Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Len Lye Centre, New Plymouth



This summer I took a road trip and visited two regional galleries in New Zealand. The first stop was the Len Lye Center and Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth. The new Len Lye Centre opened in 2015 and has attracted alot of attention since. It was interesting to visit a regional gallery that has managed to make such a large impact beyond its’ immediate region. Like all good aspiring art galleries, the architecture by Patterson Associates is avant garde, unusual and makes a bold statement. 




The shiny and highly reflective marine grade stainless steel surface of the building continues along two curved, rippling facades. The repeating forms reflected in these reminded me of some of the Len Lye films screened inside with their jumping rhythmic film frames. The striking facade is an excellent counterpoint to the large, stainless steel kinetic sculptures exhibited inside. Whilst photographing the facade a couple of women walked past and one remarked “ I hate that building, it looks disgusting.” Regardless of some negative opinions it seems likely this new building will be hugely beneficial in developing cultural tourism to the region. Whilst I was there children were having a great time peering at their distorted images in the mirror-like surface - a facade for the selfie generation perhaps? 




The Len Lye exhibition inside the building gives one a good introduction to his work and left me wanting to see more. I liked the way the steel fountains create an ever-changing series of forms as the steel rods move and shimmy. It was a delight to photograph and observe these, they reminded me of the (somewhat static!) metallic lines in some of my earlier paintings.




I was excited to come across an exhibition in the Govett-Brewster section of work by an artist I was not previously familar with. Sister Corita was a Roman Catholic nun (1918-1986) who produced and taught art in Los Angeles in the 1960’s and later in Boston. Her screenprints look extraordinarly modern and fresh, like they were produced yesterday, a reminder of how much we owe to the recent past. She used elements of popular culture to produce bright and thoughtful works. These often have a political undercurrent. I found her work fascinating and the inclusion of contemporary record covers and some posters from New Zealand by Wellington Media Collective made for an interesting show. 

If you miss seeing this show at the Govett-Brewster it will be travelling to the City Gallery, Wellington later this year. http://citygallery.org.nz/exhibitions/sister-coritas-summer-love

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui



Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui with Senior Curator Greg Anderson.

The beautiful original building from 1919 sits in a prominent position near the town centre, with impressive views from front and back. Sightlines were obviously a big consideration in the design and planned redevelopment will preserve and enhance these. Prior to shifting the collection out of the gallery a section of the masonry ceiling fell out, grazing the marble bust of gallery founder Henry Sarjeant and revealing further damage underneath. It was obvious that the time had come to take action. Rated at only 5% of the current new building code, the original building is in dire need of earthquake strengthening and basic restoration, with various types of damage visible throughout the structure. Previous collection storage in the basement was also very inadequate. Luckily the central dome (pictured) remains intact although that too will require a degree of strengthening work. 

The gallery has an interesting and significant art collection of over 8000 items. I caught a glimpse of some of these works in storage ranging from historic European painters through to prominent New Zealand artists. Protecting it has been a challenge given the state of the building - no environmental or lighting control. Just getting access to items was a major issue in the confined spaces of the old excavated basement below the original building.  



In preparation for redevelopment and to mitigate earthquake risk the collection has been moved and a temporary location for the gallery at 38 Taupo Quay has opened. Fortunately the art collection was safe from recent floods which damaged much of this area of Whanganui, although the gallery space of the temporary building did have to be repaired. Moving the collection has been a huge but rewarding task. Over two thousand items with little or no documentation were uncovered during the process and inventoried. Some of these items will no doubt prove interesting to art history students of the future and will provide the gallery with previously unseen material for future exhibitions.


When the redevelopment occurs a new wing will be added to increase exhibition, education, amenities and storage space for the art collection. The design and position of the new wing behind the original building will ensure that the historic old building will still be the main feature visible from the town centre. View the flythrough here: http://sarjeant.org.nz/flythrough/




At the Sarjeant’s glass and object gallery located above the Whanganui iSite at 31 Taupo Quay, there are some intriguing works currently on view. Above the Whanganui tourism site are cast glass works by Emma Camden. These large, weighty forms reminiscent of architecture are really beautiful. Whanganui has a strong tradition in this area and it will be interesting to see more works in glass in future exhibitions. 


