How to turn Te Papa into an op shop

by William McAloon / 12 June, 2004
SO ... YOU MADE IT?, by Judy Darragh, Te Papa, Wellington (until August 29).

Judy Darragh could be seen as the ideal Te Papa artist. Her work mixes high and low, art and craft, the real and the fake. It's abundant and excessive, it messes with notions of taste, and - at times anyway - addresses the visual construction of New Zealand identity. Maybe. Judging by the comments made by visitors to So ... you made it?, Darragh's current show at Te Papa, public opinion was pretty evenly split between those who just could not get enough - and those who asked, "What the hell is this junk doing here?"

This is a mid-career survey, bringing together over 60 works, from 1987 to the present, selected by Darragh and curator Natasha Conland. The exhibition is arranged in two parts, hinging around 1995, the year in which Darragh abdicated her throne as the self-proclaimed Queen of Kitsch. Her works until then had been exuberant assemblages of found objects - toys, artificial flowers, fake fur, plastic boulders, wigs, op-shop paintings, joke-shop vomit, sex-shop phalluses, just about anything. Revelling in a handicraft aesthetic, the early works are good-humoured and accessible, their pokes at commodity fetishism and gender stereotypes lightly delivered.

At Te Papa, these works are displayed on a series of plywood stages, giving the installation an "old stock, all items must go" quality. It's a deliberate ploy on the artist's part, both to create an installation that can suitably encompass her early works, and also separate them out from her current practice. Many of the early pieces have lasted remarkably well. "Culturally flabby" (1988), for example, a gold-painted, rotating assemblage of trophies and doll parts adorned with a phallus, still has a sense of glee about it, while "Bleeding Heart" (1990) constructed from plastic boulders, and resting on a bed of velvet and fake roses, shows that there's no kitsch like religious kitsch.

The mid-90s saw a change of tack, so to speak - there's only so much you can do with fake vomit. Preserving her fondness for the low and the ready-made, Darragh eventually turned to found images. In "Wild Thing" (1999) she appropriates a series of posters from the 1970s. Glamour models, muscle cars and fantasy scenes are altered by the addition of copious amounts of Twink, the sticky white fluid dribbling over their polished forms. The work combines a fourth-form puerility with a satirical current, one that leaves the viewer slightly queasy.

Another series of altered posters, "Sunspots", takes cloying nature scenes and decks them out with coloured stickers. Although Darragh's DIY-pointillism is slightly dizzying, it shows that for all her apparent imagistic overload and material excess, she possesses a strangely formal sensibility. It's most apparent in "Laser Bloom" (1999), a vast work consisting of several dozen sheets of neon-

coloured, melted plastic. Arrayed high on the wall, it looks spectacular.

Darragh has never been one for the understated gesture.

Darragh would indeed seem to have made it. Te Papa has, too - to an extent. The exhibition shows that the museum can work productively with artists, that it can give its curators scope to engage with a practice and develop intelligent and substantial publications. This show would be more worthy of praise were it not for the depressing fact that it is the first survey of a mid-career artist that Te Papa has presented in its seven years of operation. Let us hope more such ventures are planned.

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