected. Furthermore, structural technique is not obviously applicable to household furniture and the everyday objects which form a part of our daily lives. Stringer's structures are distorted in a disconcerting manner-one which has been developed from his initial interest in giving a three-dimensional (in the literal sense) appearance to the flat surfaces of conventional paintings. When the technique is applied to pieces that in their original form already posses the attributes of length, breadth, and depth, the resulting work is crazily and attractively non-functional.

GREER TWISS Soft Act 1980
bronze, steel and aluminium
(photograph by Gillian Chaplin)

A good example of what Stringer is doing is his living room assemblage (set tee, armchair, carpet, table, vase, and 'painting') which adheres to the physical dimensions of the originals, looks as if it could be used in the normal manner, but is completely unserviceable is so far as the functions of furniture are concerned. His Entrance Way, an 'environmental' piece which has similar attributes, is especially convincing: perhaps because it has a greater visual unity. Many individual pieces, however, possess a delightful felicity-are distinctive, wry, amusing-and demonstrate that it is Stringer's wit (a rare commodity in contemporary art) that is ultimately responsible for the success of his work. In fact, it is highly unlikely that anybody could fail to respond to the whimsy and humour of such constructs as Medicine Cabinet, Blue Bottle Still Life, and Lamp of Culture.

GREER TWISS Full Stop 1974
lead and steel, 30 x 90 x 90 mm.

On the evidence of their present work, there are strong links between the all of Twiss, Hellyar, and Stringer - links that lie in the structural techniques they use (obvious in the cases of Twiss and Stringer, less so in that of Hellyar), and in their willingness to draw on 'found' objects and situations as primary sources. The subtle and very different ways in which they combine these two elements are what stamp the work of each of them with its own unique and fascinating individuality.

GREER TWISS Doors 1974
steel and lead, 1220 x 610 x 30 mm.
 

Originally published in Art New Zealand 21 Spring 1981