Even before stepping foot inside Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in the Auckland suburb of Titirangi, I was sold on the idea of Watching Windows. There is something immediately appealing about a show based on the window. I can think of few things more fundamental to daily life and less celebrated. Symbolically, the window teems with content. As a point of departure for an exhibition, it offers the all-important combination of simplicity and richness – one that Watching Windows consciously exploits.

Curated by Te Uru’s director, Andrew Clifford, in collaboration with artist André Hemer, the show riffs on the window in a variety of ways. Installations, for instance, engage physically with the gallery’s fenestration and the light that enters through it; wall works provide windows on to other realities; a moving image work acts as a kind of electronic skylight. The concise introductory text alludes to the potential of screens connected to the internet to act as portals, relaying pictures from far away. This notion is hinted at by some of the works on display, and the international make-up of the cast further reflects ‘our interconnected digital age’.

Left: Catherine Clayton-Smith, Right: Ry David Bradley. Back: Celine Struger. Photo courtesy of Sam Harnett and Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 2017

Five artists are included: Hemer, Ry David Bradley, Catherine Clayton-Smith, Biljana Jancic, and Céline Struger. Hemer’s social or professional networks would appear to underpin the choice of artists. He and Clayton-Smith were both born in New Zealand, he and Jancic both studied in Sydney, he and Bradley both show in Melbourne, and he and Struger both live in Vienna. The selection serves an almost paradoxical double function, avoiding the parochialism that threatens community-conscious institutions like Te Uru, while also emphasising that artists from New Zealand can confidently hold their own in a global context.

Hemer is further pivotal because his practice is tied to that of each of the other artists – through interests in such matters as site-specificity, the relationship between painting and other modes of artistic expression, and the intersection between the digital and the physical. His moving image work Titirangi Sky Scans (2017 APR 19, 14:16–15:56 NZST) (2017) asserts itself as the most successful contribution to Watching Windows, even before one considers its centrality.

The work draws elements of the outside environment into the gallery by way of four screens, two positioned on a wall, and two on the ceiling. These display a kind of slideshow of strange pink and purple images of the sky above Te Uru, which were created on the roof of an adjacent building using a flatbed scanner with its lid left open. The scans shown on the wall-mounted screens include enigmatic gold forms created from crumpled skins of paint, enhancing the already mystical quality of the imagery.

Left Wall and ceiling: Andrew Hermer. Right wall: Biljana Jancic. Photo courtesy of Sam Harnett and Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 2017

I have found some earlier works by Hemer, particularly those combining digital and manual painting, of limited appeal, perhaps because they have seemed to be more interested in disruption than in interaction. Titirangi Sky Scans – part painting, part photograph, part digital video – functions superbly as an experiment with the interface between older modes of artistic production and more recent technologies. It reveals sensual imperfections that are uncannily painterly: speckled forms that emerged unbidden during the scanning process, pixel trails that bleed between transitions like sideways drips of paint. Hemer finds the material in the ostensibly immaterial.

Where Hemer’s work immediately impressed me, I struggled to connect with the paintings of Clayton-Smith. Despite their rectangular format, and the old and obvious association between paintings and windows (centuries before the internet, pictures provided views of things elsewhere or ‘exotic’), they are the pieces that least compellingly relate to the conceit of the show. The works are not, in the main, especially window-like – not least because they play little with depth. Nor are they good examples of the capacity of painting to reveal fantastical spaces or psychological states.

Clayton-Smith’s biography in the exhibition programme indicates that the artist draws on images from social media, yet the paintings do not strongly evoke digital images, or the ways in which they are disbursed, repurposed, and reshaped online. As such, this aspect of their construction feels rather incidental. Moreover, as so often seems to be the case with work that purports to explore ‘the boundaries between representation and abstraction’, they under-deliver in terms of both image making and experimentation with paint.

Appealing to notions of the provisional – the wittingly spontaneous and unpolished – and liminal – that which does not slot neatly into any category – does not really work here. It is easy, of course, to spend too much time working a canvas and for it to go off. But it is equally easy to abandon it too soon and for it to feel too green. That said, some of Clayton-Smith’s works, Entry Point (2017) chief among them, do show promise. With more time, and perhaps more daring, it is not difficult to imagine the artist achieving something of the powerful rawness of painters like Amy Sillman and Phoebe Unwin, whose works she would appear to value.

Catherine Clayton-Smith. Photo courtesy of Sam Harnett and Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 2017

Sharply contrasting Clayton-Smith’s paintings is Struger’s Floor Still Te Uru (2017), which is at once more restrained and more decisively resolved. The installation comprises a series of shallow aluminium troughs filled with water that together form an irregular polygon vaguely reminiscent of a large piece of broken glass. The work has been designed to perfectly fit the floor space it occupies, a kind of internal balcony, bordered by its own metal trough, which pushes out into the treetops that surround the building.

