When an exhibition fails to engage the public, it’s easy for us in the art world to say, “Hey, it was probably too challenging; maybe it went over their heads.” Lately I’ve been starting to think perhaps we’re not being challenging enough – that instead of pushing ideas to their limits so people walk away agitated, confronted or thrilled, all we’re really doing is leaving them blandly confused.
But very occasionally you hear about a show with genuine train-wreck potential. For example, Michael Lett, in collaboration with Sue Crockford, has just opened a two-person show at his Auckland gallery that at first glance seems like a crazy pairing: one of our most important abstract painters, Gretchen Albrecht, with Eve Armstrong, a young emerging sculptor who uses found materials to create elegantly junky installations.
Lett is quick to point out he doesn’t see this as a “curated” show; all he’s done is set up an unusual scenario for the two artists to work in. His invitation surprised both artists. “It was intriguing, and initially I couldn’t see how it would work,” says Albrecht. “But Eve had apparently grown up being familiar with my work and had even bought a Muka print by me when she was young, which I thought was a very touching detail. I was also familiar with her work because she’d applied successfully for a McCahon House residency when I was one of the selectors. So there were some connections.”
Armstrong was just as cautious. “Michael suggested it to me, and I thought … what? I knew Gretchen’s work quite well, but only in the way that everyone knows it. But I went back and looked through her old work, and started to see little threads: a shared visual language around stacking and transparency, for example. We both work with landscape in quite an abstract way.”
This was the point at which the project started to gain some teeth. As Armstrong worked through Albrecht’s archive, she locked onto a transitional period in the older artist’s career – the late 1970s to early 80s – and selected half a dozen paintings that, as Albrecht points out, actually resonate strongly with Armstrong’s practice: “They all share a kind of earthiness. They’re quite tactile as well – built up, and with a certain opacity. All have low-stacked painted forms, and of course Eve’s work often deals with stacking and piling – starting from the floor and working her way up.”
Those paintings form a significant chunk of the exhibition (Albrecht has also made one new canvas specifically for the show). Armstrong’s contribution was made in Lett’s gallery, but it doesn’t try to force a conversation with Albrecht’s paintings: “My response has been to make a selection of Gretchen’s work. This was a proposition – it wasn’t something I actively sought. So at the end of the day I still have to make what I want to make. It’s close, and we’re aware of what each other is doing, but we’re also working independently. And it is challenging, because we work in such different ways.”
Lett has also produced a publication that does a fine job of drawing the artists closer together. In it, writer Heather Galbraith acknowledges the eyebrow-raising aspects of the pairing but manages to find some rewarding connections. Even more significant are the artists’ page works, which show Albrecht with a harder conceptual edge than she is usually given credit for and Armstrong with a painterly delicacy that’s easy to miss.
So whether it works or not, Lett’s gamble has at least opened both artists up to more generous readings. It gives Albrecht more contemporary play than she’s used to and it pushes interpretations of Armstrong’s work beyond the confines of modish installation art. And just as importantly, it doesn’t underestimate its audience’s intelligence. The project is a rare moment of art-world bravery, and a welcome reminder of why we all got into this game in the first place.
MAKING ARRANGEMENTS, Gretchen Albrecht and Eve Armstrong, Michael Lett, Auckland, until December 23.