How many purchases of retro stainless steel kitchenware does it take before even op shop volunteers put the price up to capitalise on this emerging market? The answer is the number of egg cups, jelly moulds, colanders, hospital food trays, icecream sundae bowls and toothbrush holders glued in menacing stacks in artist Judy Darragh's new installation Stainless. That is, too many to count.
Stainless was inspired by a trip to the Los Angeles Car Museum (she's a classic American car lover) and seeing the fabulously weird stainless steel DeLorean (of Back to the Future fame) enshrined as an emblem of failure.
Like a keen-eyed kea, Darragh spent eight months trawling Auckland's op shops for shiny stuff - Monday, North Shore; Wednesday, West Auckland; Friday, East Auckland.
When it first came out, stainless steel was the new wonder material. Darragh remembers her own mother buying stainless steel trays and discarding crockery for its modern replacement.
Those chattels of the female domain have been transformed into something futuristic and menacing - a colony of freestanding engine-like forms drawing the eye in one direction, like something out of H G Wells' War of the Worlds, overlooked by a galaxy of about 500 mirror-board blooms.
"Taking these female kitchen materials and putting them in a more masculine context, these very domestic benign forms become quite threatening."
The work, on display at Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Museum until November 11, draws on previous vertically stacked installations using glass and ceramics, with an urban architectural feel - think minarets and towers. It also continues Darragh's penchant for using found materials, which predates the sustainability movement and is motivated as much by economy as concern for waste.
"I don't like to over-invest in my work. If you are going to spend thousands of dollars on a work, how are you going to make your next piece? I don't think you have to spend hundreds of thousands to make a gesture or idea. That goes to ideas of value - it cost a lot so it must have value."
Using recycled materials also helps make art more accessible, Darragh believes. "Because they have a history, people can unpick the work."
She's right - it's hard to resist the urge to mentally disassemble each piece, divining the origins of its components.
In leopard print coat and striped pants, wispy grey hair pulled back, Darragh, 53, looks the part of the bohemian artist. Brought up in Christchurch, she has been making things as long as she can remember. Mother Grace worked at the Osti dress factory and father Jack - a freezing worker - was always tinkering in his garage workshop, so the young Darragh was surrounded by creative endeavour.
"As a kid, when I would make things at night, I would wake up in the morning and think 'Oh my god, I have to go and see that thing I made'.
"It is the joy of making."
She studied visual communication and design at Wellington Polytechnic, went to teachers' training college in Auckland and began selling her craft/design objects at Cook St Market. Even then, economy dictated that they were fashioned from the cheap and cheerful - $2 bowls from Payless Plastics.
She made lamps and mirrors and one day exhibited her objects at Artspace, in Auckland's George Fraser Gallery. That show, says Darragh, was her Duchampian moment, when her design objects became art. It's a reference to Marcel Duchamp's famous Fountain - a urinal transformed into art simply by placing it in a gallery context.
"It's art because I call it art," Darragh says. "That opened up the door for a whole lot of discussions and conversations."
She founded the artist-run Teststrip gallery with distinguished names such as Giovanni Intra and Merylyn Tweedie. Motherhood intervened (son Buster is now 14) but also enriched her practice.
Though art is no money-spinner (she survives doing short-term contracts for Elam art school and with support from partner Grant Major) Darragh believes art plays a critical role in society.
"Because you have to give in to something. It's a releasing thing - you have to open up and look at something. I think that is very important.
"We can be very closed in our ideas. Art makes you extend your thinking. That's what separates us from the lower creatures, our ability to create. Science and art are similar - you have to believe in something you can't see."
- Judy Darragh: Stainless is on at The Dowse until November 11.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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