Over the next four days (see www.artfair.co.nz for all ticketing and event details) 40 galleries from Aotearoa, Australia, Korea and Indonesia will vie for the attention of over 10 000 visitors. Based on recent iterations of the fair they will spend about $10 million – a cash injection that artists and the contemporary art industry, still in post-Covid (we hope) recovery mode – desperately needs.

‘He Toi Whakairo, He Mana Tangata’ – where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity, is one of my favourite whakataukī by the late, great Dr Piri Sciascia (1946-2020), a leader in numerous fields of artistic and academic endeavour, not the least of which was Kapa Haka. His words were ringing in my ears, in between storm bulletins, during the four-day celebration that was Te Matatini last week.

Robert Jahnke, Te Tomokanga o te ua (2019), installation view. Photo: Courtesy of the Aotearoa Art Fair

It’s a thought I’ll hold in mind as I enter the Art Fair via Robert Jahnke’s imperious lamentation of brilliant fluorescent light – his entrance sculpture Te Tomokanga o te ua is emblazoned with the poem by Hone Tuwhare Making holes in the silence. Jahnke’s creation-narrative, light-based works were a potent feature of the Te Kore section of Toi Tū Toi Ora – and whilst the Art Fair curators could not have guessed at the prescience of the selection of Jahnke’s Te Tomokanga to welcome visitors, can I urge you to pause for a moment at this point, before you dive into the mosh pit.

Hamish Coney: Toi Tū Toi Ora – How may we learn?
Hamish Coney: The Pivotal Figures’ Pivotal Figure
* Hamish Coney: Walking the line with Colin McCahon

In Jahnke’s hands we have a dynamic, contemporary evocation to one of the most distinctive of Māori tukutuku patterns, roimata toroa (Albatross tears). Rain, as lament, for the environment … it’s hard to think of a more resonant theme to reflect on at this time.

And then onto the fair itself. I’ve compiled my personal dance card below, just a few of the stands I plan to 100 percent not miss.

Jade Townsend at Season

Season is one of a new vanguard of galleries moving back into Auckland’s CBD. Since opening in February 2022, Season has offered a new template for the presentation of contemporary art within the context of the retail behemoth that is Commercial Bay in Downtown Auckland. At the fair, Season will be presenting works by gallery co-founder Jade Townsend, Robyn Kahukiwa and ceramics by Maia McDonald.

In just a year, Townsend and co-director Francis McWhannell have presented one of the most directional curatorial programmes of any gallery in Aotearoa, deftly bringing senior figures such as Kahukiwa and Emily Karaka, alongside younger artists such as Ngahuia Harrison and Nikau Hindin, making elegant and unforced connections in the process.

Case in point, during the fair Season will also be presenting a solo show by Ming Ranginui, whose work was so memorable in the mid-2022 exhibition at the City Gallery Wellington, entitled Matarau.

I’ll be making a beeline to see Townsend’s new body of canvases on the Season stand for the simple reason I’ve not seen many in the flesh and they look incredible on the screen of the rorohiko. Works such as Sister, sister (2022-23) appear to refigure, or smudge, the visual, but also the conceptual boundaries between abstraction and representational modes that can be so entrenched in our readings of painting. And she accomplishes this with a divine palette, and to this eye, an ‘old soul’ sense of kinship to many previous practitioners and customary belief structures.

Jade Townsend and Francis McWhannell with Townsend’s recent work ‘Sister sister’ (2023). Photo: Courtesy of Season gallery

Anoushka Akel at Michael Lett

In contrast to the relatively ‘unseen’ nature of my relationship to the painting of Jade Townsend, and my equivalent eagerness to engage, I am just as keen to renew my acquaintance with a new body of work by Anoushka Akel that is being presented by Michael Lett. I’m a fan. And this means a detour to Lett’s stand is near the top of my dance card. What draws me to her work is the idea of painting as an archaeological dig. In Akel’s hands the canvas becomes not just a substrate for the application of pigment but an activated collaborator in the process. Akel talks of ‘fronts and backs’ of works – the unseen and excavated portions of her works give them a spectral element that alludes to the passage of time, the eternal or perhaps a more earthbound interpretation of painting as work in progress.

 Anoushka Akel, ‘Hiss’ (J. A.) 2022, oil, clay, oil and chalk pastel, wax pencil on canvas. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett, Auckland

Nigel Borell at Vunilagi Vou

Reconnection will be the theme of my visit to the Vunilagi Vou stand, to both the gallery and to the mahi toi of Nigel Borell, one of seven artists the gallery will be presenting at the fair. Vunilagi Vou is a self-described ‘shapeshifting gallery, community and consultancy’ based in south Auckland. Last time I visited the gallery it was located in Ōtāhuhu, and if I recall correctly, at that time there was a show of work by Lissy Robinson-Cole and Rudi Robinson whose dayglo, crocheted Wharenui Harikoa is touring Aotearoa at present. Then, in early 2020, Covid struck and I lost the thread a little. Vunilagi Vou, after a brief stint in Ōtara, has relocated to East Tāmaki. However Aotearoa Art Fair 2023 will be an opportunity for me (and you) to reconnect with the adventurous curatorial spirit of gallery director Ema Tavola.

