The Contemporary Room

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14 September 2018, Hastings
By Rosheen FitzGerald

Heretaunga Street’s 200 block is the epicentre of a seismic shift that’s been rocking the foundations of Hastings’ cultural identity these past years. It’s been a slow rolling motion, anchored by stalwarts such as Arts Inc., Hastings City Art Gallery, Humanity Books and Cornucopia Natural Foods. As less desirable tenants – the sex shop, the tack-emporium on the corner – relocate or retire, fresh occupants rise to take their places. On Friday, a new establishment threw open their doors, joining the ranks of Common Room and Coco; La Petit and Ya Bon; Magpie and Little Red Bookshop.

The Contemporary Room is a studio and gallery nestled between the cavernous and wonderful Once Upon a Time, and the gym. Artist Susan Mabin meets us at the door – “We need to work on the lighting!” – before pressing a fashionably stemless glass of rosé upon us and urging us to partake in grapes and cheese. In fact, the small, street-facing exhibition space, housing a small selection of Susan’s sculptures and fellow artist, Robyn Fleet’s paintings under the title, Modern Monuments, is, in the fading daylight almost entirely and exclusively in the dark.

The studio’s where it’s at, generously and practically lit with a mixture of fluorescent strips and hanging bare bulbs, filled with a glut of well-wishers in animated conversation, or in repose, contemplating the works in progress roughly pushed to the edges of the room to accommodate the crowd. There’s an authenticity here that’s worth its weight in gold – from bunches of brushes soaking in pots, sticky tubes of paint, impromptu palettes, vintage photographs and images torn from magazines blu-tacked to the walls, the smell of oils and turps and wet plaster. For an art nerd, the prospect of being adjacent to the unadorned bones of creativity is dizzying.

To the rear, Susan Mabin’s space is marked by a range of disembodied heads, imperious on plinths of concrete; a column of literal white trash – plastic bottles, fishing wire and Styrofoam moulded into something more than the sum of its parts. In the middle, Gillian Appleby’s vague but blissful faces emerge from canvasses rendered in greyscale. To the front, Robyn Fleet’s enormous and anonymous suggestions of portraiture – the antithesis of the selfie – dominate.

Throughout the ceiling has been raised, exposing exquisite deco cornices and mouldings. In the walled-off exhibition space, the frame of the lowered roof has been allowed to remain providing an excellent mount for an expanse of lighting options when they come. That the focus has been on the studio feels entirely appropriate. This is a space that speaks to the doing of art, a practical, boots on the (scuffed, paint splattered) ground approach that is precisely what Hastings’ Cultural Precinct needs.

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