Exhibition Essays

2009 Reviews

June 2009

Award offers fresh context

Mark Amery

On first mention you'd be excused for wondering if the National Drawing Award was some kind of ironic art-world joke. Exhibited by three leading publicly funded art project spaces, Artspace in Auckland, The Physics Room in Christchurch and Enjoy in Wellington (where it is currently on show) and now in its third year, the award is everything those who brand contemporary art elitist wouldn't expect.

First of all it's a celebration of drawing, the skills of which used to form the foundation of an art school education but then, to the traditionalists' horror, were supplanted by theory (ideas over craft).

Then there's the fact that, like some old Sunday exhibition in the park or academy of fine arts crowded hang, every single work entered is exhibited. Other than how they are hung, the art curator is rendered mute.

This year 365 drawings on the required A4 white paper are stuffed row after row, floor to ceiling, into Enjoy's small space. It's akin to a library over whose bookends you might graze to find something interesting to read. There's the occasional piece that is excruciating or brilliant, and in between lots of mediocrity. A Raymond Ching-like Tui sits cheek by jowl with half-cocked conceptual jokes about monetary value. There's even that usually curatorially despised public barometer feature, the People's Choice Award. The overall winner and two merit award winners receive trophies more familiar to a lawn bowls tourney.

Not surprisingly the award has been criticized for its focus on quantity over quality, and public crowd-pleasing. It'd be easy to agree, but on visits to the exhibition both in Auckland and Wellington I find myself far too engaged to simply shoot it down.

Certainly, this isn't a considered look at the best drawing in the country. Nor does it give artists the space to which they're accustomed to cover the walls with their cobwebs. Yet the exhibition works precisely because, as an annual summer bloodletting, it stretches our up-and-comers to work within tighter restrictions and get noticed amongst the visual noise of a hundred derivative figurative drawings and ironically bad drawing that are just, well, bad. Viewers will give works that present cheap, or old tricks short shrift. The exhibition offers the finger to austerity and pretension.

Given the volume of work it's interesting how strongly the winning work stands out. By including everything the exhibition actually reveals how rare excellence is. All open competitions end up with a pile of mediocrity. What is refreshing here is the old fashioned allowance for us to sift through it ourselves, much as we have become accustomed to on our computers and TV sets.

It's proof that great art finds a fresh way to grab you and then keep you looking. Award winner John Ward Knox is one of the quietest works in the show, yet it forces you to come in close to a small frame and peep in at fuzzy social activity beyond shoulders and gestures in a meticulous games of reveal and conceal. It demands that you look differently.

The exhibition celebrates that a traditional singular approach to drawing - one based on the life and still life study - has been replaced by multiplicity of approaches that still provides room for great technique (the John Ward Knox is an example). In an age of heavy high definition gloss, drawing thrives because it is lightweight, ephemeral, and fluid in the way it tackles the world. The exhibition acknowledges this with its curatorial freedom.

While limited by scale there are also plenty of examples of drawing without pencil: an uninspiring image of a pit-bull made with needle and thread, a dire employment of blu tac, and uninteresting marks made by firecracker (with the cracker taped to the page). And then there is the superb merit award winning work by Peter Madden, who with collage suggests the use of a pair of scissors can be considered to draw. His oriental portrait is a masterly ornamental surreal play with wispy pattern in which streams of eyes and lips flutter and arch out into our space.

The National Drawing Award, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, until 14 March


Originally published by The Dominion Post