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Southside Arts Festival: Matt Henry – User Friendly

Tuesday 01 November 2011

The Tuhi Centre for the Arts is positioned rather inconspicuously behind an ugly collection of shops and businesses in the Pakaranga region of Manukau. From its many purposes and aims Te Tuhi is most notable for its robust and exciting exhibitions programme. A quick dive into its archive of previous exhibitions reveals a wealth of diverse and challenging art. It is a veritable diamond in the rough.

The gallery is currently hosting an exhibition of new works by Auckland-based artist Matt Henry. User Friendly is an installation of nine paintings across three gallery spaces.

Henry divides and sites his work so as to make bold interventions to the space. Playing with the conventions of exhibition display and art production, his series mimics and references modern consumable items. The unconventional positioning of the canvases further distorts their roles and the objects – at the whim of considerations such as height and juxtaposition – morph into their domestic doppelgängers before your eyes. A canvas mimicking the 16:9 ratio of a flat screen television is hung identically to its functional counterparts; ditto the long Untitled horizontal 600 x 1800 (Titanium White) as a radiator (the lack of romance in Henry’s titling gloriously enhances the effect).

But there is more than mere optical-trickery at work here. The paintings are sleek, attractive objects in their own right. Henry creates smooth surface textures through a meticulous application of acrylic paint. In doing so he references minimalist aesthetics as well as imbuing these signifiers with a resonating visual appeal.
The three boxy rooms that the exhibition spans offer a perfect opportunity for comparative and complementary groupings. In a similar manner to the methodology of artist Roni Horn (successive repetitions, alterations and arrangements), Henry has utilised the space to perform a series of “about-faces”. Through a recalibration of similar forms, he ekes out a sense of immutability in the space itself and hints at the potentiality inherent in the construct of arrangement.

Henry’s is an understated and intelligent commentary. One that is drawn as much to reasoning about the phenomenon of design as it is to art production itself. It may seems contradictory to suggest that such strong visual statements offer subtleties, but the deliberated manner of their dissemination and their collective muteness ground them.

I had an opportunity earlier today to talk to Matt about his work.

Todd Atticus: Your practice blurs the line between painting and sculpture. What arena do you see your work inhabiting?

Matt Henry: I don’t really look at my practice from a discipline area, just as the work references – or blurs – the histories of art and design. I believe this is primarily because much of my interest lies outside of the art historical, somewhere in the semiotics of certain forms and their attendant knowledge or values in a contemporary context.

TA: For me, the objects both fuse and betray any linkage between what they gesture toward (domestic consumable goods, furniture etc.) and what they are in themselves (art objects). They behave separate of art historical principles that would otherwise engulf their purpose. Do you see the gallery space itself playing a role in the experience of these objects?

MH: The gallery can perhaps be seen as a stage where the objects I elude to (the consumable item, appliance) might betray themselves (or their utility) and exist in a purely aesthetic form. The gallery asks no more of them. This makes the gallery (as well as the discipline of painting) interesting as a point about which the emphasis shifts from function toward form and language.

TA: I find the conventions of the gallery space provide an opportunity to assess under different terms. This removal from the hubris of reality suspends objects in a vacuum, allowing them to be contemplated as separate. Under this form of aesthetic scrutiny and transformation, your paintings display their real-life counterparts as foreign bodies; sleek, unassuming, yet obstinately alluring as to be almost fetishist in quality.

MH: Minimalism in design can be quite brutal. It can also be contemplative and meditative. The appeal of minimalism to the average marketing person might be to play up to notions of exclusivity or even propriety. It can be very conservative in a funny way. The form and language of modernism within the vernacular of consumer culture and within art presents a transgression of sorts.
TA: The gallery space – itself a minimalist venture – can singularly cleanse and repel. By removing all signals of authorship or individuality, the effect can seem either universal or alien.

In a way, the pieces in User Friendly have this universal quality: they are shorthand for accepted entities. How mindful are you of those other universals that you are exhibiting alongside? Plug sockets? Light switches? They seem to enter the fray under similar terms.

MH: There is a universalism in the notion – a wall is a wall is a wall – and a lot of interior design and architecture are themselves exercises in minimalism. You could argue that plugs, sockets and fittings are detritus; annoying distractions. I’ve always accepted them as part of the gallery, often playing-off of them compositionally.

Occasionally I’ve photographed work in my home. The effect of this context on the reading of an object is exaggerated, sometimes delightful. I’ve been apprehensive at times to give some work over to the gallery. Sometimes those light switches and fittings give it back.

The ‘character’ of a space is something I’m quick to exploit, and most galleries have it in abundance. I have to admit I prefer more intimate galleries with volumes that approximate domestic or office spaces.

TA: You are sharing the gallery space with another work at Te Tehi: Lisa Crowley’s The Reading Hall. It is a complimenting arrangement: Crowley’s films make enquiries to architectural character, systems of display and gently comment about its subject through the very material of the work’s construction [she captures the movements and intricacies of a 1950’s linotype machine using a 16mm film and documents the contemporary use of Russia’s Vyborg Library in a digital format].

MH: It’s an interesting pairing. They both appear to consider language and processes that are, to some extent, obsolete.

The very physical, ‘slow’ and contemplative process of my painting, as well as playing with history, is intrinsic to the creative process and to the thinking involved. Very much at odds with the speed of contemporary media.

Matt Henry: User Friendly at Te Tehi Centre for the Arts is open until 6th November 2011.

Image courtesy of the artist and Starkwhite, Auckland