the crystal chain gang

prismatic geometry in recent art
Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki, Auckland

The phrase 'prismatic geometry', read personally, conjures up memories of primary school-cardboard, glue, failed dodecahedrons and copper sulphate solution corrosion on someone else's pocketknife. And giving myself headaches from looking through boggle-eye lenses. (The word 'refract' kind of ruined rainbows for this reviewer for a while.) Most of us gave up on the old arts and crafts projects, but there were those that persevered. And thirteen of these determined turned-artist individuals have been gathered together by Allan Smith in the Auckland Art Gallery exhibition The Crystal Chain Gang.

One thing I have always admired Smith for, as a curator, is his unconventional grouping style when he comes to meeting the group show brief. Where others tend to enact fashionable round-up-the-usual-suspects showings, Smith usually digs a little deeper. And this one is no exception. However, I raised the word 'brief because I do not believe that any curator actually likes putting together group shows. There is something wrong with them that I find it hard to put my finger upon. lt is like visiting penguins at Kelly Tarlton 's. They look happy in the aquarium; they have a realistic environment and it is all kind and sincere, but it is just not right.

What was it that Paul Valery (1871-1945) said about museum groupings in his spleeny classic The problem of museums? 'At the first step I take towards things of beauty, a hand relieves me of my stick and a notice forbids me to smoke ... Dreariness, boredom, admiration, the fine weather I left outside, my pricks of conscience, and a dreadful sense of how many great artists there are, all walk along with me. A fearful frankness begins to grow on me I feel it is all so wearisome, so barbarous, so inhuman- and so devoid of purity. lt is an absurdity to put together these independents but mutually exclusive marvels, which are most inimical to each other when they are most alike .. . '. To cut a long story short, his theory was that works of art by different artists shown together kill each other. Only an irrational civilisation would devise such a domain of incoherence whereby one's ears are asked to tolerate the sound of ten orchestras all at once, and so on ....

I, for one, however, do not go along with his insistence upon rationality. This is the New Age after all. And in this show's favour, and despite the group show problem, finally, here is an art museum show that is unafraid to be irrational (I mean who in their right mind would try to tackle 'the crystal' off paper?) and that tips its hat to the idea that life is stranger than it seems. And it certainly is. For example, as I sat down to review this exhibition, I had a faint sense of nostalgia for some reason . Shortly after, I pressed play on the VCR, the writer's PAL, to watch a video I had just been loaned called Liquid Sky. lt reminded me what an unnatural time the '80s were. Chemical colours, hi-tee, synthetic synthesised everything, aliens: nostalgia explained! 'Crystal' reminded me of my teenscobalt blue, perspex, brass and glass, chemicals, something unearthly, macro-micro, the inorganic. And of course, what is the crystal the international sign for? Inorganic seduction!

Indeed, and back to the work in the show, the crystal is indeed a multi-faceted crystal phenomenon, to quote the curator. One could read the plethora of crystalline forms in art as picturing an unstoppable un-dead disease (that is what I saw in Richard Reddaway's mirror-mad box-constructions gone awry), or as something pure, simple and not fabricated. The truth, even. (And perhaps, given these confusing times, that is the scary thing about crystals. Other people find them daunting too, right?) Or, one might go with the standard reading of the crystal as symbol for the self.

Incidentally, there is a Ruth Watson work in this exhibition called The Glass Bead Game after the Herman Hesse book of the same name, and it was a passage I read in Hesse's Demian that introduced me to the crystal = self idea: 'I stood and concentrated every effort until! Grew cold from my fingers and feet inwards. I felt the strength ebbing out of me. For a few moments something inside of me seemed to contract- something bright and cold; for a second it was as though I had a crystal of glass in my heart, and I knew that it was myself.. .'. And it is interesting that the image of the house, which is in dream theory recognised as a stand-in for the self, features as a motif in the black plastic casting work of Anthony Sumich in this exhibition. And that the title of the show is taken in part from a utopian group of German Expressionist architects who called themselves The Crystal Chain-and of course that they all designed houses by definition.

Jim Speers's work in The Crystal Chain Gang also speaks to me about the link between crystal and architecture as self-symbol. lt is a remake of mid-'90s work-a painted-on-the-wall blow-up of a textbook crystal diagram. At about the same time, Speers was making these odd minimal sculptures which for all the world looked like models for utopian architectural schemes. I remember watching the newspaper reviewer coming up to try to get information from Speers to 'crack it' but the artist was unrelenting and said after the young man left that it was the third time he had been in. Crystals have the same way-aheadof- words-quality it seems. (As evidenced by Gavin Hipkins's mute photos arranged in an equally mute pictogram formation of golden professional maths models.)

The crystal is certainly a pregnant ... shall we say, archetype? In it we have the substance of anxiety, of amphetamine, of sometimes-soluble often not clear purity, the sublime, the incomprehensible, the distillation of essences, of modernity, the non-site .... According to Smith, Kandinsky also talked in utopian terms of the way feelings and historical moments are crystallised on their way to becoming part of the coming Epoch of the Great Spiritual. And Jung went so far as to suggest in his Four Archetypes that the very form of the archetype 'might perhaps be compared to the axial system of a crystal, which, as it were, performs the crystalline structure in the mother liquid, although it has no material existence of its own .. .'.-

Valery went on to say that the finer a work of art is, the more likely it is to kill the works around it in the museum. And this was certainly the case in my mind with the cruelly lovely works of Louise Weaver in the show: Rainbow Lorikeet (grafting) and Rose Quartz (pink stone).Here this show-stealing artist had taken a perfectly ordinary branched stick-antler, a stuffed bird and a rock and sheathed them in pink knitting and (for the bird) sparkly embellishments such as the Indian mirror sequin. lt had a pom pom on its head. The only thing showing of the bird itself was its little feet, face and silver-foiled beak; and as for the rock, I think she had used moss stitch, which made it all too, too, perfect. Even the artist's surname spun images of weaver-birds, and the general effect was one of a New Age abundance therapy/ritual- and of relegating much of the work in the show to the 1-want-more Modernisticky bench.

notes: 

Artists included in The Crystal Chain Gang were Stephen Bram, Melinda Harper, Anne-Marie May, Kerrie Poliness, Regina Waiter. Louise Weaver (Australia); Gavin Hipl<ins, Gregor Kregar. Simon Monis, Richard Reddaway, Jim Speers, Anthony Sumich, Ruth Watson (New Zealand)