A response to T J McNamara's review of Matt Henry's Vernacular Painting

A response to T J McNamara's review of Matt Henry's Vernacular Painting

On Saturday T J McNamara reviewed Matt Henry's Vernacular Painting exhibition in his weekly column in the Auckland Herald's Arts Section. It's a short piece that serves no useful purpose other than allowing him to say in a few willfully dismissive lines that he didn't think much of the show. But it begs the question: what purpose does this sort of content-impoverished writing serve for the Herald's readers? None as far as we can see, but then we believe the job of the arts commentator is to add to the constellation of ideas that circulate around contemporary art.
McNamara's approach on this occasion – in and out in 136 words and parting with a low blow – stands in marked contrast to approaches taken by other arts commentators over the weekend with programmes aired on New Zealand's National Radio.
On Composer of the Week Matthew Crawford talked to pioneering intermedia artist Phil Dadson about his life and work and Kim Hill talked to Dane Mitchell on her Saturday Morning programme about his current work and Radiant Matter, a three-part exhibition being staged at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, followed by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery and finally at Auckland's Artspace.
Crawford and Hill opened up conversations with the artists that were informative and illuminating, offering fresh insights into their practices and current projects. When faced with an artist's work that was “challenging”, Hill weighed in with questions aimed at demystifying it for her listeners.
Rather than simply saying we don't care for T J McNamara's review of Matt Henry's exhibition, we have decided to re-present it alongside the sort of content-rich commentary we look for: Michael Wilson's review of Matt Henry's first exhibition at Starkwhite, showing how much you can say in two well-written paragraphs, and the conversations with Dadson and Mitchell aired on National Radio over the weekend, which can be accessed at Composer of the Week and Saturday Morning with Kim Hill.

Here is what T J McNamara had to say about Matt Henry's Vernacular Painting exhibition, followed by Michael Wilson's earlier review.

T J McNamara, New Zealand Herald Arts
At Starkwhite, an exhibition by Matt Henry contains one ordinary truth: position changes paintings. In the brilliant white of the upstairs rooms he has a plain painting set near the floor. It looks like a red radiator. Another room has a partition wall that is a doubled-sided painting. Elsewhere paintings masquerade as television sets. Art is made ordinary.
There is one special experience. A stepladder allows you to climb out on to the verandah roof, walk a few steps and climb through the other window where a little white painting might be a light fitting of some sort. [Correction: the “little white painting” is in the space T J McNamara left, not the one he arrived at.]
The trip along the verandah is the real experience of the show, which is called Vernacular Painting. From the roof last week you could see painters doing their own version of a vernacular painting on the building opposite.

Michael Wilson, / critics' picks
Making elegant use of two adjacent mirror-image rooms, Matt Henry's Doppelgänger presents a tidy cluster of new paintings and objects that riff on the visual similarity of contemporary high-tech product design and Judd-era sculptural Minimalism. In his first solo exhibition at the K Road gallery staple, the native New Zealander blurs function into form, abstracting home-cinema gear to produce a set of mute postmodern totems with the hermetic gleam of John McCracken slabs. Placing three small MDF and Formica-veneer boxes on the floor of one room and a larger black block in the other, the young artist completes this kowingly spare installation with a pair of monochrome canvases, one nearly black and tinted with zinc white, the other a high-key electric green, glazed and framed in dark wood.
In his 2007 outing at the Fishbowl in New Plymouth, Henry exploited that gallery's architectural peculiarity (originally a garage, it was converted into a sealed storefront via the addition of a street-facing glass wall) to amplify his project's blend of bold geometry with wry domestic references. At Starkwhite he exercises a similar strategy, responding to the interior's polished serenity with a tongue-in-cheek homage to the culture of high-def surround sound. Doppelgänger sees the artist poke subtle fun at consumerist status anxiety by aligning high-street commodities with more rarified goods. He also contributes a minor but engaging – and seamlessly realised – subset to the history of aesthetic cross-pollination between the formal and the functional, further teasing us with the fact that we can't always tell one from the other.
Image: Matt Henry, Vernacular Painting installation view. In the foreground Untitled (Titanium White) 2011, acrylic and lacquer on linen and masonite, 210 x 210 x 45 mm; in the background 2050 x 843 (Signal Yellow) 2011, acrylic and lacquer on linen installed in doorframe, 2050 x 843 mm