Made Active: The Chartwell Show

by Anthony Byrt / 19 May, 2012
Made Active illustrates the legacy of performance art.

With so much attention on its new building and travelling blockbusters like Degas to Dalí, it’s easy to overlook Auckland Art Gallery’s humbler activities. Like, for example, its ongoing displays from the Chartwell Collection, one of the best accumulations of contemporary art in the country. The gallery’s latest Chartwell show, Made Active, illustrates a theme far too few New Zealanders really understand: the profound legacy performance art offers this country’s contemporary art scene.

That said, Made Active is not strictly a performance art exhibition. Instead, it sets itself the much broader task of examining “action” in contemporary art. It’s a loose brief, which allows the show’s most awkward element: the substantial presence of the painter Allen Maddox. It’s true Maddox’s gestural, drippy cross paintings demonstrate a kind of “active” artistic presence, but the context inevitably leads to comparisons to Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism, which is a bit limiting and sets the bar too high for Maddox to clear. The only real way to read his inclusion is as a show within a show: a mini-survey that, although worthwhile, should probably have been saved for another day.

But Maddox’s real problem here isn’t Pollock; it’s the exhibition’s two other pillars, Jim Allen and Daniel Malone. Allen, in particular, is an immense figure within contemporary New Zealand art, both as an artist and as head of sculpture at Elam School of Fine Arts in the 1970s, where he encouraged students to embrace conceptual and performance practices. Hanging by a Thread II, in this show, is a perfect encapsulation of Allen’s ongoing ability to construct seriously intelligent polemical work. It’s a complex installation involving objects on pin-thin pedestals, a collage, photographs associated with the Iraq war and videos that refl ect back on his early performances. The cumulative effect is like a kick in the stomach you only notice once you’ve walked away; a slow burning assault on the media, history, ritual and war.

It’s entirely reasonable to suggest, as Made Active does, that Daniel Malone is the direct inheritor of Allen’s legacy. But Malone can be frustrating – not because he isn’t good, but because he can be so superb in one project then so dreary, even annoying, in the next. Happily, Black Market Next to My Name is at the brilliant end of things. It’s a huge work made up of the entire contents of the artist’s apartment, organised into a vast taxonomy driven by his own logic: bins of wine corks, boxes of LPs, spray cans, movie posters, woollen jerseys, old computers, lovingly flattened plastic bags, and so on. As an archival statement and a collapse of the art/life divide, it hides nothing, then pushes it all over and leaves us to pick it all up again. It’s a major work – probably Malone’s best.

It’s harder to make such definitive declarations (although plenty of curators seem to be trying) about a group of younger New Zealand artists surfi ng in Allen and Malone’s post-conceptual, post-performance wake. Two of the best are Simon Denny and Alicia Frankovich. Denny’s Performance Video, which reproduces notes Wystan Curnow wrote in 1979 about a Peter Roche performance, has a deliberate sterility and a wry fossilising effect that highlights the difficulty of presenting performance art in a museum context. Unfortunately, though, Frankovich becomes a victim of exactly that problem. Her work Orpheus – a metal “doorway to the underworld” boobytrapped by a tray of eggs balanced on top of it – feels like a slightly corny gag, and doesn’t have any of the urgent gravitas of her performance work. It’s a shame, because she has huge potential, and has done much better work.

So Made Active is patchy, but marked with spots of real bravery. It also confirms the Chartwell’s vitality and vision; there are things in this show that other institutions and private collections probably wouldn’t have gone near. That doesn’t mean it is all good; in fact, plenty of these works should have been left in the storeroom. But to find gems, you’ve got to be prepared to sift through muck. Thankfully, the Chartwell is still prepared to do some dirty work.

MADE ACTIVE: THE CHARTWELL SHOW, Auckland Art Gallery, until July 15.
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