Breaking down the boundaries

Artist Wayne Youle says his City Gallery exhibit is a highlight of the past 10 years.
Artist Wayne Youle says his City Gallery exhibit is a highlight of the past 10 years.

Wayne Youle will be the first artist to exhibit in both the Deane and the Hirschfeld galleries in City Gallery and, more dramatically,  the first to punch a hole in the wall between them. He's pretty excited about that, being able to do it, and being able to use the spaces themselves as cultural commentary.

The wall with the hole is a divide between  blurred bicultural worlds in his exhibition Fingers Crossed. Almost certainly the galleries weren't set up to be divisive, but the Hirschfeld Gallery opened in 2000 and showcases Wellington-based artists, and the Deane Gallery, which opened almost a decade later, is dedicated to the work of Maori and Pacific Island artists. ''Why do we need our own space?'' he asks.

The 37-year-old, a prolific creative commentator on bicultural objects, images and concepts, fits, sort of, the artist profile for both galleries. He is of Ngapuhi, Ngati Whakaeke and European descent, is a Porirua boy by birth and is devoted to Wellington. He almost longs for it. He graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor of Design from what was the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design but the thought - soon corroded - of doing a masters in fine art  in Christchurch channelled him into living there a decade ago.  Now that he has small children and a partner there, and pivotal members of his wider family, he's not in a position to return to lively, distracting, gallery-rich Wellington, earthquakes or no earthquakes.   But he's relishing this return to the City Gallery.

''I'm being honest when I say it's the highlight of my 10 years so far. I had the show at Pataka, but to get back to Wellington in that space, like that, and do the 'and can you punch a hole in the wall?', and they um and ah and email back and say 'yes, you can do that'. That's more than enough, man.''

Youle's attractive, humorous, subversive work  is a mixture of sculpture, prints, sound, found materials and painting. He's showing 10 exhibits on either side of the galleries' dividing wall. From the hole in the wall, I can see your culture from here is seen both ways. In the Deane space he presents a neat pound of flesh-coloured artists' paint - ''point 454 of a kilogram, exactly one pound of flesh, on a canvas, a perfect little square. Flesh colour. No-one's got that colour. There are so many shades of white or black.'' In the Hirschfeld space - ''on the flip-side'' - he uses 10 different shades of Resene white.

The title of his exhibition, Fingers Crossed, is an expression he has used since he was a child. ''It has almost the same connotation as 'touch wood'.''

It covers everything from hoping a picture won't fall down to struggling to do Maori in a class where you're just about the whitest pupil ''and thinking who cares. I am who I am''.

Crossed fingers are apposite to the  fragile, shaken environment of Christchurch. One reference  is a hefty house-shaped piece of rock from a destroyed Christchurch church  suspended above the floor and with a (taxidermied) mouse under it. ''It's like anything could go at any time.''

Things move forward, he says. The City Gallery show firmed up. ''Crossed fingers people like the work. But I'm not in the game to make people happy. I'm in it for making my work.''

The City Gallery holds strong symbolic memories  for Youle. He was once there while a senior Maori artist  was installing an exhibition. ''He said he knew my work. He had a guitar and he threw it at me and it felt like I had to grasp it. He said to be what you want to be,  get in the door and when you get in, be who you are. He had to do that himself. It's not that you're snubbing your culture but that, then, being a Maori becomes irrelevant.''

What, says Youle, is Maori art anyway?

Fingers Crossed is at City Gallery from December 15 to February 10.

The Dominion Post