Urban Ambience

Until 30 Sept, Tennyson Gallery, Napier

The Tennyson Gallery is having a show. The title, Urban Ambience is a perfect fit for its location, on the corner of Tennyson and Hastings Streets, in the commercial and cultural heart space of Napier’s CBD. It marries art, Anthony Chiappin’s poppy, whimsical two dimensional pieces, or Episodes, as he likes to call them; with design, Faculty’s handcrafted house shaped home wears.

The space is bright, airy and inviting, with most of the work freely available to peruse from its extensive windows. These are a double edged sword, letting in light and the gaze of passers-by, but necessitating that all the pictures be displayed consecutively on its back wall.

Chiappin’s ‘Episode 14. Superhero Explosive. Green’ dominates, drawing the eye with its striking fluro colours, topographical lines and contrasting shapes and textures. No wonder it was chosen for pride of place both in the gallery and in the promotional material. Its artistic merit has been noted by the judges of this year’s Molly Morpeth Canaday Award, who ranked it among its finalists. The juxtaposition between this and the subtler but no less stimulating ‘Smiley Face’ series is effective. The slightly sinister facial features pop out to say ‘Boo!’ here and there throughout the rest of the work, like a static game of hide and seek. This theme and the arresting colour palette string together the works that otherwise provide a wonderful diversity of media and display. The bold choice to mount rough edged watercolour paper directly on the wall, creating a frame of sorts in shadow, side by side with raised boxboard backing pays off, offering a feast of texture as well as colour and style.

On the opposite side of the gallery, along the window, are Faculty’s offerings. Designed and created by locally trained Hayden Maunsell and Tara Cooney, they bring together art and function in brass and wood using clean lines, finely finished. The house motif is carried throughout and there is something pleasingly metacontextual about objects for the home represented in that form. The ‘Home Pendant Lights’ in muted colours and natural finishes are a personal favourite, looking sweet all lined up in a row like a suburban street at night. Their simple form belies a clever feat of engineering in having the main fabric flex power chord emerge asymmetrically from the chimney, they are supported to remain upright by a second, nigh on invisible wire, that adds to the magic of the piece. That it looks effortless is a testimony to the ingenuity of their design.

Where the show falls down as a body of work is not a problem of content but one of curatorship. The two artists’ works are displayed separately, divided by a large glass box showcasing (very fine, artistic) work by local and national jewellers, that lays bare the commercial intent of the gallery. In contrast to the minimalist space afforded to the show, the work is crammed in on double shelves. Believe me, I’m a fan of clutter, in its place, as any visitor to my home space will know, but here it detracts from the work at hand. In fact, the best way to view ‘Urban Ambience’ as a show would be from the outside looking in, from the centre of Tennyson Street, but the green man on that traffic light has a terribly short filter and I do think that being mowed down in the centre of Napier would detract somewhat from my enjoyment of the art.

Similarly, the blurb tells me that the thread that connects these two disparate collections is the experience of being in the city, but I just don’t see it. I don’t doubt that Chiappin’s jumping off point for his work was rooted in suburbia but, subscribing as I do a Barthesian theory of art, to me it screamed of identity and personhood. What I felt drew the two works together was a theme of the archetypical psyche of the child. For Chiappin, his recurring faces put me in mind of the newborn’s preferential orientation towards facial patterns, of how this is capitalised by cartoons and imagery for children and how this lingers into adulthood with our propensity for picking out faces in clouds and car bonnets. For Faculty, the image of a house in its simplest form of square and triangle is a cornerstone of childhood artistic expression, so much so that it is used as a diagnostic tool. Its design appeal when creating a home as a grown up says something about our need and desire to provide a home, not just for our children, but for ourselves as a child. The telling of this show would have been heightened if those curating it had found a way to intersperse the artists’ works so as to highlight their contrasting features and interweave their congruent themes, and shoved the jewellery to the side for the duration of the exhibition.

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