Ian Cheesman

In Iain Cheesman’s first major solo show at the Vivian Gallery, you’ll find lots of seemingly random words. They’re punched into felt or animal hides and pinned to the wall with arrows, or wittily spelled out using found objects on shelves. He’s also launching his third little book of poetry to go with the exhibition. Vivian director Scott Law-rie says, “Iain’s a genius at combining the power of words with delightfully original visual cues.” 

Where do the words come from? They’re influenced, among other things, by Iain’s life-long love of poetry, by his fascination with Colin McCahon’s word paintings, and by the way social media ‘prunes’ our words, “to give us the urgency we need for modern living”. Iain also remembers the power of something he saw as a boy in the Christ-church Museum: a biscuit tin with a desperate message punched into the metal by castaways from a stricken whaling ship in the early 1900s.

But there’s deeper meaning in Iain’s enigmatic messages: by punching holes in his art or shooting it with arrows, he’s deliberately vandalising it in a way – it’s a form of self-deprecation, so that both he and the art remember to stay grounded. 

He’s gently poking fun, both at himself and at the wider art world. “Conceptual art does have at its heart some serious topics, mine included, but even that seriousness is somehow comical to me. I think of my work as visual stand-up, really,” he says. The huge ‘idiots’ word-sculpture in pink-painted stainless steel in the Vivian carpark is a classic. “It refers to myself more than anyone,” Iain smiles, “but we’re all in this together….” 

Iain was born in the UK but grew up in North Canterbury. As a kid, his family were makers of textiles, paintings, pottery – his grandmother, a weaver, went to woodwork classes aged 70 and made beautiful turned wooden bowls. It affected the young Iain than he realised. “At the time I thought, ‘I’m not going to be an artist, you never make any money.’ I wanted a proper job, so I became an electrical engineer. But after 15 years I found myself at art school in the UK.” He came back to Otago University to paint, but ended up a sculptor, albeit one with paint-erly and literary inclinations.

“A lot of the art I make has its foundations in learned practice from my grandmother, my mother and my father,” says Iain. This exhibition incorporates emotive materials: the wool felt reminds him of his grandmother and there are tools in some works which belonged to his dad. It’s a family show: Iain’s partner Sarah, who’s a surgeon, has participated too – her delicate embroidery features in some of the works. 

As well as being a Vivian artist, Iain has become the main technician there, hanging and arranging much of the work. “He has the best eye in the business, we’re incredibly lucky to have him,” says Scott. 

This show is entitled ‘tHe’. “The’ is a word full of potential,” Iain says. “The… what? The capital ‘H’ making ‘He’ is the kind of word-within-a-word I enjoy, but it adds another dimension. It’s the 125th anniversary of women get-ting the vote – maybe it’s time to acknowledge being male in some way...”

Iain’s ‘random’ words might be the stripped essence of a few lines of poetry, or perhaps a snatched phrase over-heard on the street. They encourage interpretation and imagination. Come and decide what they mean to you.

Meanwhile in the Studio Gallery, Elizabeth McClure shows a mix of new glass vessels which are a twist on her ear-lier 'dapple' works where layers of coloured enamel are applied over multiple firings on simple forms, includ-ing some kiwi classics. Elizabeth also has covered one wall with elegant, layered glass shapes, cleverly put togeth-er, which play mesmerisingly with light and shadow. 

Finally, in the South Gallery, Melbourne painter Nicholas Ives (the latest member of the Vivian family, who also shows in Berlin and Florence) exhibits some of his darkly humorous paintings. There’s a dreamy, carnival feeling here and it’s a great taster for his solo show coming up in February next year. 

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