Art New Zealand



Roberta Thornley A Serious Girl

Tim Melville Gallery 28 August–30 September


Over the years, I have found that one of the good things about looking at art, especially with reviewing exhibitions, is being forced to contend with stuff I would normally edit out of my life, not even let anywhere near me. Art encompasses many tastes. A good deal of what I digest does not agree with me. But because I love art, I love its surprising guises, the unexpected ways it weasels its way into my senses. Artists get excited about things that are weird, distasteful, sickly sweet, trite, grotesque, inane, dreary, uncomfortable, nice, complicated―it does not matter, art can wrap itself round anything.

Some critics use these things to make judgements, and decide an artwork is good because it deals with, say, something complex. The error is exposed as soon as it becomes clear that not everyone believes complexity is (or is always) good, or that for others the work in question is not, in fact, complex. The trick is to swallow everything, whether you ordinarily like that kind of thing or not. Only then do you get the sustenance, the ‘art’.

Roberta Thornley’s photographs have tended to garner their particular sense of mystery from the way subjects are lit against dark surroundings, a bit like the Australian Bill Henson and a good many other recent photographers who have made this a trend. Thornley’s most recent body of work, , was shown first at the Sarjeant Gallery in Whanganui, where Thornley was the 2015 Tylee Cottage artist-in-residence. As well as the lighting, the photographs exhibit her interest in sport and physique and the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Millie is a gymnast about to leave New Zealand to pursue her career in Denmark. We see her in Whanganui’s seaside suburb, Castlecliff. A house, a fairly ordinary one save for its coastal views, contributes significantly to the impact of several photos: the weave of grey-green carpet; the gleam of silver aluminium joinery framing a heaving green Sometimes sea. Thornley tries unsuccessfully to manufacture a strange and striking image by isolating her subject unnaturally, as in , just Millie’s grubby socks laid neatly on the carpet and given a kind of halo of light, or where Millie lays herself out on the grass . . . in a halo of light. When she gives us a more natural view, the results are more original. In (2017), evening sun lights up the cream Hardieplank exterior of the house and parts of the lawn, the grass taking on a wondrous, luxurious texture, somewhat like the carpet inside the house. Caught mid-air and in the middle of the shot, Millie’s head and raised arms float clear of the trees and a bank of low cloud. Here, Thornley has elevated her work beyond the qualities upon which she normally relies. Because the content or set-up of the image is straightforward, a scene one might see without batting

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