Out of the bedroom and into the lounge

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Jan Nigro, 6 April-21 July, HCAG 
By Tryphena Cracknall

This retrospective of highly regarded New Zealand woman artist Jan Nigro has been making its way around New Zealand and is currently showing at Hastings City Art Gallery. Hastings has selected 79 works, judiciously censoring out some of the more sexually explicit works, although there is still extensive nudity and a warning advising parental guidance at the gallery entrance.

The exhibition was curated by Maree Mills, Curator, Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato in conjunction with Fine Arts Society New Zealand and draws on public and private collections. Hawke’s Bay can ‘claim’ both curator and artist: Mills was formerly Director of Hastings City Art Gallery; In the 1930s, Nigro (then Betty Aislabie) lived in Napier with her family, attending Nelson Park School and Napier Girl’s High School, experiencing the Napier Earthquake.

Nigro painted prolifically and the works span 50 years of her 75-year long career as an artist. There are also several works that have rarely been seen, which is always a highlight of exhibitions that delve into private collections. The main gallery space manages to accommodate Nigro’s intensely colourful works well, and the selection reflects a dynamic life-long observation and celebration of the human body. She worked across multiple media throughout her career and there are early abstract pieces experimenting with sand, examples of her photo-montage, collage, printmaking and drawings.

Mills’ curatorial framework segments the works thematically, rather than chronologically, with each section introduced with stories from her life, influential relationships, important exhibitions and awards, such as the MBE in 1993 for Services to the Arts. Peppered wall quotes offer insight into the artist’s practice, as do cases with photographs, newspaper cuttings, books and other ephemera, a commonly seen interpretative device in contemporary art exhibitions.

On the whole, the show flowed well in the space, tucking some segments into rooms and corners which worked in with the curatorial clustering approach. The structure also allows the viewer to appreciate Nigro’s return to certain media, and to riff on certain themes.

The exhibition title reflects that Nigro’s focus on the bare form was not always accepted by New Zealand arts audiences or public galleries, and her works were sometimes censored. The curator notes that Nigro “resolutely celebrated the human figure regardless of trends in contemporary art practice.” Writer and curator Ron Brownson described Nigro’s oeuvre as “scopophilic”, writing that, “This is the love of looking, of looking with love’s eye and with its heart. Jan does not objectify men and women into mere objects simply to be looked at. She does not make her figures wait for our eye; she makes them talk to our eye. She wants us to feel, like her, a desire to look. Looking is empowering, because it accepts a human need that is rarely recognised for its own public essentiality. An eroticism where gender and sexuality come together as figural representation. I am not talking here about the voyeuristic or the festishistic. I am focusing on the nature of the gaze that Jan Nigro reveals: she invites us to question who is looking at whom, where and for why.”

You should have been there for the morning tea opening with cakes and iced tea, but there is still plenty of time to see the show which runs until 21 July, and curator Maree Mills’ floor talk will be a highlight at some point during the show’s tenure.

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