Nigel Borell (Ngāti Rangunui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Te Whakatōhea, Te Rarawa, Ngāti Apakura) will be familiar to many as the curator of the exhibition Toi Tū Toi Ora at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 2020/21. For a refresher on ‘the blockbuster for these times’ see my exhibition review from May 2021.

Borell bought an artist’s sensibility to Toi Tū and here on the Vunilagi Vou stand I’m looking forward to seeing his latest mahi toi in the flesh. Borell was awarded MNZM in 2022 for his services to Māori art. The year before he received the inaugural Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi, He Momo – A Moment in Time Award in 2021. But amidst all of these achievements he has also been a practising artist for more than two decades, beginning his training creating kōwhaiwhai for meeting house projects under the tohunga whakairo Pākariki Harrison in the late 1990s. For his Vunilagi Vou presentation, Borell has created a fresh suite of lyrical ‘cloud’-based works on paper.

Nigel Borell, ‘Talking to the Moon’ (2023). Photo: Courtesy the artist and Vunilagi Vou

Eliza Hutchison at  Haydens

A visit to Haydens from Naarm Melbourne is high on my Aotearoa Art Fair 2023 bucket list. My last trip anywhere outside Aotearoa was a quick jaunt across the ditch in November 2019. Haydens was on my visit list then, but for a reason I can’t fathom I missed the chance – thinking … I’d be back soon. Nek Minnit. So, three and a half years later I can’t wait to make good on that intention.

Haydens will be bringing an installation of works by Victorian-based artist Eliza Hutchison who occupies a not dissimilar space as Berlin-based New Zealand artist Simon Denny. It’s a dystopian space on a bad day where tech ephemera in the form of fleeting images, texts and the bits and bobs of the cyberspace blizzard are plucked, seemingly at random, to coagulate as solids in the contemporary art space. The artist describes it as “generative visual biography” meaning both personal and emblematic –  a bit like digital daydreaming. Hutchison’s frieze-like images have an insinuating quality akin to the marginalia found in a library book. A little illicit, a little baffling, but useful nonetheless as a user’s guide to the matrix.

Nell and Paul Yore at Station

Station is a trans-Tasman powerhouse gallery, based in Naarm Melbourne and Gadigal Sydney. I’m using the Covid excuse for not visiting either gallery. They and all the Australian-based galleries are to be thanked and visited at the Art Fair for making the journey across the ditch this time around. I’ve always been fascinated by Station’s program, which includes a number of New Zealand artists including Jake Walker, Seraphine Pick, Ronnie van Hout, Patrick Lundberg and Zac Langdon-Pole. For the 2023 Aotearoa Art Fair they are bringing two big names from the Australian Art Scene. Nell’s multi-discipline practice has been deployed for two decades now and I’m very keen to reconnect with her current work after seeing some of her earliest exhibitions whilst living in Sydney in the early 2000s. A particular genre of Australian art that is less common in Aotearoa is the collision of high and low art symbolism: boofheads and eggheads getting down on the contemporary art dance floor. In Nell’s hands this has always been a heady, life-affirming ride of the ‘free your mind and your arse will follow’ variety.

Paul Yore has emerged in recent years as the king and queen of a current art world ‘thing’ – the embroidered banner. Fabrics are the new ceramics in the art world du jour. Yore’s shouty, kitsch loaded banners are a mixtape-mashup of medium and message. Think political critique with actual balls – anarchic, decadent and decorative with a mardi-gras aesthetic and you still won’t be prepared for sensory overload that awaits. You’ve been warned.

Paul Yore and Nell preparing to rock your world. Image: Courtesy Station

John Reynolds at Starkwhite

A Reynolds installation is always an event. His response to Colin McCahon’s Lost Hours in Sydney has lingered long in my art memory. That means I’ll be making tracks to see Reynolds’ multi-part installation and accompanying limited edition book of his recent work APOCALYPSEoCLOCK. Both will be launched on the Starkwhite stand with the gallery’s trademark chutzpah.

Reynolds is an artist who frequently veers into the fertile space between the visual, the written, and challenges and tensions between the two. His style is discursive, knowing and involving. His are paintings you want to have a chat with, bursting as they are with ideas, arguments … even the odd gag. But at the heart of his practice since the 1980s is the centrality of the dance between your brain/ideas/emotions, and his. A Reynolds canvas draws you into an activated, energised space; in short, a relationship – one I’m planning to renew this week.

APOCALYPSEoCLOCK continues the artist’s fascination with publishing and art books, taking the form of a limited edition 50-print book which can be dismembered and arranged to suit, think creative re-construction. The trick here is to buy two, one to install and one to ‘read’.

John Reynolds, ‘APOCALYPSEoCLOCK’. Image: Courtesy the artist and Starkwhite

*The Aotearoa Art Fair at the Cloud on Queens Wharf from Thursday March 2 until Sunday March is 5, 2pm – 5pm Thursday, 11am – 6pm Friday & Saturday, 10am – 5pm Sunday. For ticketing information and onsite event details see www.artfair.co.nz

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