Flying solo in Europe and America
While she was in New Zealand for the launch of her first public sculpture, Loafers, expat New Zealand artist, Francis Upritchard, talked to Virginia Were about her Vienna Secession exhibition and life since the Venice Biennale.
When I interviewed Francis Upritchard during her recent trip to New Zealand from London, where she has lived since 1998, we met in the intriguingly named Los Angeles Room, on the fifth floor of a pink and white striped building in downtown Auckland.
Chatting to her about what she has been up to since representing New Zealand at the 2009 Venice Biennale involved making equally ambitious geographical and conceptual leaps – such as getting up to speed with the history of the Vienna Secession, the artist-run gallery in Vienna where Upritchard staged her first solo museum show in Europe – the memorable In Die Höhle (In the Cave) in 2010.
The Vienna Secession is an extraordinary art nouveau building, whose roof is decorated with golden laurel leaves, established in 1898, by an enlightened artist association – of which Gustav Klimt was a member.
The Secessionists were committed to uniting the separate art forms of sculpture, architecture, painting and music, aiming for ‘gesamtkunstwerk’ – a comprehensive work of art. In response to an exhibition organised by the Secessionists as a homage to Beethoven in 1902, Klimt painted his famous Beethoven Frieze directly onto the wall of one of the Secession’s galleries, where it remains and is a huge drawcard for tourists visiting Vienna today.
Given her sculptural installations collapse boundaries between art, craft, architecture and design by combining ceramics, textiles, furniture, found objects and lighting in the same space – it’s no wonder Upritchard felt a kinship with the Secessionist group when she was invited to exhibit at this prestigious institution. She also appreciated the fact that the Secession’s programme is chosen not by curators but by artists, which results in a fascinating and idiosyncratic programme of solo artist exhibitions.
In Die Höhle occupied three rooms in the gallery, one floor above Klimt’s large frieze, and responded not only to his amazing work, with its allegorical cast of female figures, lavish patterning and lush eroticism, but also to more recent artists, such as Sol LeWitt, who have exhibited in this famous building. It also asked questions about the distinctions we make between the decorative and the critical.
“I looked at a lot of the old Secession catalogues, talked to artists and looked at the art scene in Vienna right now. And I rediscovered Klimt. I loved him before I went to art school, but then when you go to art school you’re told: ‘Oh no, that is horrible, decorative and boring. But actually it’s extremely conceptual and cutting edge – the first time he showed his Beethoven Frieze in 1896, huge queues of people lined up to see it, and there were massive arguments in the press about whether it was pornography or not. You forget now that it was really naughty.”
Having made all the figures for In Die Höhle in her studio in London, Upritchard arrived in Vienna and then sourced the furniture and found objects she often remodels and uses as plinths in her work – something she describes as an intellectual solution to a practical problem – from the Viennese markets near the gallery.
Her 2009 Venice Biennale exhibition was her first major installation combining furniture and figures, and her collaborative exhibition at the Govett-Brewster in 2011, Gesumptkunsthandwerk – with jeweller Karl Fritsch and her husband, furniture designer Martino Gamper – blended craft, design and fine art in a seamless way so the viewer was unsure of the authorship of each work.
A new cabinet she designed for In Die Höhle has the ghostly image of Sol LeWitt’s painting (which was painted directly onto the wall of the Secession building in the 1970s) on it. Upritchard’s image has been over-painted with white and then sanded back to reveal fugitive layers of colour beneath. On it sit two multi-coloured figures, one wrapped in a tartan blanket whose patterns and colours morph onto the figure itself.
“Those figures are New Zealand characters,” she says. “I looked at some vintage photos on the internet of old Maori faces and I was reading Ngaio Marsh, who I mistakenly thought was Maori… she kept talking about Maori people wrapped in blankets. I’ve been collecting blankets and looking at the colours of them, and I wanted this exhibition to be about misinterpretation – Marsh’s misinterpretation of Maori people, and the total disconnect between Vienna and New Zealand.”
In Die Höhle gathers together Upritchard’s endearing family of hippies, spiritual seekers and misfits (an acid yellow figure in an oversize cowboy hat; a blue figure in what might be a yoga pose) as well as a supporting cast of faux anthropological objects – cigarette-butt necklaces with modernist lines, which are a nod to the Secessionist group and their role in the development of early modernism. Monkeys of different shapes and sizes, one perched on a pink banquette that runs along the gallery wall, also populate the show, adding to the sense of faux exoticism.
The exotic and the uncanny have long been a source of fascination for Upritchard, whose first solo public show at Auckland’s Artspace, Doomed Doomed All Doomed, 2005, included a group of savage post-colonial sculptures of the shrunken heads of British soldiers, referencing the Maori tradition of preserving heads. This was the exhibition for which she won the 2005 Walters Prize.
When I interviewed her, Upritchard was in Auckland for the unveiling of her first public sculpture, Loafers – six bronze figures and four snakes on top of three coloured concrete plinths, which is sited on the Symonds Street overbridge in an area adjacent to the University of Auckland, known as the Learning Quarter.
“I’ve always said ‘no’ to making a public project in the past because I never wanted to work with committees, and to worry about things breaking and being constrained by that. I thought I was saying that because I was frightened, and I might as well try it,” she says.
The ‘loafers’ in this new work are up to 70cm tall: thinkers, layabouts and dreamers, lying with their heads propped, standing, slouching, pondering and rubbing their heads. Confronting these figures – who, the artists says, would prefer to reflect and develop ideas rather than have a day job – are the snakes, which have a strong symbolic connection with knowledge and its dangers.
“I’ve always been interested in snakes and monkeys – when I was a child I was really into the exotic. Lots of New Zealand art, like McCahon, is very much about New Zealand – and it’s a big world – I didn’t want this work to be too inward looking. Also there are lots of students from all over the world in Auckland, so I wanted the work to be about people and knowledge.”
Upritchard felt it was vital to retain her characteristic rawness and immediacy in the figures for Loafers. “The bronzes are cast from Balata (rubber from the Brazilian forest) which I heat in hot water so it’s elastic, then I sculpt it, pinching it and carving it with a knife in a bath of cold water so it hardens and doesn’t flatten. I have about an hour to make each piece. Working this way means the gesture is really forced into the work.”
On her calendar in the near future are three exhibitions: one at Cincinnati Art Centre in May, another at Nottingham Contemporary in July – where her work will be shown alongside that of Austrian artist Alfred Kubin (1877 to 1959) who was associated with the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group and whose fantastical and often macabre subjects resonate strongly with Upritchard’s work. The third is at her New York dealer gallery, Salon 94, in September. The exhibitions in Cincinnati and Nottingham are her first solo shows at major institutions in the United States and Britain – the most important of her career to date. In 2013 she will exhibit at MIMOCA, a contemporary art gallery in Japan. Not surprisingly, she feels the need to pause and draw breath soon.
“The biggest challenge is having enough time to do big shows, make work that is new and exciting and take risks. Soon I will stop showing for a bit so I can privately make some new work.”
By the sound of it, her and Martino’s Gamper’s new studio – a Victorian warehouse in Hackney Central, which she describes as large, warm and luxurious compared with her old studio – is a great place to do so.
After 3 March, readers can see Francis Upritchard’s sculpture Loafers on the Symonds Street overbridge, Auckland City.