This image from the Object Series depicts a male torso rocking leathers ala Jim Morrison - with the Twin Towers in the distance. Photo: Alexis Hunter Estate

Two rare Auckland exhibitions by expatriate New Zealanders who have forged international art careers, one a major survey, the other a revealing slice of the artist’s early provincial roots, make explicit the tenuous ties that bind as well as the ‘bind’ of New Zealand content.

Alexis Hunter (1948 – 2014) is a name that has almost fallen off the New Zealand art radar. But as recently as September of this year Hunter’s 1973 photograph Approach to Fear: Voyeurism was the feature image of a major exhibition entitled Woman: Feminist Avantgarde of the 1970s at the Museum Moderner Kunst Siftung Ludwig Wien (Mumok) in Austria. Alongside artists such as Judy Chicago, Cindy Sherman, Carolee Schneemann and Lynda Benglis, Hunter was contextualised as a major player in the radical feminist art movement of the 1970s.

A little closer to home at the Trish Clark Gallery in central Auckland I recently attended the opening of a superb exhibition of works from the estate of Alexis Hunter. In the 60s and 70s the dominant discourse in New Zealand art was the difficult transition from the establishment of the New Zealand canon to a more diffident and patchy engagement with the international ideas of the era – which were, in no particular order, Minimalism, Arte Povera, video art, conceptual art and installations, earth art, Feminism and one or two other isms. For New Zealand artists who eschewed oil on canvas and had no interest in wrestling in or with the New Zealand landscape it was pretty thin pickings both in terms of exhibition opportunities and access to the critical discourse of the day.

Many bolted, and to be fair they bolted as far as they could go. Some such as Billy Apple, Boyd Webb, Bill Culbert, Carl Sydow, John Panting and Hunter, through talent, commitment and in some cases, bloody mindedness landed on the front lines of the international avant-garde. It is these artists to whom our current generation of Biennale-savvy New Zealand contemporary artists: Simon Denny, Francis Upritchard, Luke Willis-Thompson, Lisa Reihana and others owe a debt of gratitude.

The twenty five works at Trish Clark Gallery (on exhibition until 11 November) reveal Hunter as an artist whose reach is broad both technically and conceptually. Hunter left New Zealand in the early 1970s and was soon producing incendiary photographic suites with provocative titles such as The Model’s Revenge (1974) and the Object Series (1974-75) in which the artist turned her gaze on the male body in much the same way that male artists had taken as their birthright for centuries. Dudes with tatts, in leather on motorbikes are objectified (framed from the neck down) with crotch shots aplenty.

These are bodies of work which anticipate the confrontational aesthetic of punk and the loaded carnality of Robert Mapplethorpe.

One New York based photographic image from the Object Series which depicts a male torso rocking leathers ala Jim Morrison has the added frisson of capturing the Twin Towers in the distance. Another from the Model’s Revenge series unpacks art history by replacing the coy modesty of a figleaf with a handgun over the model’s lady parts.

This image from the Model’s Revenge series replaces the modesty of a figleaf with a handgun. Photo: Alexis Hunter Estate

For the feminist artists of Hunter’s generation these potent images were all about claiming authorship as it relates to the presentation of the female body; freeing up ideas of sexuality, desire and most importantly, insisting that women can be subject and object simultaneously. The louche sexuality of Hunter’s 70s images have the same devil-may-care smoulder as those famous cowboy photographs by Richard Prince. Musically speaking, think mid-70s Patti Smith and you will have that lightning-in-a-bottle NYC vibe nailed.

Hunter’s paintings are a completely different kettle of fish, but carry a similar dark mojo. These fantasy pieces depict devils, incubi, dragons and hermaphrodites or loose pagan, mythological figures on the prowl. It is across these territories of medium that Hunter frees her feminist id. From London to New York Hunter was an artist of her time and of the world. Today there is renewed interest in feminist work of the 1970s – for good reason. In the 21st century many of the issues that 70s feminist artists argued with and for need to be readdressed or restated in the face of Kardashian culture and political pressure to roll back many of the advances that Hunter and her like fought for.

The Trish Clark Gallery exhibition is timely on two counts. First for the reasons just mentioned above and second to ensure that Alexis Hunter is not lost to a New Zealand audience at the very time her reputation is on the increase internationally.

