Aotea - painting by John Brown

The Great Race – John Brown

24 May - 22 June 2019 /
SPA_CE Gallery, Napier /
By Rosheen FitzGerald

That the SPA_CE space works is a triumph of artistic ingenuity over conventional planning. Laid out over two small upper rooms connected by a thoughtfully lit corridor, the physical area maps on to the form of its title. It’s one of the little quirks, along with the vintage safe, too heavy to be moved, that on paper shouldn’t make sense but, once the Poppelwells have breathed a little life and magic into it, it does.

The Great Race is a small show — ten pieces — in a small space in small frames, but there’s nothing diminutive about this work. Rather it is concentrated, a dense bone broth of visual wizardry infused with meaning that leaves an umami tang on the tongue. Artist John Brown’s theme stems from the very core of identity — the Pākehā experience and the conflicted origin stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our very presence on this whenua. The titular Great Race refers to the unresolved debate around how, when and who were the first Europeans to reach these shores, but the work itself delves deeper into the why. Why is this important? How is it integrated into identity? How does it make us feel?

These are dizzying questions, and so it’s fitting that the overarching impression of the work taken as a whole is one of discombobulation. Brown plays with perspective, messing with our sense of proprioception. The resultant feeling of seasickness gels perfectly with the immigrant’s lot of not quite belonging — a square peg that needs its edges rounded off to fit into its groove.

Visual themes flow through the works, rising and falling like variations in a symphony, marking this as a congruent show, not just a collection of work.

Theatricality is evoked in the stage-like framing of Aotea, picked up by the harlequin-cloaked Pitt Island Warrior against a circus-tent-striped backdrop, echoed in the starkly contrasted, white-framed windows to another world of Fire on Easter Islandand Knight Under Fire Mountain. Throughout, landscapes are stacked and layered like stage sets, at once flat and fleshed out. The Cubist influence is unmistakable, both in form and in the underlying desire to represent truth as it is, not as we construct it in our hearts and minds.

Serpents and tuna and other slithering creatures snake in and out of frames, here front and centre, arresting us with a knowing eye; there lurking malevolently in the background like a slimy something brushed against a calf in murky water. There’s a viscerality here; smooth eel skin contrasted with forms evoking scales and fins and wings — piscine and reptilian. Their playful creepiness is echoed in the theme of bastardised fairytales — Fair Haired and the Three Eels, Little Red Riding Head — drawing into question the lies of childhood we perpetuate beyond the cradle.

There’s a particular palette to the works — mauve and tangerine, ink black and sky blue, creams and sandy beiges. It serves to guide the eye around the work, popping contrasts, not just in colour but in form. Rough daubing contrasts disconcertingly with razor sharp lines and subtly rendered fine detail.

So much thought and care and attention has been put into the creation of this show. Personalised messages from the artist to the buyer alone are rendered on the back of each piece in flowing cursive. The Poppelwells’ curatorship comes to the fore in the sparse hanging, the juxtaposition of works, the thoughtful placement of Believe it or not in the narrow foyer, admittedly the trickiest section of the gallery to fill. Previously exhibited in EAST, it is a piece of haunting, heart-aching loneliness that sits quietly apart from the rest of the work, capitalising on our very human sense of pareidolia — a hand outstretched in the dark, grasping for the facsimile of touch.

The collaboration of artist and curator is rewarded by a rash of red dots, justifiably earned. That the work comes from the depths of personal artistic inquiry is obvious. When faced with such naked engagement with reality, who among us wouldn’t want to take a little of that home.

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