In the main gallery at 38 Taupo Quay there are collection works by Vivian Smith and Mary Green, artists who taught at Whanganui Technical College. The William Morris influenced floral designs are particularly appealing. Contemporary works on display include portraits of opera singers participating in the New Zealand Opera School in Whanganui by Felicity Priest, and a large work entitled “The Horses Stayed Behind” by Cat Auburn. This work by Cat Auburn is made of a multitude of Victorian style rosettes created from donated horse and pony hair, each identifiable and spread across four large panels.
More information about this work can be found here: 

Securing the funding for the proposed redevelopment of the Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui has been an extremely challenging task and it is a testament to the perseverance and dedication of Greg Anderson and his team that a significant portion of the funding required has already been secured. A quote on the wall in the staff area (pictured above) gave me some sense of just how daunting it must have seemed at times given the setbacks and the scale of the tasks involved.


Some of the larger works requiring restoration need additional funding to carry this out and hopefully donors can be found for these. It will be very exciting to see the whole project finally go ahead and it will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the city, the region and New Zealand culture. It will be a real pleasure to see a vision fulfilled at the opening in 2019 of the restored gallery and new wing.



Above: A beautiful large work by Edward Burne-Jones under wraps whose frame is awaiting conservation.




Friday, August 14, 2015

Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern




An artist recently told me an anecdote about Damien Hirst, it concerned an assistant who worked for him and who was reprimanded for speaking to Hirst at a staff party. Anecdotes such as this seem to be relatively common when talking about Hirst. Sometimes it is difficult to look at his work without bringing to it an awareness of all the gossip and cultural baggage that has accompanied his career and success. 

Claims of plagiarism have also provoked legal proceedings and perhaps undermined his position as an important artist. For example, the LA based artist Lori Precious claims Damien Hirst stole her ideas. She exhibited works composed of butterfly wings in the late 1990’s, years before Hirst exhibited works that are very similar. One wonders if Hirst’s assistants had to spend hours pulling wings off dead butterflies.

On a cold grey day in London I visited the large Tate retrospective of Damien Hirst’s work, (April-September 2012). One of the early works caught my eye - Boxes, 1998. A simple installation of brightly coloured cardboard boxes painted with household paint which clustered around a corner of a gallery space. It is a work that is designed to be variable and “fabricated new each time it is exhibited; it is a fixed number of boxes that may take any form.” (from the small guide to the exhibition). Something about the informality, budget materials and bright colours of this work really appealed. In contrast, some of his works use rather more expensive materials - “The Anatomy of an Angel”, 2008 is carved from Carrera marble and will no doubt last hundreds of years. 

Many people are also familiar with “For the Love of God”, 2007 Hirst’s sculpture which is a platinum cast of a skull encrusted with diamonds. This work has also been subject to claims of plagiarism, this time by artist John LeKay who produced a crystal covered skull in 1993. At the time the sale of “For the Love of God”, and subsequent media coverage created considerable publicity for Hirst. The work was eventually purchased by Hirst and an anonymous consortium of others. In works such as “The Golden Calf”, a calf with hooves dipped in gold, Hirst seems to mock the wealthy collectors, the curators and audience, “worshipping” a false idol, echoing the Bible story from Exodus where the ancient Israelites create and worship a golden calf because Moses is so long up Mt Sinai. 

Hirst’s preoccupation with death was apparent throughout the exhibition. “A Thousand Years” 1990 consists of a glass case with a severed cows head in it, which flies feed upon. Some are zapped with an insect-o-cuter and others reproduce. It is a really confronting and morbidly fascinating work. I’m not sure how people generally react to this work but it’s fair to say it probably prompts a feeling of disgust and perhaps a sudden inclination to embrace vegetarianism upon viewing. One of the things that has really stayed with me from the exhibition was the smell, not of rotting meat but a strange, unpleasant sort of metallic chemical smell, perhaps from the formaldehyde works.

