Monday, May 24, 2010


Andrea Gardner's photographs in The Good Earth
Rayner Brothers Gallery, Whanganui, 21 May-26 June 2010
images on website:

The first question asked about someone in a tribal culture is Do they belong here? New Zealand may regard itself as a First World country, may have grown in self-confidence hugely over the past forty years, and congratulates itself on being innovative and hospitable, but at many levels it maintains an anxious tribalism predicated on knowing who's who and where they fit. Nowhere perhaps is this more evident than within the art tribe. Intensely hierarchical, a tendency to the authoritarian, with the players all jealous of their relative position, it's not very welcoming to foreigners no matter how interesting their work or even if it has the capacity to illuminate the practice of the natives. Belonging's primary, the tribe has spoken.

Andrea Gardner is a native of northern California, a trained, professional "mid-career" artist who has lived in New Zealand for about fifteen years working as a teacher. Unconstrained by the borders of conventional mediums, she has made art out of myriad materials, a roving magpie just - safely - this side of the "outsider" artist combing the dump. This enterprise only increases suspicion that she might be a bit flaky and not a serious artist. Too hard to brand you see.

She's found a niche, though, and over the past several years has had work included in respectable group shows and has exhibited with respected dealers. Perhaps best-known for her small, brown, wall-based ceramic figures that combine cute animals and birds with a morphing into states that would set Freud thinking if not worrying, she has been concentrating on the photographic image for the past two or so years. In the 1970s artists used to talk solemnly about "making drawings", well, Gardner doesn't take photographs, she makes them.

The kid in her retains a strong affection for animals, and images of these feature frequently in her work, as well as a liking for strong colours and richly-patterned fabrics which address the magpie in her. She's a bit of a bower-bird too, her sometimes elaborate constructions courting us by their elaborate juxtapositions, compressed scale and intriguing suggestion. Current trends in international photography favour banal subjects and flat-toned colour, reinforcing a conceptual austerity that is as de rigueur for "serious" photography as black and white was thirty years ago.

Gardner's practice is exactly at right angles to this, and for unreconstructable Modernists the images likely to appear florid and easily dismissible. But, ironically, there's an undercurrent of austerity threading through her work too that might suggest a second look - that's only if her not being "one of us" can temporarily be put aside. Her operatic productions are riven with an almost Calvinistic good-and-evil concern for the state of the planet. OK, before the knowing art-world yawns start here, consider that her work might suggest, among other things, that a cause of the looming predicament could be an idealisation of nature that art has done much to foster over the past three hundred years. In short, Gardner's fakes have a point way beyond current art-world cleverness. She's reconnecting the medium to a reality we'd better believe in.

A favourite device of Gardner's has been to use as "background" details from slightly yellowed 1950s and '60s prints rescued from junk shops, ranging from the likes of Constable to the flower-power people's take on Caspar David Friedrich. Her animals tend to be reproductions too - ornaments from $2 shops et al - or the taxidermied nature morte representations of themselves. It's been fashionable - and timely - for a while in photography to undercut belief in its assumed connection with reality, but Gardner goes the whole hog in constructing her credible alternative worlds consisting entirely of representations. No subtle references hinting around the margins for her.

The images are alluring in the way that insect-eating plants are alluring - all those bright colours, attractive objects and intriguing scenarios drawing the unsuspecting viewer into a space that's as one-way as a possum trap if you're up for thinking through the implications of what she's doing. What these dense undergrowths of visual layering reveal are confronting issues about sustainability: our treatment of the environment, of animals, and, indeed, even our cultural practice. The urgency of these questions and the vividness of her work should elbow aside any questions about belonging. Gardner is a citizen of the world, and her work welcomes us aboard.

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