The Vanity Case exhibition at the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery brings together a diverse range of work by Wellington artists and designers including sculpture, photography, painting, video, illustration and jewellery. The works in Vanity Case explore beauty, identity, fear, death, desire, love and loss. In the seventeenth century, in particular, artists painted "vanitas" still life scenes with objects such as fruit, flowers, mirrors, skulls and timepieces. Heavy with symbolism, these paintings commented on the transience of human existence. Incorporating some of the key symbols used in vanitas paintings, Vanity Case presents a contemporary take on the tradition of vanitas. As well as engaging with the fleeting nature of human existence, these works engage with contemporary issues and the modern world.
As you enter Vanity Case, two vignette portraits by photographer Louise Clifton invoke the tradition of fashion photography and the way in which models engage the viewer usually for a very specific purpose: to promote and sell a particular product. With these two works, Clifton has captured our attention, but her reasons for doing so are left ambiguous: the two models appear to be laughing at the viewer as they stare out at us. It is a bizarre double take when you realise that their eyes are, in fact, closed and that the models have fake eyes painted onto their eyelids.
This also applies to Kate Wyatt's touching, yet at the same time, alarming wax sculpture of a young girl. Vulnerably posed with a small pink singlet and hands protectively covering her private parts, she is shy and exposed. Even more disturbing is the ceramic land mine placed where her head should be. Wyatt says this work is about a loss of innocence and the impossibility of ever turning back the clock.
Projected onto a wall in the Michael Hirschfeld Gallery's side room, Sarah Jane Parton's Maybe She Is is a self-portrait video-work where the artist acts out a scene in a constructed bedroom set. Parton appears to be at first oblivious and, later, very clearly aware of being filmed. Contrived and nostalgic with its thick white fog frame, this video explores the construction and fantasy of femininity and beauty as explored by a teenager.
Kate Wyatt's other work in Vanity Case is a modified bedroom vanity. Titled Pink Vanity, its surface is inlaid with make-up: blusher, eye shadow, foundation, lipstick and nail varnish. Over time, however, the make-up has aged and cracked and moths have found their way under the temporary Perspex cover and become trapped in a powdery grave. The tension between beauty and a darker, more sinister element is prevalent throughout Wyatt's work. She describes her work as 'a reflection of my thoughts, emotions and experiences' and says that while the 'face' of her work is pretty, there are unsettling elements in the detail.
Steph Lusted's Creme de la creme collection is a selection of her favourite pieces from the past few years. With their preserved butterflies, moths, bees and cicadas in finely crafted resin and silver casings, the works are almost like shrine pieces, embalmed pagan icons. Interspersed with these insects are resin pieces in the shape of crossbones and small butterflies. Crossbones 'representing death or danger' are juxtaposed with butterflies - a well-known symbol of femininity.
Crossbones appear again in Martin F. Emond's t-shirt designs for Auckland-based Illicit Clothing. Emond, who died in March this year, was a well-known illustrator in Wellington. He came to widespread attention for his work on the illustrated novel White Trash and comic work for Heavy Metal and Verotik magazines. His other t-shirt designs in Vanity Case explore an amorphous and androgynous identity. Coyboygirl is a seductive combination of genders and, in contrast to the other works in the exhibition, extends representations of the body into the territory of cyborg and cartoons.
Arlo Edwards' work is a reaction to images drawn from contemporary popular culture including magazines, film banners, and advertisements. Using found objects as the base for his work, he sketches, paints, and stencils images and text. Edwards' work Hoodies directly addresses representations of the body, specifically the female body, in fashion advertising. The backing of the work was originally a Glassons banner that the artist defaced and ornamented: the female model becoming a slave to his artistic vision and fantasy.
Alongside Edwards' work is a new work by Mephisto Jones, well-known in Wellington for his painting, stencil and illustration works around the city. Jones cites his artistic influences as wide and varied including South Island bogan/ skateboard culture, Afro-American music, graffiti, tattoo and ancient hieroglyphics. Jones has created a new work for Vanity Case bringing his street art into the gallery. In creating work that is destined to be destroyed, Jones offers his vision as a temporary marker of a current moment - a calling card: I was here, remember me.
Trevor Byron navigates the territory between the female artists' take on the human body and the street aesthetic of Edwards, Emond and Jones. His carefully crafted brooches, rings and cuff-links allude to the human and animal body in a more suggestive and visceral way. It is hard not to be drawn to closely examine the tufts of hair protruding from the rings and not, on some level, be slightly repulsed. We have been programmed to simultaneously be repulsed by hair and to covet it as a desirable attribute, and as a memory token to recall a lost loved one.
Louise Clifton's photograph Pantyhose is ridiculously bizarre and intriguing. Clifton says that she is interested in the shared attributes of 'the attractive and the repulsive, the decadent and the obsessive'. Her photograph of a disembodied prosthetic lower leg and foot dressed in pantyhose. It recalls department store hosiery displays, as well as stories of people with foot fetishes who steal women's socks and stockings for perverse pleasure.
In Amelia Hanscomb's lightbox work Revue des fleurs, we encounter more disembodied legs, this time kicking out from blood-red lilies and wearing matching coloured platform stilettos. This work is overt and deliberately excessive in its suggestion of femininity drawing the viewer in to examine it more closely and make sense of the combination of legs, shoes and flowers. The work may also be an ironic comment on the work of established New Zealand photographer Anne Noble who once titled a photograph of lilies as Naughty boys.
Each of the artists and designers in Vanity Case has their own idiosyncratic style and motivation for making their work - work that is, at times, challenging, disturbing, beautiful and deeply personal. Vanity Case is an exhibition rich in symbolism, but also a very personal response to contemporary society.
Principal Events Sponsor: Montana Wines Ltd
Hirschfeld Gallery Curator
City Gallery Wellington is managed by the Wellington Museums Trust with major funding support from the Wellington City Council.
386 x 386
Courtesy of the artist