And I Do Care
Cameron Ah Loo-Matamua
May 07 2021
The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. —Frank O’Hara
IF THE PAGE IS AT TIMES an unruly partner to the poet, so too is the gallery to the artist. The gallery—with all of its walls and its patrons, its curators and technicians, catalogues and art histories—does as much to cradle the artist as it does to confine them. Within this dilemma Kate Newby’s work glides in like an incision, a deliberate imposition upon the temperature-controlled and neatly ordered parameters of the gallery. It is her page—cut up, bent out of shape, and twisted to her will.
Walking into the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi—the artist’s most recent page—its lofty white walls and austere architecture seem more severe than usual. A kind gallery attendant peeks out from behind a computer screen to greet me and asks if I’m familiar with Newby’s work. I think to myself they look a bit cold amidst all of this open space. The feeling is made all the more pronounced by Newby’s utter stripping back of the gallery, from the removal of blinds to the complete omission of a wall-text announcing her exhibition YES TOMORROW. It is her largest undertaking in Aotearoa to date, and it challenges the capacity of the gallery to accommodate her distinct, evolving, and at times overwhelming sculptural idiom.
NEWBY OFTEN MAKES REFERENCE to Frank O’Hara, the late New York School poet and former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, appropriating lines of his poetry as work titles when she takes a liking to portions of his meandering writings. She shares with me an old, weathered printout she made of ‘Personism: A Manifesto,’ written by O’Hara in 1959 as a letter to an unnamed friend. It’s an entertaining treatise that moves from diaristic justifications (‘It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones [later Amiri Baraka] on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond)’) to vulgar philosophising (‘As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: If you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.’) He is funny, his writing flirtatious, and I giggle when I notice Newby has underlined that latter line about pants and metaphysics.
O’Hara’s cynical sense of humour almost overshadows one of the points he was trying to make: that the poem, or art, should primarily form an experience, an unmediated communion between an author and their reader, that imagined yet real ‘someone’. Rather than write the poem into existence, why not, O’Hara says, just pick up the telephone? Who really cares about all the pomp and circumstance? What about life and living? It is an idealistic position, and one that has influenced much of Newby’s work. You can see it in her invocation of communal and folk artisanship, her uses of common materials such as clay and glass, and her attraction to the ephemeral matter that makes up our everyday lives. I think of the barrel tiles she creates with a group of eighty companions, each participant lending their thighs for the moulding of what is to become a channel-like drain on a hill five minutes’ walk from the gallery. The distance from the gallery—that problematic page—provides a reprieve from all of the preciousness and expected orderliness.
the poem, or art, should primarily form an experience, an unmediated communion between an author and their reader, that imagined yet real ‘someone’.
ANOTHER DOCUMENT NEWBY SHARES with me is a practice statement she wrote in 2007 while studying for her master's at the Elam School of Fine Arts. It features expected terms such as ‘building scenarios,’ ‘interventions,’ ‘rebuilding,’ ‘unbuilding,’ and ‘the everyday,’ along with other, less expected ones such as ‘détournement,’ ‘piracy,’ and ‘counter-monumental.’ On reading those last three, a timid hunch I had lost all its trepidation and I began to follow its lead. Critics and curators have in the past skirted the politics of Newby’s work, or at least not given it ample consideration. In 2014, in an otherwise detailed appraisal of the artist’s practice, Jennifer Kabat proclaimed ‘Newby’s questions are subtle. This isn’t institutional critique, nothing that heavy. The answers are left open-ended.’ Slight as Newby’s gestures may be, that declarative separation from a lineage of institutional interrogation seems burdensome, especially upon looking at her most recent work.
YES TOMORROW’s commissioning curator, Tina Barton, might agree. In her catalogue essay for the exhibition, ‘Seven Notes (for Kate),’ she details the at-times gruelling lengths it took for the exhibition to be mounted, and the political dimension firmly placed within that. In her sixth note, frankly titled ‘Strained Relations,’ she says: (1)
Newby’s show tests the building, and its guardians. Usually art is placed inside its container, which serves as a neutral box, a safe haven [...] a space separate from the world designed for a special category of discrete objects we call ‘art.’ There’s a politics to this, with prescribed responsibilities assigned to both institutional host and artist-guest [...] A history of institutional critique has tested this relationship, as Newby is well aware [...] and she’s learnt from all of them about the value and purpose of the dialectical push/pull between ‘white cube’ and world.
