Mark Amery celebrates the visual cultural mecca of Whanganui
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Mark Amery celebrates the visual cultural mecca of Whanganui

Mark Amery celebrates the visual cultural mecca of Whanganui


Glen Hayward’s work at the Sarjeant Gallery

Welcome to the capital of the material object: Whanganui (with that oh so exciting, contentious ‘h’).

Here at the bottom of Aotearoa’s longest navigable river, with a pile of rich stories pools New Zealand’s architectural and visual cultural history. From the country’s only surviving wooden Victorian opera house and the extraordinary century-old Drury Hill public elevator, to the community-built concrete playground of Kowhai Park (the Kiwi Outsiders Disneyland) and an eye-popping series of modernist public buildings, New Zealand’s built heritage is represented here like no other place.

Thanks to the dedication of committed individuals like potter Ross Mitchell Anyon (and others mentioned) heritage buildings here house extra-ordinary collections. They provide space and inspire creatives to make more unique objects: ceramics, glass, sculpture, prints and photographs. Yes, it is from Whanganui that curator Paul McNamara reminds us that the photographic print is an object, not just a digital file to be treated with respect.

This month I was lucky enough to guide a group from Wellington and Auckland on a short tour of some of Whanganui’s cultural spaces. I say ‘some’ because what’s immediately apparent parking up on Taupo Quay these days is the profusion of galleries surrounding the Quay School of Art and Design, Sarjeant Gallery, markets and many heritage sites. For a city of less than 50,000 it’s an incredibly vibrant cultural precinct.

The latest addition is celebrated potter Rick Rudd’s wondrous Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics, just across the road from Moutoa Gardens, famed for its 1995 Maori occupation and close to where young anarchist Neil Roberts blew himself up trying to destroy the Police’s main national database in 1982.

Rudd purchased the distinctive regional award-winning 1960s office building Munford House, and last November opened the museum. Upstairs it elegantly houses a large collection of his work. Rudd’s extravagant, playful serpentine line is framed beautifully by the angular repetitive lines of the building – like quavers on a stave. The fired forms soak up the gorgeous light the building’s large windows afford.

Downstairs Rudd tracks our rich ceramic art history smartly with objects from a large cross section of NZ ceramic artists across time. There’s also an installation space in an old concrete block vault: currently housing the wild organic natural ceramic forms of Blue Black. Mini exhibitions are devoted currently to the strong work of Anneke Borren, and Rudd’s contemporary John Parker.

Back in 2006, after three decades as Director of the Sarjeant Gallery Bill Millbank was restructured out of a job by then mayor Michael Laws. Laws was dead set against plans for an extension to the gallery. One of my favourite buildings in the country, supporters of the white domed neoclassical gallery on the hill have prevailed and the extension is now going ahead, with the reopening hoped for in time for the Sarjeant’s centenary in 2019. From painter Edith Collier in the 1920s through to the present day stories of liberals coming up against conservatism have helped shape Whanganui.

Millbank has established his own gallery, across the road from Rudd in Bell Street. It is crammed to the gunnels with the work of fine New Zealand artists. Beyond the busy main gallery space it’s an eccentric Alladins Cave of fine work, with many strong threads to Whanganui and a lean towards the expressionistic. Millbank’s dedication to supporting artists is evident.

In the large back room Don Drivers are draped over stacks of works, while other multifarious smaller works by well-known (but perhaps out of vogue) artists peek out of available wall and lean-to space. The main wall space and an enormous central set of drawers however are set aside for the storage of the large loose expressionistic canvases of Christchurch’s Philip Trusttum: more than 300 paintings and 500 drawings in all. Currently on the walls are Trusttum’s giant colourful, savage yet comical figurative takes on ISIS fighters. Positive and negative space silhouettes fight it out in camouflage pattern, with giant sharpened teeth and palisades of rifles – a gorgeous, gruesome carnival.

Busy, comic, colourful, unrestrained, yet sophisticated and distinctive in  visual language – these qualities in Trusttum’s work are common to a lot of work I see in Whanganui, from Rudd through to pop ceramicists the Rayner Brothers. The Rayners’ shopfront gallery across town is another wee gem (current show as at 2 September is the marvelous Lauren Lysaught’s Olde Lumpy). Paul Rayner once worked alongside Millbank as a curator at the Sarjeant: with his brother Mark he is clearly another hellbent on keeping Whanganui a thriving handmade cultural ecology.

Its not the Whanganui way to be all spare and arch in the style of our bigger city galleries. Even new artist spaces like the excellent Space gallery (run by Quay School graduate Sarah Williams since 2012, with studio spaces upstairs open to the public) look to provide a multitude of work – reflecting that there’s a lot of smaller domestically scaled objects being made here.

Clearly fitting right in, Auckland’s Sam Mitchell and Gavin Hurley have produced an exhibition at the Sarjeant in its temporary quarters down on the Quay. Beards, Boys, Platters, Shattered Dreams is an ode to their time in Whanganui. Mitchell was artist in residence at Tylee Cottage in 2015. The Tylee residency for thirty years has played a vital part in bringing new energy every year to the city – the calibre and diversity of its recipients testament to the attraction of the city and the quality of the Sarjeant’s activities.

A range of the artists table ceramic works meditate in wonky hilarious fashion on the commemorabilia one might want from ones teenage-hood in 1986 – a cassette tape, plates celebrating the ‘Princess of the People’ and Hayley’s comet. Other works celebrate the cultural history of Whanganui – a composer bust of former resident composer Douglas Lilburn for example. On the wall nearby Hurley produces a Victoriana fabric moustache for each of the 66 days he spent at the old cottage, mounted on the back of old postcards, the messages intact. For me it paid  homage to the way this town keeps such physical ephemera of the past and its stories alive in the present. It’s as if the ever-flowing river forever keeps history fresh here.

The Sarjeant continues to provide an outstanding exhibition programme, commensurate with the gallery’s strong history. It matches in professional contemporary spirit its legacy in holding one of the most significant collections in the country. It doesnt shy from representing the finest of the local alongside the national.

Currently the main temporary gallery space is full of an eclectic array of objects. There’s work from the 8000 work strong collection, previously difficult to access due to the cramped conditions in the basement of the heritage building (the entire collection has been relocated and is being inventoried and catalogued). Then there is Gregory O’Brien’s wonderful introduction to New Zealand photography, See What I Can See, another lively crowded show that in its humour, bright colours and movement, stories and eclectic outsider visions feels right at home here.

Meanwhile across the road the Sarjeant have a slightly awkwardly presented but otherwise excellent survey of the work of Whanganui born sculptor Glen Hayward, Super ordinary. Hayward’s witty wooden readymades, cleverly transforming the ordinary with craft and stories into the extraordinary is like the story of contemporary Whanganui itself.

More cities should value their visual heritage the way this one does – with humour and respect, flair and energy, in the face of conservatism.

Mark Amery

30 August 2016