Art shouldn't be easy. We have enough easy things. It should perplex and puzzle, even irritate. Yet a mystery needs to engage you. As if you were a fish, it must bait and lure you before finally hooking you in.
This analogy is easily made from an exhibition at Wellington's Robert Heald Gallery that features two works that repurpose fishing lures – hooks and all. Like lures, artist Richard Frater's work teases you, hoping to tussle with you long enough for his conceptual barbs to get under your skin.
Frater's work can both charm in its clean conceptual beauty and irritate in its mundanity. Three years ago at the top of Plimmer's Steps in Wellington his work at an artist project space composed of removing the large shop windows to allow some air in. He was responding literally to the project space's name: Alterations. It was a useless action I still get a tickle out of.
Frater is clever with context. Robert Heald is a dealer. The objects in this exhibition play with their responsibility to be sold, to sparkle and shine, while testing how far they can push sculpture. Heald's gallery also has large windows, resembling an elegant fish tank. When it's closed you have to peer through the glass to catch glimpses of the small precious things he has floating around. Frater provides it with a neat accessory: a bath plug complete with ring, the metal filed down so it sits flush as a fitting on the floor. A readymade accompaniment to Duchamp's famed urinal, it teases you to pull the plug out, perhaps to remove all the hot air from the room.
So far clever, yet easy. But the artist has at least got you in the room. Also on the floor is a small pile of shiny shards, dust and tiny kernels of metal, like leftovers from an explosion in a jeweller's's. The catalogue records this material as chrome electroplated whalebone and its buildup. Initially this just seems perverse, yet it's utterly distinctive and I find myself thinking about the transformative processes of turning nature into objects of human value. I note the bath plug is also chrome plated. Another work has photographs of stains on toilet paper on aluminium fittings. Resembling flags or more bathroom fittings, I find these ugly and baffling rather than intriguing.
The two fishing lure works speak to the tensions of art appreciation. The unusual looking Twin Minnow Strike Pro Lure is a top-end piece of fishing equipment, where one shiny minnow seems to be eating the transparent shell of another – art will eat itself. The lure is embedded into the wall via piercing a capsule of cod liver oil, which stains the wall below it. Cod liver oil is something, like some art, people find distasteful but know is supposed to be good for them.
The other lure work hangs fetchingly from the ceiling, as if being dangled into the fish tank. A brass figurine of a naked woman is diving down, with the fishing lure for a mermaid's tail – a mermaid being another kind of lure. The lure's head has had to be sawn off, resembling a fish choking on something else of beauty. The divers of the exhibition title are a series of works composed of cotton buds placed in semaphore-like figures down the white walls, some with yellow ends from coatings of ear wax and manuka honey. This might seem like a joke too far.
Yet I keep going back to them, soaking up the way the buds appear like stitchings in the white walls, and provide simple, elegant hieroglyphic dances up and down them.
It may be light, but there's a clever poetic movement to Frater's work, cheekily exploring transformative processes, and providing ideas and things of beauty along the way.
Divers – Richard Frater, Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington, until March 1.
Since the end of December visiting artists Xin Cheng and Kirsten Drysburgh have been encamped at Wellington's Enjoy, leaving the gallery alive with poetic camp-like structures out of worn recycled materials they discovered, and providing a whimsical visual record of their artist-as-refugee occupation. Gleaners, Enjoy gallery, until February 15.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Have you read Kiwi author Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries?Related story: What now for Eleanor Catton?