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CATHOLIC BODIES
AN EXHIBITION BY SIX 2008 GRADUATES FROM MASSEY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF FINE ARTS WELLINGTON , 24 MARCH - 18 APRIL 2009

Six artists: Catherine Caldwell, Nicola Kurton, Shane McGrath, Amy Sisson, Alice Skinner, Nina van der Voorn; six different responses to the 'body'. catholic bodies provides a fresh and youthful exploration of the human experience. Employing painting, drawing, photography and installation, these new artists examine some of the many ways people create, connect, commune, grieve, hope, dream and play.

With the lower-case 'c' catholic invites contemplation of the intersection of the specific and general, the unique and universal, the local and global. Despite the word's original meaning - wide-ranging or universal - it is difficult now to see it without the Vatican hovering in the background. 'Catholic' with a capital 'C' has become proprietorial, even pejorative in some quarters, and suggestive of further binary oppositions that shape our world: good and bad, in and out, Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian and non-Christian, saved and dammed. Similarly, the word body itself has metaphorical power in both a church and broader social context.

The title for this exhibition sprang from Shane McGrath's archetypal historic 'church' building, which has been created specifically for this exhibition - his response both to the theme, which connects the works in the show, and the particular context of this gallery. Whimsical and hard-edged, this generic little church, complete with the rich aroma of freshly cut timber (recycled rimu and matai) is open to to multiple readings - at once referencing and generating wide-ranging discussion on topics from the operation of signs to local colonial history to Christian narratives, biblical stories, and broader contemporary issues.

Nicola Kurton, with her new drawings takes us into the world of fairy stories and the fear, horror and morality that is so much part of their fabric. But these are not illustrations of precise narratives - rather they create their own ambience. Kurton creates a girl's world - girls play, climb trees, hang upside down and ready themselves for action with shorts crunched up so legs are able to range unhindered - and fears and phobias play out and walk hand-in-hand with alter egos amidst the intensity of girls' friendships and dreams. The huge amount of detail and hours of labour-intensive process in this fine penmanship takes an attentive viewer on a voyage with the artist herself into a meditative, day-dreaming trance where ideas merge, figures meld and forms morph. There is a grotesquery, a nightmarish horror born not out of human cruelty but more of the monsterish world of Maurice Sendak where the wild things are ultimately tameable by brave girls.

The fantastical and fairy tale also enters Catherine Caudwell's work - the long, seemingly endless knitting evokes Rapunzel's long braided hair. But here it is not the captive maiden doing the weaving but a machine - a machine which, as the title of her work suggests, references a female history of making and computing, and the work of Ada Lovelace who is often seen as the first computer programmer and who in the 19th century wrote about the 'analytical engine', a very early computer. The Analytical Daughter brings together Caudwell's own interest in sewing and craft with a more academic interest in women's role in the evolution of technology.

A sense of craft and things being not quite what they seem is also evident in the scrolls of Alice Skinner. The images, which pay homage to Boyd Webb's fantastical tableaux, evoke the natural world and something of the Japanese 'floating world' with the enigmatic, yet beautiful flowers formed from plastic, by human hand rather than nature. The references to the Japanese art tradition of ukiyo-e, which influenced western landscape painters such as Mondrian, become more explicit when these flower scrolls are seen alongside a similar pair of red and yellow kimono prints.

The silhouettes of Amy Sisson explore the disjuncture that is created through the simultaneous absence and presence of the subject in the photograph. Provoking questions about process, these images pull the viewer in and demand close examination. The subject of the portrait, present only in silhouette, is given personality and context by the patina covering the body surface - and we are taken from Gauguinesque tropical lands to a more upright Victorian world which somehow feels at odds with the relaxed posture of the figure.

Presence and absence is also a central concern in the work of Nina van der Voorn. She takes us on a tour of the New Zealand landscape - a landscape inhabited and complicated by the insertion of seemingly abandoned items of women's clothing. These garments - floating, fallen and blown by the wind - survive with memory of their purpose intact, despite removal from the body that they once clad. But without the inhabiting body and left in these environments they will eventually disintegrate. In a world increasingly polarised by religion, van der Voorn's work speaks poignantly to universal cycles of creation and death.


ALISON BARTLEY




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