Expatriate artist Francis Upritchard comes to New Zealand

by Warren Feeney / 18 May, 2016
One of the country’s best-known expatriate artists returns for three solo exhibitions and a 20-year survey.
Sitting Baboon (2014) by Francis Upritchard.
Sitting Baboon (2014) by Francis Upritchard.

Francis Upritchard has briefly returned to New Zealand from London, where she has been a permanent resident since 1998, with a new series of works called Dark Resters. It is a fitting description for her art, implying rest or comfort, malevolence and darkness. Her work has this habit of charming as it teases and nags away at our need for certainty and order in our lives. Even the figures in her sculptures and installations can begin to seem like a manifestation of the very conundrums the gallery visitor confronts experiencing her work.

This partly explains why, over the past decade, she has become one of the country’s best-known expatriate artists. After she represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2009, her international solo exhibitions have included Whitechapel Gallery in London (2014) and the Monash Museum of Modern Art (2016). She says Venice was critical to establishing her practice internationally: “It accelerated my career – an amazing acceleration. It opened doors to galleries in New York. I do not know how many times gallery dealers have said that they know my work from Venice.”

Her return to New Zealand includes a busy exhibition schedule. It began at Ilam Campus Gallery in early April and is being followed by Ivan Anthony in Auckland (Dark Resters, April 27 to May 21), Hamish McKay in Wellington (Our Neighbour, May 20 to June 11) and the opening of a survey show, Jealous Saboteurs, at City Gallery Wellington (May 28 to October 16).

Photo/Getty Images
Photo/Getty Images

Three solo exhibitions, following by an opening for a 20-year survey in a public gallery over a period of two months? It may seem hectic, but the idea doesn’t appear to have occurred to Upritchard, who is pleased to be back: “I come back here every year. It is liberating to be working back here compared with London.”

This time she has taken the opportunity to work with local potter and childhood friend Nicholas Brandon, who learnt his craft in the 1970s from the country’s first professional studio potter, Mirek Smíšek.

Working on an acre of land in Kaimata in Taranaki, Brandon still makes domestic earthenware pots in the best traditions of studio pottery. Upritchard has remodelled the subjects of his work into her own with a passion and respect for his art and principles. Collaboratively making many of the works in Dark Resters, she admits to making the handles and that he threw the pots and made the glazes.

As ceramic vessels upturned with faces inscribed into them, Dark Resters is more than just a memory of New Zealand’s once-booming craft industry. The spirit of its livelihood may be evident in the handmade nature of Brandon’s work, but the stories that inform these sculptures are more enigmatic: domestic home-made lamps? Models for props for an overdue sequel to a Raiders of the Lost Ark movie? Or genuinely lost artefacts from an unknown and ancient culture?

Upritchard’s Fidget and Squeaky (2016).
Upritchard’s Fidget and Squeaky (2016).

At Hamish McKay, Our Neighbour will feature works on paper, “drawings complete in themselves” but that also generated the monkey pots, Fidget and Squeaky, from Dark Resters. To complement this show, Upritchard is also curating a group exhibition, Back Room, in an adjacent space of works by artists she has previously colla­borated with, including Karl Fritz, Tony de Lautour and Saskia Leek.

The drawings in Our Neighbour offer ­further explanation about Upritchard’s successful practice. Like all her work, they reveal an understanding of how to bring out the best in her materials. Washes of colour on wet paper that coagulate into the figure in Sitting Baboon represents the work of an artist with an astute eye for observation and a sensitivity to the qualities of her materials. Similarly, this approach informs a work like Fidget and Squeaky and its assembly from a combination of glass, fur, leather, buttons and fake pearls.

Gallery owner Hamish McKay says the accompanying group exhibition also explains why Upritchard’s practice is successful in both the northern and southern hemispheres: “She has always had like-minded people around her and never worked on her own. Once she has an idea, she is very organised and professional about the production of that idea.”

It’s an attitude to making she shares with a number of artists with whom she attended the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, most immediately Leek but also senior figures such as de Lautour and Ronnie van Hout. All are artists who understand the subtle, often understated beauty of popular culture with an appreciation of its universal symbolism and metaphors. Like their art, Upritchard’s raises the status of popular culture with dignity in the space of an art gallery, ­powering and ­immersing its messages in dark and ambiguous storylines.

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