Barton places Newby in a lineage with Hans Haacke, Nancy Holt, Francis Alÿs, Roni Horn, and the American minimalists. In person, Newby and I discuss another helpful addition: the arte povera movement, an early influence that continues to stream through her practice. The movement was famously aligned with the late critic and superstar curator Germano Celant, who gifted its name, literally translated as ‘poor art.’ Arte povera came into being during the social upheavals of the 1960s where artists began to metabolise into their practices the growing disdain and skepticism toward cultural institutions, governments, and history’s grand narratives. Much of the work made under its banner was characterised by an elemental naivety in materials (earth, water, air, raw metals, stone) and placed an emphasis on the experiential capacity of art, attempting to move away from the growing commercialisation of the cultural sphere. In Arte Povera, Celant’s influential book, his characterisation of the movement’s quintessential artist echoes the same form of idealism found in O’Hara: ‘He has chosen to live within direct experience, no longer the representative – the source of pop artists – he aspires to live, not to see.’ (2)
The gallery is a monument, one that Newby and many artists before her have tried to counter, or at least antagonise. Mami Kataoka, in her judge’s statement for the 2012 Walters Prize, extolled Newby’s winning installation for being ‘the most reserved but radical way of transcending the fixed architectural space for contemporary art, liberating us towards wider universal space.’ This transcendence is as present in YES TOMORROW, if not more pointedly so. Within the space is her long ‘scratch,’ made directly into the gallery’s peculiar rubber floors, patched up with hundreds of miniature ceramic and glass pools; there are her wind chimes, strung from the floor and led right up to the peak of the building, wobbling and signalling your eyes up, emphasising both the capacity of the gallery architecture and, moreover, its usual stagnancy—its ‘dead space’; there are perforated panes of glass, pierced with finger-sized holes that disrupt and expose what sculptor Robert Morris might refer to as the ‘insulated setting’ of the gallery, its theoretical and physical lack of sensuality; and then there is that impossible blue floor, the inescapable anchor of the exhibition, lying proudly on top of that aforementioned page, superseding it in every way possible.
The gallery is a monument, one that Newby and many artists before her have tried to counter, or at least antagonise.
I VISIT NEWBY AT HER FAMILY HOME, out at Te Henga where she grew up. Here, she was surrounded by a community of artists and artisans. All that nature, too. Allie Eagle was a neighbour, taking her ‘under her wing from a young age,’ showing her how to use watercolours. Her dad built a kiln back in the day also, which local potters would come to use. She points at it familiarly. We talk through her work over coffee that her partner Rob has made, and she sorts through a box of her ceramics. She mentions reading a book, Ninth Street Women, which looks at the lives of painters Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, and others. I google it later that night and a New York Times review pops up. ‘To be put in any category not defined by one’s work is to be falsified.’ That’s de Kooning, speaking from 1971.
Another time, I run into Newby in Ngāmotu New Plymouth, where she is staying in an Airbnb just down the road from the Govett-Brewster. She knows that I’ve injured my leg and I’m quite fatigued, so she lets me nap in a spare room while she moulds clay that will house her scrounged-for glass. A few days later we message through Instagram, our conversation drifting from skincare to criticism. She recalls something that I said earlier in the week about criticism being a form of affection for a Virgo. I respond: ‘I wouldn’t bother if I didn’t care, y’know?’ to which she replies, ‘YES’ ‘And I do care.’
(1) Newby, Kate, Kate Newby Yes Tomorrow, Wellington: Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, 2021, 141-142.
(2) Celant, Germano, Arte Povera, New York & Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1969, 225.
About the Author
Cameron Ah Loo-Matamua is a writer and curator based in Tāmaki Makaurau. They are a contributing writer for Artforum International and a curator at St Paul St Gallery, AUT.
About the Artist
Kate Newby is represented in Aotearoa New Zealand by Michael Lett.
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