Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fox in socks

Grant Wood's American Gothic necktie: a step too far.

Call me tasteless if you will -- I assure you that you wouldn't be the first -- but when I saw the Frida Kahlo socks posted by Best of 3 the other day, I immediately thought it might be fun to own a pair. (Why don't New Zealand's gallery shops bring this sort of thing in? Or get New Zealand versions made -- koru stripes or Grocer with Moko anyone? Asked and answered, perhaps.) As chance would have it, I happened at the time to be wearing my much-loved but now ageing Mona Lisa picture socks, likewise bought at the MoMA store, which some people might also think were in dubious taste.

Since I tend to wear boots in these chilly southern climes, until now my private predeliction for kitsch socks has gone largely unremarked and unchallenged. (Attendance at preschool gym or music classes, with the requirement to remove shoes, has presented some minor aesthetic difficulties, but quite frankly looking around the room at the other harrassed mothers one's lucky even to find another pair that matches -- and I doubt that anyone's consciously channelling Edmund Capon.)

Of course, I have some standards -- controversial SMH art critic and erstwhile National Gallery of Australia curator John McDonald's range of art ties was a very, very long step too far -- but now and again, I'm partial to a bit of art merch. The odd Mondrian tea towel, say. A Louise Bourgeois T shirt, or perhaps one featuring a work by Ronnie van Hout. A Rokeby Venus washbag (actually probably not). A Tony de Lautour mousepad. There's an interesting taste hierarchy of this stuff -- Pierre Bourdieu would have a field day -- whereby T shirts by contemporary artists are highly desirable, and tea towels or tote bags emblazoned with historical or contemporary works might be amusingly kitsch, but silk scarves, umbrellas, earrings and placemats are completely beyond the pale.

Still on the subject of gallery gift-shops, a prominent sidebar under the masthead of yesterday's Press directs readers to "Rita Angus: Salute from Te Papa", a lengthy article in a later section. But when you get there, what's delivered is more in the line of a Bronx cheer.

In a peevish review, Warren Feeney (director of COCA -- the Centre for Contemporary Art, the old CSA -- in Christchurch) was particularly off-put by the Rita-related merch available for purchase from Te Papa's shop, on the occasion of its current "Rita Angus: Life and Vision" exhibition. Feeney wrote:
"In addition to her paintings, the accompanying merchandise also introduces her as a maker of images that have helped create and define our national identity. Visitors can buy art cards, postcards, bookmarks, T-shirts, badges, posters, a DVD, a biography and prints of selected works. Curated on the premise that her paintings were a breakthrough in their depiction of New Zealand's landscape [Feeney argues the opposite: the Lovell-Smiths did it first, he says], the commercial packaging perfectly complements the veneration accorded to her in the exhibition catalogue."
How dreadful, etc. Shocking, and what not. Bookmarks? It's an outrage.

Back in the day, whatever carping or criticisms went on behind the scenes there was an unspoken agreement that people from one art institution didn't publicly review exhibitions put together by people in another. This was variously known as professional courtesy, or otherwise collegiality. The idea was that you were all in it together. Hah! Tell that to the Marines.

Getting all hot under the collar about Angus's illustrations for the Press Junior not being included in the show (the reality was Angus herself hated them and wrote to friends that she was compelled to produce commercial art to support herself after her marriage broke up), and endlessly critiquing the marketing of the exhibition as a landmark event featuring new insights into Angus's practice, Feeney (rhymes with "meanie") has missed the real point: this is the kind of useful show which Te Papa should be pumping out every year, and touring round the provinces. "Rita Angus: Life and Vision" shouldn't be in any way remarkable: rather than a tenth birthday present to the nation it should be business as usual, Te Papa's bread and butter, something which to his great credit Director of Art at Te Papa Jonathan Mane-Wheoki stated firmly at the opening function. Let's have more like this, please.

Rita Angus, A Goddess of Mercy, 1946-7, Collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery

But meanwhile, what about a nice pair of Goddess of Mercy socks...

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