Thursday, May 19, 2011

Leads and chorus to the stage please

With September only four months away, the needle on the pressure gauge at the Auckland Art Gallery must have gone well into the red. Opening a major new extension after being closed for an extended period is a big deal and expectations are high. This was the institution, after all, that shaped the canon of New Zealand art from the fifties to the seventies so how it sees the future and its role in that future matters nationally. It already has a precedent for making the right gesture. Back in 1971 a series of new upper galleries were opened by the ACAG, as it was called then. The Gallery responded Ten Big Paintings. A big simple idea. The exhibition consisted of one very large work by each of ten artists. 

Today the idea feels simplistic but at the time big paintings, really big paintings, were something that happened off shore. By providing a group of artists with large stretched canvases (Don Driver remembered his arriving at the door on the back of a truck and wondering where he was going to put it) and letting them loose, the Gallery not only put a tab on who it thought was important, but also showed how much it trusted them to come up with the goods. 

The paintings were as big as the ceiling height of the new galleries would allow, and for Colin McCahon as wide as he could get away with with his monster work Gate III (now in the Victoria University collection). The idea even got an after life. In 2008 the Northart Gallery in Auckland revived the 'ten big paintings' concept for its tenth anniversary exhibition, even to the point of inviting two of the ‘originals’ (Ross Ritchie and Robert Ellis) to do repeat performances.

So here's hoping the Auckland Art Gallery is preparing to spring another big surprising idea on us.
Image: Preparing canvases for the Ten Big Paintings exhibition (contemporary recreation)