The effects of Floor Still Te Uru are very subtle. The chalky surface typical of aluminium counteracts the reflective potential of the water, making it hard to perceive the liquid (indeed, I did not notice it at all during my first visit, despite getting rather close). The work does not present a legible image, as one might expect, instead catching the ambient daylight. It is most impressive from a distance. Looking towards the balcony and landscape beyond, one has the faint impression of light emanating from within the form.

Although situated in a separate room, Jancic’s Surface Tension (Titirangi) (2017) connects strongly with Struger’s work. It, too, is a site-specific installation that draws light into the gallery. A series of aluminium strips – here more intensely reflective – is adhered to a wall in the form of a parallelogram, putting me in mind of both the kind of one-way window once common in offices and shops, and the flashy architecture associated with high rises and luxury houses of the 1980s and ’90s. Over this is laid a lo-fi projection that evokes shadows produced by light passing through Venetian blinds.

Left: Biljana Jancic. Ceiling: Andre Hermer. Right: Ry David Bradley. Photo courtesy of Sam Harnett and Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 2017

The film component is subtle and poetic, more so for the softness of the footage. The effect of the striped component is harsher and largely undoes this lyricism. The decals pick up the light from a window opposite the installation, and even seem to amplify it, pushing the tension between wall and mirror, projection and reflection, artificial and natural light past breaking point. I rather suspect, however, that the miss here was inadvertent, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to view an installation by Jancic – an artist whose work I have admired from afar for some time and remain eager to experience further.

Having missed Bradley’s exhibition Powershot at Bowerbank Ninow earlier this year, I was pleased to get a second chance to see his work in Watching Windows. The show includes three pieces from his Off World series: bright, hazy landscapes or skyscapes printed on synthetic velvet. Created from found images digitally manipulated by the artist, they possess the slightly other-worldly quality of device wallpapers or filtered Instagram photographs. In the gallery, they are presented jutting out from the ends of walls, revealing – a little too cutely – the window frame quality of their stretchers.

I find it difficult to make up my mind about the works. I feel as though I ought to find them appealing, since they appear to explore matters of interest to me, such as the problems associated with over-playing uniqueness, and the homogeneity that can attend global connectivity. My immediate reaction, however, is that they represent the quintessence of populist commodity art: blandly beautiful, easy and inexpensive to produce, of the moment, but destined to date, like the velvet paintings they inevitably call to mind.

Of course, these gripes are logically also points of interest. Perhaps Bradley is teasing those of us who like to think of ourselves as open-minded, but are, in fact, quite uncomfortable with the idea of such machine-made, plastic-based prints muscling in on the territory of painting. Perhaps he is genuinely into the aesthetic. Scrutinising the works up close, I begin to see their attraction. The play between the velvet – with its inherent vulnerability to touch – and the image is atmospheric, seductive, creating iridescent shimmers that suggest the ruffled feathers of some tropical bird. Even so, I struggle to shake the impression that the pieces are slick signs of cynical times.

Left: Catherine Clayton-Smith. Right: Ry David Bradley. Photo courtesy of Sam Harnett and Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 2017

The Off World works are not Bradley’s only contribution. He also presents a series of cut-out standing figures plonked about the space like mock spectators. In terms of production, they are rough, composed of blurry digital smears printed on Corflute, their edges marked by small blobs of melted plastic. They have a vaguely sci-fi quality to them, looking a bit like glitchy holograms, or travellers who have not yet finished re-materialising during teleportation. The figures remind me rather of the fuzzy connections between people engaging online who have not met in person. As companions to the Off World pieces, they also evoke the sense of simultaneous presence and absence one has when looking at idealised images of far off places.

Although I have my reservations about Bradley’s work, it is undeniably intriguing. Much the same could be said about Watching Windows as a whole. The show is not a categorical triumph, but it avoids common problems and chalks up uncommon successes. In the past, I have grumbled about exhibitions that have flimsy or overblown central concepts. Here, the main themes are clear, while also allowing for works of diverse types and temperaments. For its small size, the show is unusually rich. If I sometimes wonder if individual works might do more, better, the offering nevertheless stimulates, getting close to that most rewarding of experiences: looking out a window lost in thought.

Francis McWhannell

Francis is a freelance writer and curator. He has contributed to a variety of arts and culture magazines, including Art News New Zealand, Art New Zealand, and New Zealand Books.

Watching Windows ran from 29 April – 23 July 2017 at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Auckland, New Zealand.

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