Another work in the exhibition also used living creatures, this time living butterflies, in a work entitled “In and out of love”. Butterflies hatched from canvases with pupae attached. The room was filled with living and dying butterflies. A modest row of plants offered the butterflies some habitat. Tables with ashtrays of cigarette butts were also part of the installation. It suddenly felt like being in some small child’s nightmare. I can not help but contrast this part of the show with the fascinating Sensational Butterflies show at the Natural History Museum that we took our son to in 2013, which also had butterflies going through their life cycle but in a rather more lush and green setting.

I found the spot and spin paintings dull and unoriginal, but “Pharmacy” 1992, a replica of a pharmacy with cabinets full of pill boxes was interesting and the room full of surgical instruments was again morbidly fascinating. The displays in this room prompt the audience to contemplate death and the fragility of life. Hirst has been inspired by museum displays and this is a strong theme in his work. The animals in formaldehyde are scaled up versions of the sort you would see in a natural history museum.

I think after viewing an exhibition like this one I needed a good dose of something life-affirming, like a walk in the sunshine or a hug from a loved one. Unfortunately the grey London day did not provide any sunshine but I had better luck with the hug. I’ll make sure my next blog post is about something more joyful - I’ve got just the exhibition in mind.

Celeste Sterling, 2015

For plagiarism claims have a look here:


The Tate Gallery has a run through of the show with Hirst here:

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Olga de Amaral at the Louise Blouin Foundation

A Beautiful Exhibition - Olga de Amaral, October 2013.


One day in London I took a train to the Louise Blouin Foundation to see an exhibition by an extraordinary artist.

Olga de Amaral is a Columbian artist who has spent her life working with woven thread, especially linen and cotton woven together. She also uses acrylic paint and gold leaf on these fabric strips. She says of these strips:

“These woven fragments are the “words” I use to begin creating landscapes of surfaces, textures, emotions, memories, meanings and connections.” (p.208 Olga de Amaral, the Mantle of Memory.)



These beautiful and compelling works cross the boundaries between fabric, sculpture and painting. They are stunning to see in person.  The titles intrigued me - Escrito, Alquimia, Strata, Lienzo, Luna Oro to name a few. Some of the works seem deceptively simple at first, but looking closer one becomes aware of the layers of complex threads, changes in texture, differences between the front and back of the weaving and the shimmering, changing light on the surfaces. At one point I had the odd sense that someone had taken one of my early works and turned it into a hanging sculpture. But what a sculpture! It was humbling and enlightening to see an artist working with gold, silver and intense colour and thread with such amazing results. 


I have seen many exhibitions in my life. I think this will always be one of the most memorable.





















Sunday, July 26, 2015

Paul Klee at the Tate Modern



Life sometimes take you in unexpected directions. My formative years and tenth birthday were spent in Victoria, Australia. I do not particularly recall that birthday but we were living in the Dandenong ranges at the time, firstly in Sassafras in the middle of the forest and then in The Basin, a small village in the foothills. My twentieth was in Auckland, New Zealand, whilst I was attending Auckland University. A decade later I was living in Dublin, and celebrated my thirtieth in a small pub in Doolin, on the West coast of Ireland. My fortieth was a quiet affair in London. I awoke late, still jet-legged after returning from a trip back from New Zealand via San Francisco and Los Angeles. My small family and I enjoyed a rare dinner out at our local cafe in Bayswater to celebrate that milestone. I lived in London for two years and during that time was fortunate enough to visit some outstanding art exhibitions. 

On of the highlights for me of the time in London was the Paul Klee exhibition at the Tate Modern (October 2013 - March 2014). It was a wonderful finale to the London sojourn and a real treat to view such a comprehensive collection of work by a really important artist. This show encompassed Paul Klee’s entire career.

One of the first things at strikes you about Klee’s work is the scale - most of the works are small, some a lot smaller than one expects. It is a reminder that artworks do not necessarily have to be large to have merit or impact. I remember a similar surprise when I first viewed artworks at the National Gallery in London which I had previously only known from slides in the Art History department of the University of Auckland and through book reproductions. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait comes to mind in particular, a small intricate painting which nonetheless looms large in the history of art. Klee’s work is likewise often small and encourages the intimacy of close examination. 