Michael Stevenson (born 1964) is probably best known in New Zealand for his 2003 Venice Biennale exhibition This is the Trekka wherein the artist both laments, lampoons and eulogises a New Zealand attempt at a type of pre-glasnost era export diversification. The scheme involved bartering New Zealand produce for Skoda parts from Czechoslovakia to reassemble in New Zealand as our own Kiwi Landrover – The Trekka. It was all a bit ‘Carry On Trade and Enterprise’ and speaks to a time just before the first oil crisis on the early 70s when, to paraphrase curator Robert Leonard, ‘New Zealand was socialist but anti-communist.’

Michael Stevenson explored the rural, frontier culture of country town events. Photo: The artist and Michael Lett

Since 2000 Stevenson has been based in Berlin, with occasional forays back into his home country. His work for the last twenty years has focussed, with increasing degrees of perspicacity, on the Byzantine and often bizarre relationships between economic risk, reward and those fruity edges where commerce meets art and one hopes to find meaning in the other, to the bafflement of both. Stevenson’s forensic approach could almost be a direct quote of that pithiest of Clinton era campaign slogans, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. Following the money Stevenson has roamed the globe like a one man corporate that ‘Thinks Global and Acts Local’. The result is a poignant programme, equal parts bathos and pathos as the artist finds clarity in confusion, fictions in fact, triumph in failure and insights within the high stakes games of nationalist forays down the art/commerce rabbit hole. Recent exhibitions have taken in everything from Spanish hermits, pre-computing hydraulic economics simulation machines, contemporary art in revolutionary Iran and recently flight patterns of Missionaries in Papua New Guinea. Stevenson’s 2013 exhibition Proof of the Devil conflates the thinking of a Panamanian rogue intellectual with 19th century attempts to prove or disprove the second law of thermodynamics with a bit of voodoo on the side.

His latest New Zealand exhibition Inside the Keep Out Shed at Michael Lett (until November 4) on Auckland’s K ‘Road takes us back to Stevenson’s roots as a ‘Pentecostal Realist’. After Graduating from Elam art school in Auckland in the late 80s Stevenson centred his practice away from the big smoke and set up his studio in his home town of Inglewood, twenty minutes inland from New Plymouth. His mission was to explore an alternative form of ‘international’ culture as far removed from the highbrow artworld as he could find, “The things that were popular in Inglewood then were from American white trash culture: Kentucky Fried Chicken, The Dukes of Hazzard, hotted-up cars. People think of small towns as isolated but they are plugged into international culture, only it’s not a high cultural one. In Auckland they listened to Philip Glass while everyone else was into ZZ Top.”

Stevenson set about exploring the rural, frontier culture in the form of motorcamps, scout halls, evangelical churches and the paraphernalia and bunting of country town events. The current exhibition represents the artist’s first forays into his research based practice. The results are intimate and feel almost like notes found in discarded books: small pencil and biro sketches of the Mokau Memorial Hall, country town memorials done up with Christmas lights and the arcane insignia of the cub scouts, rural amusements and rotary club flags. Many of these images emerged in Stevenson’s memorable early paintings of the late 80s and early 90s. His first international show at the legendary Ray Hughes Gallery in Sydney, entitled ‘Rotary Greetings from Bulls’ homed in on the insignia of provincial clubs and societies, those localities where non-urban culture is constructed and housed. It is easy to pigeonhole these works as tongue-in-cheek, piss-takes of the New Zealand bible belt. But that is selling them short

‘The results are intimate and feel almost like notes found in discarded books.’ Photo: The artist and Michael Lett

By beginning his career in Taranaki Stevenson is looking for an unmediated, and to use a more modern term, a spin free take on the effects and the evidence of imported idealogies on our remote culture. Naturally, these relics of Empire or faded Americana are never an easy fit. In Stevenson’s case the imports are the Scout movement, Pentecostal Christianity, the Rotary movement, trucker chic and other signifiers of the American midwest. It can be pretty maudlin at times, but these are the vital first steps of an artist who has subsequently gone onto to create a body of work that is one of the most singular, not just for a New Zealand artist, but indeed by any artist on the international scene in the 21st century.

Both Hunter and Stevenson are artists whose presence in New Zealand consists of these early fragments. Their links to New Zealand today are tenuous. As time passes they run the risk of being forgotten by anyone other than art geeks and other artists. Finding a context for them within the local discussion is becoming more difficult. Without doubt however, their impact on the world stage is cause for celebration and this makes them both aspirational and Inspirational figures for future generations of New Zealand artists.

* Alexis Hunter/Estate until 11 November at Trish Clark Gallery, 1 Bowen Avenue, Auckland

* Michael Stevenson, Inside the Keepout Shed until November 4 at Michael Lett, 312B Karangahape Road, Auckland

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