Quiet wanderer: Kiwi sculptor Kate Newby

by Anthony Byrt / 01 December, 2016

Sculptor Kate Newby’s subtle interventions – currently on display in a studio above Karangahape Road – have made her one of New Zealand’s most internationally successful artists.

In the early 1970s, several artists abandoned the white-walled galleries of New York, contemporary art’s epicentre, and headed for the wide-open expanses of the American West. Out there, Michael Heizer made ‘Double Negative’ – two enormous trenches that intersect with a natural canyon and form an almost 500-metre-long, 15-metre-deep sculpture.

Robert Smithson constructed ‘Spiral Jetty’, a massive coil that stretches out into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. And Nancy Holt built her ‘Sun Tunnels’: huge pipe forms in the Great Basin Desert, oriented so each catches the sun at a different time of day.

An unlikely inheritor of their breakthroughs is exhibiting in Auckland at the moment. In 2014, the influential British art magazine Frieze described New Zealander Kate Newby’s art as “radically slight”, and, more significantly, “earthwork in miniature”. Wind chimes, coins pressed into the pavement, plastic bags fluttering in trees – quiet interventions like this have made Newby one of New Zealand’s most internationally successful artists, praised and fêted by some of the most influential curators and critics in the world.

When we meet in Auckland, she’s jetlagged – not long back from her adopted home of New York, where she’s lived since 2012. Newby’s return to Auckland is for her first exhibition with dealer Michael Lett, having recently shifted to his gallery from Hopkinson Mossman.

Our interview is on her first full day in the city, though she’s been back in the country for most of the week, working in Huntly. There, she made more than two tonnes of clay bricks for her show, working with the last North Island outfit still producing them. “They had a healthy amount of suspicion of someone [like me] coming in, but in the end they were really excited,” she says. “They hadn’t experienced anything like it.”

Newby modified 300 bricks before they were fired, pressing characteristic little gestures into their surfaces – old coins, little stones, pull tabs from soft drink cans, and mucky little pieces of ceramic that look like birdshit or chewing gum, depending on the angle. She also left another 300 as they were. “The more I handled the bricks,” she says, “the less I wanted to do to them. I started out being really aggressive, but by the end I just liked them as they are.”

And this is the big challenge of Newby’s work: marrying up the slight with the radical, the banal with the ethereal. In other words, her interventions can at times seem so quiet they barely make a squeak.

A case in point was her work ‘Pocket Charms’ for the 2011 Wellington exhibition Prospect, in which gallery attendants carried tiny trinkets around in their pockets, unseen unless you specifically asked for them. Buying into Newby’s significance means accepting this delicate obsession with leaving the barest trace of her own presence behind, in an attempt to show us that even tiny gestures can dramatically alter our experience of a site. 

Installed in a rear space at 321 Karangahape Road, Newby’s new show Big Tree. Bird’s Eye seems to represent a more forthright shift in her practice. On the floor, she’s laid out almost all of her bricks – their insipid colour somewhere between sun-bleached clay and pale flesh – in a long grid, which becomes a footpath you can walk along as you lean down to look at her gentle marks.

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There are more forceful moments too: oval cavities like craters; a long, serrated gouge like a canyon; random holes like something has burrowed through the pre-fired clay – incisions that are more visceral than we’ve come to expect from her, and that accumulate into tiny desert landscapes. There’s also a massive ‘wind chime’ made from dangling pieces of blown glass, most of which look like icicles, while others, ribbed and bulging, have the slightly disconcerting appearance of high-end sex toys.

Outside the massive windows, Newby has tied several pieces of brightly coloured rope, like a makeshift washing line. Beyond them are the dreary backsides of apartment and office buildings. It’s an exhibition that messes with the boundaries between inside and outside, and between architecture and sculpture, so that we’re never entirely certain where Newby’s work begins and ends. As I’m looking past her ropes, in a perfect accident of site-specificity, a man with hairy legs and little shorts comes out onto his beige balcony and hangs his laundry to dry.

When I point out it seems an unusually big undertaking by her standards, Newby bristles slightly. In fact, she says, she sees a lot of her sculptures as huge – particularly the ones in cities or landscapes, such as a concrete pedestal that wraps around the base of a tree in a public space in Bristol, England. What matters most for Newby is not size, but how she responds to the spaces she finds herself in.

Karangahape Road is a special space for her to exhibit. She was a key member of the group associated with the K’ Road artist-run space Gambia Castle in the mid-2000s, which included other luminaries like Fiona Connor, Nick Austin and Simon Denny, and Newby’s former dealer Sarah Hopkinson. “I have so much history on K’ Road,” says Newby. “My very first apartment was in St Kevins Arcade when I was 19. When I walk up and down K’ Road everything is pretty heavy. But in this space, there were none of those connotations, which is kind of nice.” In here, it’s the architecture of the space itself, particularly the huge windows letting in soft light, that Newby is so responsive to.

Newby grew up at Bethells Beach and keeps close ties with Auckland: she completed her doctorate at the Elam School of Fine Arts last year and was the 2012 winner of the Walters Prize, New Zealand’s richest contemporary art award. But it’s clear she’s a natural-born traveller. Since 2010 she’s had an insane exhibiting schedule: New York, London, Berlin, Melbourne, Mexico City, Toronto, as well a much-sought-after residency on Fogo Island in Newfoundland, and an exhibition in Wisconsin, smack in the rural centre of America, with the important artist, curator and writer Michelle Grabner – a particularly tricky gig, Newby jokes, given she doesn’t drive.

Earlier this year, she took a road trip with friends through the American West to see some of the great works of earth art, including ‘Double Negative’ and Holt’s ‘Sun Tunnels’, which she was particularly struck by. The journey helped her think about her connections to their work, and to 1960s and 1970s sculpture more generally. “What am

I doing that’s any different?” she asks. “These encounters, these gestures. For them, I think it was brave new territory, and for me it’s not. So in a way I’m interested in creating that brave new territory for myself.”

What does she think that will be, I ask? She’s not entirely sure yet. But, “I don’t think it’s [inside] the gallery,” she answers, cautiously. In 2017, she’ll have every chance to test this, with two residencies in Texas: at Artpace in San Antonio, and a prestigious opportunity at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, a huge institution in the desert developed by Donald Judd as a temple to Land Art and Minimalism.

But for now, Newby has to fly back to her adopted home. In the time she’s been in New Zealand – just a week or two – America has changed dramatically with the ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency. When I point this out, she seems unflustered; New York, as she says, is still one of the most liberal, tolerant, open cities in America. She has the permanently optimistic air of someone intrigued by the tiny details of the world around her. I also sense that if things get too oppressive in the States, Newby, the quiet wanderer, will find a new home somewhere else.

“I don’t think I’m a creative genius with a lot of ideas,” she says. “What I am is an observer. I’m interested in continually listening and being able to change and adapt. I don’t want to be stuck in anything.”

This article was first published in Paperboy magazine.
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