Emerging artists in line for Walters Prize

The nominees for New Zealand’s most important award for contemporary art were announced this week by Auckland Art Gallery Director Chris Saines.

He said that the four finalists, Dan Arps, Fiona Connor, Saskia Leek and Alex Monteith had been drawn out of a “strong and conceptually diverse group of works for inclusion in this year’s prize exhibition. Seen together, the finalist projects offer a lively and engaged register of the current state of play within New Zealand contemporary art.”

The $50,000 Walters Prize is awarded for an outstanding work of contemporary New Zealand art produced and exhibited during the past two years. The winner also receives an all expenses paid trip to New York as well as the opportunity to exhibit their work at Saatchi & Saatchi’s world headquarters.

Named in honour of the late New Zealand artist Gordon Walters, the prize was established in 2002 by founding benefactors and principal donors Erika and Robin Congreve and Dame Jenny Gibbs, working together with the Auckland Art Gallery. The prize set out to make contemporary art a more widely recognised and debated feature of our cultural life.

Previous winners were Yvonne Todd for Asthma and Eczema (2002), et al. for restricted access (2004), Francis Upritchard for Doomed, Doomed, All Doomed (2006) and Peter Robinson for ACK (2008). Each of those artists apart from Yvonne Todd has also represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale.

In addition to the major prize awarded to the winner, the four finalists will each receive $5000, thanks to major donor Dayle Mace.

In their initial deliberations, the Walters Prize 2010 jury also created a small headache for the organisation in nominating the project Persepolis 2530, by Michael Stevenson which was exhibited in Bristol in 2008 and reworked the infamous week-long party held by the Shah of Iran in 1971 amongst the ruins of Persepolis.

Although the nomination itself stands, the Auckland Art Gallery says that it regrets that due to accommodation and budgetary constraints it was not possible to exhibit Persepolis 2530 as part of the Walters Prize 2010.

Chris Saines says “it is important to recognise that the award of the Walters Prize is made by a visiting judge with the sole task of selecting one work from the four prize exhibition finalists. As a result, while Persepolis 2530 remains a jury nominee, the judge is unable to consider the project for the 2010 award.

“This year marks a decade since we inaugurated the biennial Walters Prize. The prize continues to go from strength to strength, as the high quality of this year’s finalists proves once again. It is encouraging to see too that, taken together, they are the youngest in the prize’s history”

The four jurors (Jon Bywater, Rhana Devenport, Leonhard Emmerling and Kate Montgomery) made statements outlining their overall assessment of the finalists and the individual artists.

“The five projects or bodies of work we have selected for the Walters Prize 2010 were chosen for what they have in common. As the prize’s criteria stipulate, they are considered to be the most outstanding contributions to contemporary New Zealand art shown in the time since the last Prize was shortlisted. At the same time, however, they are quite unalike. They offer notably different kinds of pleasures and puzzles, and have been created through contrasting artistic approaches. This highlights a key challenge of our task as jurors, which has been to remain alert to what impacts in a valuable way on the practice and reception of New Zealand art. Mediated by debate, our collective sense of what constitutes artistic excellence agreed on the diverse successes of each project.”

Dan Arps, Explaining Things

“Where the art stops and the ordinary world starts is a point Dan Arps often blurs with his work. He has made careful formal gestures with materials as banal as breakfast cereal and sheets of newspaper - things a long way from the everyday idea of art. At the same time, he has made gestural paintings and elaborate objects on plinths – almost parodies of a clichéd idea of art. In Explaining Things, the expressive and the deadpan are jammed together in this way. Chunks of mass cultural detritus –You Tube clips, furniture, ornaments and posters – are reworked into what sometimes appear to be illegibly personal artifacts. As the title hints, all manner of cultural stuff sampled in this precise jumble of images and objects might relate to our desires for things to be explained, including art.”

Fiona Connor, Something Transparent (please go round the back)

“Echoing, and initially installed within, the high-profile window space of Michael Lett’s dealer gallery on Karangahape Road, Fiona Connor’s intriguing sculptural proposition Something Transparent (please go round the back) makes the most of the unsettling potential of the double-take. Positioning multiple reproductions of the glass façade and public entrance to the gallery in situ one behind the next, Connor’s work is both visually captivating and compelling conceptually. Literally sidelining its audience and fragmenting the commercial space of the work’s initial host with layer upon layer of plate glass, Something Transparent (please go round the back) proves itself as disarming as it is illusory and alluring. With an ongoing interest in how spaces and objects operate within specific communities, this playfully sophisticated work continues Connor’s investigations into the multivalent site of the art gallery by again harnessing the potency and enigmatic duplicity of the replica.”

Saskia Leek, Yellow is the Putty of the World

“Whitish yellows and whitish blues contribute to the distinctive colouring of Saskia Leek’s recent work. This palette has evolved from paintings that respond directly to the look and the mood of sun-faded prints and Paint By Numbers pastels, and is treated in the exhibition Yellow is the Putty of the World more clearly as a subject in itself. Leek’s painting has long honoured the appeals of popular images. Here she acknowledges a pathos in the generic nature of any picture of a sailing ship, say, or bowl of fruit, and aligns it with the now equally familiar idea of abstraction. She does not strain to make a point about supposedly ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, about modernism or mass culture. Instead, these works demonstrate the fascination that remains in such over-determined starting points for the act of painting, refreshing and personalising them. Combining subtlety and accessibility, they are paintings about painting, but also just as much paintings about the world, that painting, after all, is a part of.”

Alex Monteith, Passing Manoeuvre with two motorcycles and 584 vehicles for two-channel video

“What we are seeing is illegal according to the New Zealand Road Code, but a familiar sight for commuters on Auckland roads nonetheless: motorbikes threading their way between lanes of slow-moving traffic. The action is defamiliarised by being presented to us from two perspectives at once, as one camera looks forward and another looks back, from one bike to another. As in many of her works, Alex Monteith has taken advantage of contemporary technology to update the kinds of image-making experiments undertaken by structuralist filmmakers in the 1960s, deriving a formal composition from the action of vehicles. Here, the apparently simple double view of the relative motion of the motorbikes and the other traffic comes to life as an experience as it confounds our sense of time. Where is the present moment in the image we are offered? Our grasp of movement and space is challenged by Monteith’s elegant abstraction.”