The intimate, playful and thoughtful works of Klee’s artistic career are also remarkable for their sensitive use of colour. Klee delved deeply into colour theory. He taught at the Bauhaus in Berlin and Dessau, and colour theory would have been a big component of his lessons. The watercolours in the exhibition are delightful. Whilst they seem simple and almost naive at first glance it is easy to forget just how innovative they were at the time. Klee was influenced by the art of children and paintings such as “Fish Magic” really remind one of this with its delicately drawn colourful fish, flowers and little figures peeking out from the lower part of the canvas.

Unfortunately the Nazis destroyed many of his works and closed the Bauhaus, labelling Klee’s art and that of many of his contemporaries as degenerate. It is difficult to comprehend now how his work was branded as subversive and attacked by those in power.


Klee’s painting methods were experimental and technically innovative, a fusion of surrealist, abstract and expressionist techniques and ideas. A journey to Tunisia was a catalyst for the development of his art. Hopefully one day I’ll have the opportunity to visit an exhibition devoted to the watercolours produced on this trip. In the meantime a search on Google of Klee in Tunisia will suffice to give you an idea of these beautiful works. Travel can offer artists a chance invigorate and refresh their work and to see the world anew, something I am reminded of every time I step outside of my usual circumstances and look around at an unfamiliar landscape.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

New artist blog

My Arcadia blog has been neglected for a long time, sometimes life takes over - marriage and a child, two years exploring London and beyond. More recently I have built a website to showcase my paintings and as a more personal artist blog. You can find it at www.celeste.nz

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Monet & the Impresssionists


After many travels and a myriad of art museums and exhibitions there's a big gap in my blog waiting to be filled. So many highlights - Marlene Dumas at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Picasso & his collection in Brisbane come to mind - just a couple of the standout shows I've been privileged to see recently.

I'm going to start with the most recent however - Monet and the Impressionists at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. (11 Oct 2008 - 26 Jan 2009) An unexpected trip across the Tasman had me enjoying some warm Sydney sunshine and seizing the opportunity to see this popular exhibition. Rooms full of gorgeous Monet paintings are hard to resist! Actually, popular is an understatement - at 10.30am on a Monday morning the exhibition was already filling up fast. It is somewhat disconcerting after the relative emptiness of New Zealand to experience the crush of many people. Particularly so when one is transfixed by a flurry of colour and brushstrokes, only to step back and suddenly discover a wall of drones behind, ears glued to the insidious audio guides as they stand obediently absorbing the interpretation buzzing in their ear and proceeding from one painting to the next in somewhat robotic fashion as directed by their trusty audio guide. Forget that I say!

It's not difficult to fathom the enduring appeal of Monet and the associated Impressionists. All the plethora of bad reproductions and tacky tourist paraphernalia plastered with Monets fail to do justice to nor detract from the sheer beauty and shimmering colour of the paintings which after 100 years still look fresh and wonderful. Ironically these fleeting moments in time, "Impressions", have proven to be timeless in appeal.

It is rewarding to look closely at the works - forms dissolve into a web of coloured brushstrokes, colours become discrete. In a small work I have not seen before, "Poplars at Giverny" 1887, I discover the tree trunks are long lavender strokes. There is an intense feeling of light, freedom and energy in these paintings, particularly in the work from the 1880s and also in the in the later Waterlilies. The three works depicting the the Ravine of the Petite Creuse are very strong, slightly darker in tonality to the pastel shades of Morning on the Seine, near Giverny 1897 hung nearby. In the hands of lesser artists the riot of colour would descend into chaos but in Monet's assured hands he strikes the perfect balance.

It is interesting to see a contrast between the earlier works which appear to be painted quickly and confidently and the later series - Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral - in which the extensive reworking is clearly seen by the dense layers of paint and thick texture. Any artist can relate to the crisis of confidence and dissatisfaction with works in progress that this reworking indicates. Apparently Monet destroyed a number of canvases he was unhappy with towards the end of his life. One can only wonder what these were like and suspects that they would have been prized and valued despite the artist's misgivings.