Art and Text, no. 71, 2000. Review, Michael Stevenson and Steven Brower, Genealogy, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 2000.
The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery runs an edgy programme, but it hasn’t always been easy. Until recently, this backblocks gallery still had to placate ratepayers by mounting an annual community-art show. So, it’s mischievous of expatriate local boy Michael Stevenson and New Yorker Steven Brower to use their residency exhibition to bring bad community art back to the Brewster. The art in question is the work of their parents, and their show, Genealogy, an Oedipal romp through personal and provincial art histories.
Settling in the hamlet of Ingelwood in the 1950s, devout Christians Alan and Margaret Stevenson did good works, making crafty community murals, designing for repertory theatre, and passing on their skills. Stevenson’s installation reproduces Ingelwood High’s art room, where he was taught by his father. Along with art-room paraphernalia, Stevenson hangs work by mum and dad, and juvenile works by himself and his sisters: scenics, portraits, studies of churches, chaste nudes, and calligraphy exercises. Stevenson’s high-school art folio, which dad helped him glue together, leans against the wall.
Four further (faked) high-school folios appear to be the early-early work of well-known New Zealand artists Christine Hellyar and Paul Hartigan (both from Taranaki), wunderkind Michael Parekowhai (who actually failed School-C art), and Julian Dashper. The folios are full of set pieces: self portraits, still lifes, Maori patterns, and stylised landscapes—nascent self expression tempered by the syllabus. They are riddled with in-jokes: hints of what will come (Dashper is already obsessed with drum kits and chains) and sublimated sexuality (Parekowhai’s bulging power drill rendered in denim).
If Stevenson’s room embodies conservatism, family values, and repression, Brower’s provides a counterpoint. His dad, Bill, may have been influenced by Thomas Hart Benton’s style, but he had no truck with Benton’s cheesy politics. Brower hangs a selection of Bill’s student works, commercial illustrations, and garish ‘social comment’ paintings that would not look out of place in Hustler. There’s Group of Nazi Officers at a Meeting (Hitler sodomising an officer as the team looks on), Totem and Taboo (Freud clinging to a woman servicing herself with a vibrator), and a ribald portrait of the Clintons. The Gallery felt compelled to slap an R18 rating on Brower’s room and to withdraw Beauty Contest Winner Returning Home to Find Her Husband Abusing their Child. In a didactic panel, Brower says dad was always his favourite artist. What a role model!
The centrepiece, Brower’s 1:12 scale model of his family home in West Virginia, opens like a dollhouse, revealing hoards of books packed into every crevice. An unstoppable book buyer, wild Bill’s library strangled the house, compelling him to add crude wooden extensions out back, which slowly disintegrated. Nicknamed ‘Falling Lumber’, who could fail to see see this horror home as a reification of domestic strife? And yet, Brower’s accompanying text excuses it as a treatise on hubris, rather than an example.
Genealogy itself is rambling—ramshackle, amateurishly installed, unedited, disordered. We’re sucked into a morass of ‘issues’: how the times left their mark on the parents, how the parents impressed their children, the difference between good art and bad, the artists’ confused motives, and the censorial gatekeeping agendas of art institutions, from high schools to museums. As the artists offer no clear position on these matters, the viewer is seconded as a shrink—everything becomes a symptom.