Here Comes the Sun: on Mark Alsweiler

Eyecontact, 12 Decemeber


But is it art? I’m not sure I care. Precinct 35 is a design store with a nifty little gallery out the back. And The Sun Department is the most exceptional exhibition I’ve seen there yet. Mark Alsweiler’s paintings and sculptures may be neither art or design but make great décor none-the-less. And where’s the crime in that?

The Sun Department is open: presumably for business. Alsweiler presents a series of handmade figurative sculptures, three large paintings on wood panel and some process drawings. One of the paintings, Positive Paths, is hung behind the till in the shop. Good idea. The people in Positive Paths look like they might be shopping, except for the guy pushing a wheelbarrow, although I guess he could have been to Bunnings.

Superficially simple, but not quite simply superficial, Alsweiler’s acrylics show people just pottering around. And isn’t that what most of us do? Examine the pot plants in Positive Paths; each looks like it could be botanically correct. The three staggered figures in this composition add dynamism by going their own way. The woman beneath the sun umbrella is cut off below the waist by the picture plane. There’s boldness in that move. And her umbrella is a neat echo of her ballooning skirt, her ponytail fastened just so in the middle. Meanwhile, a man in brown struts across the picture plane as though he is really strolling down the street. I believe Mark Alsweiler knows where he is going. And it’s not nowhere fast.

The Sun Department is a refreshing break from the dregs of zombie formalism that pervades most local painting: sure, a lot of it’s okay, but is okay ever enough? Alsweiler depicts the humdrum, but is more than so-so. I like his work partly because I often wonder where all the figurative painters have gone? Some are at Suite on Cuba Street and a few seem to be down South. But the lion’s share of new figurative painting in Wellington is exhibited at Thistle Hall, a community run gallery that has less than zero cultural cache. So, it’s good to catch a break in the weather.

This show isn’t politicised—it doesn’t wear its now-ness on its sleeve—but it’s not the escapism that gets me, it’s the perfectly weighted humanity. Sure, Alsweiler is a little fey and the process drawings, Man with HatBrown Hair Lady and Red Pants, lovely as they are, obviously don’t rise above the knowing charm of boutique greeting cards. But so what? The Sun Department is for people who like Wes Andersen films. Alsweiler’s balanced compositions and his colour palette—those fawn browns, that toiletry pink!—uplift his vision of the little people doing little things.

An Otago Graduate who majored in Design, Alsweiler’s influences are folk art and DIY culture. As problematic as folk art can be for romanticising an idea of naivety (the artist’s and our own) it will always have an audience precisely because it shows the little people doing little things. The indeterminate courtyard settings in Alsweiler’s paintings—neither indoors or outdoors—seem vaguely European. The sun’s stealth is evoked through an unmellow acrylic yellow. A De Chirico sense of stillness pervades his compositions (okay, I might be pushing the wheelbarrow out now.)

On one wall is a trio of sculptures titled The Sun Department. A rudimentary wooden flower beams a smile, as it sits between a pink geometric tower and a blocky woman in a brown twin set. The inanity of that little lion face painted on the flower and turned towards the light. Is happiness naïve?

Alsweiler’s handmade wooden sculptures are formally lumpen and crude but also solid like a trusty table leg or a skittle; each is painted to approximate a human being. Their prim little faces look a little Jeffrey Harris to me. But it’s the misfit of the paintjob over the pine that’s finally satisfying. And the idea that each could be knocked down by a bowling ball or life.

Sun, sun, sun…here it comes.