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The UnHeimlich Maneuver
This is the first time Francis Upritchard and Saskia Leek have shown together, yet the two artists' works seem to instantly engage with each other and with the viewer in a kooky, three-way dialogue. Both artists have chosen everyday tropes which they imbue with weirdness: Leek's eggs and place-mats jostle with Upritchard's potatoes and tattoos.
It is difficult to avoid a discussion of regional style as both artists hail from Christchurch (though Leek is now practising in Auckland , and Upritchard in London). Christchurch is well-known for its school of pseudo-surrealists who share stylistic traits and common imagery (namely, flat fields filled with disparate objects, usually with some kind of post-colonial or nationalistic connotations). Famous proponents of this school include Bill Hammond, Tony de Lautour, Shane Cotton, and Seraphine Pick, all of whom were showcased in the exhibition Skywriters and Earthmovers at Christchurch's Robert McDougall Gallery in 1998. Saskia Leek is often almost rounded up into this category, but usually escapes due to her humour and insistent 'immaturity'. Leek is well known in New Zealand for her investigations into the way children see and communicate before they learn the conventions of perspective and grammar. Her paintings are like small stage-sets, retablo-like, but without the heavy emotional or religious content, and often doodled-on with ball-point pen as a final salute to juvenility. Leek's works are frequently funny, as her peculiar cast of characters (nurses, female wrestlers, moth-eaten monsters) act out inane initiation rites, or try to scare us, or simply share an odd moment.
In Outcome of Probability, Leek has moved on from documenting the hijinks of her fictional alter-egos, to creating indeterminate fields ripe for a surreal intrusion. Each painted ground is on a place-mat-sized board, giving the works an implicitly domestic aura. In some cases, a character will manifest, like the Egg-egg-eggman. A fugitive from a book of nursery rhymes, this eggman is involved in an egg and spoon race, whose egg is also an eggman, who's also in an egg and spoon race. This 'wheels within wheels' theme is echoed in Burn All Day which features a chain of puffs-of-smoke who are themselves personified, each one puffing its own pipe, and so on.
The cute anthropomorphising in Leek's work belies more complex preoccupations, with time, repetition, stasis. Burn All Day seems to be a paean to entropy or addiction. Like most of Leek's paintings in this show, the action takes place in a field of flowers, punning with the painterly 'field' of art history, and having physical affinities with everything from Persian miniatures to medieval tapestries, not to mention the backgrounds of primitive cartoons which roll around again and again. It is this sense of circularity, whether cosmic or ridiculous, that permeates Burn All Day, where the flowers recall the acres of poppies Dorothy and friends find themselves stranded in, in The Wizard of Oz, lost in an opium-infused haze.
In the polyptych Big Nature, the place-mat format comes into its own, depicting vistas devoid of characters (and therefore inviting the viewer's intrusion). Before the invasion of television, place-mats acted as screens, views onto exotic locales, revisited and digested with every meal. In Big Nature, Leek uses a palette of yellow, blue and pink, creating a magical lacunae somewhere between Japonisme and play-pen kitsch, a perpetual 'Shangri-La' of the mind. This work, with its languid laburnums and its perky cherry blossoms is so pretty it makes me ache, and reminds me that in nature, cuteness is a weapon used against intelligent predators (who can kill a kitty?).
Leek goes even further in the pretty stakes with a new series of highly lacquered scenery. Proving she's no lush with the brush, Leek then deliberately massacres her richly layered vistas with the addition of badly-rendered characters in white-out; a yeti-woman, a schmoo, and a seal. It is the kind of vandalism school kids practice in photographic books, and it is beautifully executed. Wish You Were Here in which a white seal with an 'x' for an eye launches itself over a lake, is particularly haunting. Several times throughout this show, I had wished that I was there, inside Leek's world.
Francis Upritchard's offerings are spread throughout the gallery, wall -mounted and huddled together in groups of twos and threes. They are potato-shaped blobs with alarmingly human attributes. Upritchard's practice for a long time has centred on lumps and bumps. In a 1997 collaboration with Ronnie van Hout at Christchurch's High St. Project, the artists filmed a video in which potatoes were the sole protagonists. Fascinated with skin diseases and insect bites, Upritchard has made many dioramas depicting irritated skin as land masses, and vice versa. The phrase 'Outcome of Probability' echoes the language of scientific investigation, and with due mock-pomposity, Upritchard has constructed these words out of polystyrene to preside over the show. Indeed, her works do appear to be the mutant offspring of scientific experimentation. They are spud-like sculptures boasting the occasional hand, or foot, or at least, a stump or a protrusion of some kind.
The truly identifying characteristics of these nameless, faceless beings is the tact that they are covered in tattoos, ink sketches by the artist. Upritchard, who trained as a sculptor, has become a graphic calligrapher, embracing the classic Christchurch lexicon of disembodied objects in space. But in a clever twist, she gives a mutant body to the two-dimensional Christchurch school. Everything from 'Death before Dishonour' to sailing ships, spiders' webs, dice, snakes and winged blades, adorn these tubby tubers. Of course, New Zealand gets mentioned more than once.
I can only surmise that Upritchard's new home in London has lead her to reflect on her country in a less than favourable light. Mutant stock clothed in patriotic glyphs attest to the failure of the colonial project; the motherland has spawned nothing but another 'lumpen proletariat'. It is a graphic portrayal of the formless being overlaid with the mindless in a desperate attempt at self-identification. After all, Maori radical Donna Awatere referred famously to Pakeha (New Zealand European) culture as 'the white potato'. Maybe Upritchard is having a joke at the more serious quests for national identity taken on by the Skywriters and Earthmovers club (in particular, Tony de Lautour is known tor his fascination with tattoos). Most of these artists, along with Leek and Upritchard themselves, attended the llam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch, and it is surely no coincidence that the most popular variety of seed potato in New Zealand is called 'llam Hardy'.
Deliberate nods to other artists are also present in Upritchard's peripheral works: the cigarettes on which she inscribes 'I AM REALLY VERY SORRY' recall both McCahon's classic 'I AM' and Peter Robinson's spidery confessions (at the same time as articulating the fundamental tenet of Pakeha guilt). Meanwhile, the polystyrene title of the show recalls both Michael Parekowhai's and Ronnie van Hout's investigations into diorama lettering. Upritchard breathes new life into these references with her cheap, fragile materials, making them less precious and monolithic. Unabashedly cute and silly respectively, Leek and Upritchard enhance the 'creepiness' sought by their predecessors precisely by not courting it so avidly. And in the process of goofing off, they create work that is all the more sophisticated for it.