EAST 2018 : An Insiders View

Waiting to find out whether or not your artwork has been accepted for inclusion in a high profile group exhibition can bring flurries of contradictory thoughts and feelings to buffet your usually calm assumptions of your own artistic talents.  Artists do suffer. Quite often it’s the art world we were so desperate to be a part of that makes us suffer. The art world turns out to be riddled with foibles we hoped to escape from in the straight world: competitive, back-biting, opaque, game-playing. On a sunny day, though, it is also thrilling, supportive, stimulating, critical, heartfelt. As a result of this capricious climate, artists can become strange, involuted, paradoxical people; sceptical margin-dwellers desperate for acceptance, devil-may-care free-thinkers obsessed with the protection of their brand, ludicrously opinionated loudmouths plagued by whispering self doubts.

This year the golden rays of approval shone into my cave, yay for me. I have twice been accepted for inclusion in EAST and twice been rejected. EAST has always been a biennial ‘round-up’ type of show, a ‘this is Hawke’s Bay’s art scene’. It compiles the local artists that have weathered the pricks, refined an aesthetic, defined a practice, cornered a market, become a fixture. Also, and crucially, EAST has provided a first stage for the up-and-comer, and, often, for the opportunist, the lucky fluke. The presence of the latter is often a direct result of EAST’s engagement of guest selectors from outside the region, visitors with no preconceptions of who or what should be included according to local custom.

Before EAST, this review function was an annual affair called The Hawke’s Bay Invitational, and before that, the Hawke’s Bay Review, which alternated between Napier’s (now) MTG and Hastings’ City Art Gallery. In 1996, fresh from art school, I received in the post a slip of paper – “Dear Michael, congratulations. Your work, Some Daft Title (1996), has been selected for inclusion…” How I (literally) danced for joy. How gleefully I reflected that HB’s Establishment of art freaks would be forced to accept me as one of them.

Last year the old Hawke’s Bay Review was revived by Creative Arts Napier, to great success, by which I mean the show was a lively clutter of the good, the bad and the ugly with great public engagement. This year Hastings City Art Gallery’s director Toni McKinnon, engaged an out-of-town selector to produce an EAST that had things to say about the region rather than to simply choose an (always contested) “best of”; in other words, to curate a show. Bruce E Philips is that curator (as you will see elsewhere in The Hook). In contemporary art, curators are the new, um, artists. They conceive and pitch new ‘projects’ (as artists do), craft and refine themes (ditto), assemble and deploy their materials, and present an expressive object (same, same). Additionally, they are often charged with the not inconsiderable tasks of writing about, interpreting, justifying, contextualising, and in general reaching out to the viewership, making a case for the show’s relevance, its value. Artists aren’t, or shouldn’t, be called upon to do much of any of this as a matter of course.

For the first time in my history of inclusion in group shows, I received a visit to my studio from the selector. Bruce was incredibly generous with his time and a skilled listener. He thought out loud about the various thematic and formal aspects of the show, and he told me specifically why he had chosen my work and how it folded in to a larger discussion he wanted to air. Had EAST continued in its former ‘review’ mode, my inclusion would, of course, have been vindicating, but not nearly so satisfying.