Best Art of 2016

Big Idea, Best of NZ Visual Arts, 2016


I’ve just got back from Dunedin where I gave a speech at the opening of Kushana Bush’s The Burning Hours at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. I’ve long been a fan of Bush’s highly illustrative style. Her paintings are dense with art historical allusions to Indo-Persian miniatures and medieval book of hours – that’s part of what makes her work precious. The gouaches in The Burning Hours are on a new, larger scale. Her compositions heave with crowds who worship Gods we can’t see and don’t understand. These works contain a surfeit of detail and are adorned with features in gold leaf, candles that burn, hands that clap into flames, a man on fire. These fervent paintings – like the ever-spinning globe – can’t be taken in all at once. They are demanding. Exhausting.

I first wrote about Bush earlier this year when a suite of her gouaches was exhibited alongside Grayson Perry’s epic tapestry Map of Truths and Beliefs at City Gallery Wellington. The skyline of Perry’s 2011 tapestry is littered with black planes, smoke, falling bombs. I gazed at the scrambled sites of worship woven into the cut – from Wembley to Mecca – fresh with the knowledge of the Paris attacks. That show best describes how I feel about 2016: ideologically riven.

Much of my art orbit has been limited to pram walks: Cuba Street, work, daycare and back. The things I’ve cherished have often been small. Nick Austin’s exhibition PTA newsletter at Peter McLeavey Gallery conflated the grand gestures of abstraction with the kitchen sink. His work Magnetic Poetry was a two-door painting disguised as a silver fridge-freezer. Austin is the Nicholson Baker of New Zealand art.

Meanwhile, Daniel Unverricht is the Hopper of Hastings. Of course, there can be no such thing. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is one of the great classics (and clichés) of Twentieth Century art. Unverricht paints small – I’m tempted to say matchbox – sized oils of drive-by scenes, derelict shop windows, car parks at night, alleyways and urban ghettos from the back of beyond. Is this Trump’s disenfranchised heartland? No, Unverricht is from Hastings. You stare into his black oil slicked canvases as though the passenger in a car, a drowsy child or boozy teen, night swilling, no set destination, just in it for the ride.

My favourite new artist for her sheer joie de vivre is Li-Ming Hu. Hu creates DIY videos and events that simultaneously poke fun at the power structures of the art world and buy into them. Hu dresses in dodgy cardboard masks and cavorts about to pop songs whilst trying to “make it.” She was recently a nominee for The Seagers Walters Prize – a kind of mockery of the Walters prize – her work for this occasion was a video of herself dressed as judge, Misal Adnan Yildez, the current director of Artspace dancing to the 80s song Loverboy. Hu is a perverse inheritor of both Big Brother and Julian Dashper. She didn’t win.

Art trends: plants, caring, curtains.

image: Daniel Unverricht, Heat, 2015. Oil on linen.