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August 18, 2014 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Seeing Through: an interview with Ava Seymour

In 2002, Peter McLeavey was excited. “The tectonic plates are shifting here,” he said in conversation with Brent Hansen, “and a younger (hungrier and gifted) group [of artists] are now claiming their birthright.” Among these artists was Ava Seymour.

In the 1990s, Seymour gained notoriety for a series of collages that traced the state house’s trajectory from symbol of postwar egalitarianism to its contemporary uses as a means to disempower and demonise communities. Since then, Seymour’s work has adopted more formal concerns. Seymour has drawn from collage’s bringing together of disparate elements, layering various materials on top of each other to examine abstraction and incongruity in seeing.

Seymour will be exhibiting at the Peter McLeavey Pop Up later this month, alongside Yvonne Todd, Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine. I recently emailed Seymour to discuss her recent work, her relationship with McLeavey, and the role of politics in her work.

“Two of my larger works will be in the show. Triptych Lumiere, which was produced during my 2010 McCahon House residency and is perhaps best described as a work made in response to McCahon’s French Bay paintings of the 1950s. The second work is titled Tablet: it is a hybrid form of photography and sculpture; it is freestanding and leans against the wall.”

After spending a year at Prahran College in Melbourne in the late 1980s, Seymour travelled to Europe. It was here she began producing art. Her early work was influenced by artists such as Diane Arbus, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch. She places emphasis, however, on the musical influences that informed her artistic direction.

“I was listening to bands such as Pere Ubu, The Fall, Throbbing Gristle, Einstürzende Neubauten… I saw The Birthday Party perform in Auckland in 1982: the gig was legendary, they were a complete shambles, glorious in every sense; it was a real awakening. It is worth noting that the art that was intrinsic to many of these bands (their slogans, album covers, posters etc), borrowed a lot from Dada’s more political strand.”

Dada’s legacy hung around Seymour. Hannah Hoch is often used as a reference point in descriptions of her early work. Seymour described being cognisant of Dada’s influence, while never straying so far as to identify with the term explicitly.

“I lived in Berlin in the early 1990s and I’ve always assumed this is why people have been so quick to make that connection… The political history of Berlin always fascinated me, I ended up there in January of 1992; it was a tough place back then, the scars of war were still visible because I lived in the former East.

“I saw large exhibitions on both Munch and Grosz while I was in Berlin at the National Gallery; I went to St Petersburg and visited the Hermitage Museum; then after my bleak European experience, I went to New York, where the mood was much lighter. I remember being quite confused: everywhere I looked, there was big advertising saying ‘.com’; I didn’t know what it meant, I was really out of touch.”

Seymour met Peter McLeavey in 2000, after moving to Wellington.

“I used to drop in to see his shows. One day, he suggested a visit to my studio to look at some work… I always found Peter to be warm, quirky and interesting. Our relationship strengthened over time, and I was even asked to dinner one night at his home, but it wasn’t until about a year-and-a-half after that I received a letter inviting me to join the gallery.

“The change in my artistic direction came about because I got older. My focus changed; I was looking at more art, and reading about it, and I worked out that the key to survival as a contemporary artist is to stay relevant. I started to learn how to work with computer software, and this resulted in a new approach to art-making.”

The intersection between Kruger, Levine and Todd may seem more immediate. All three artists have spent decades employing languages, both visual and oral, to provoke, to unsettle, to unearth the means by which representation (especially female representation) is discursively assembled. In spite of Seymour’s insistence that her work is no longer political, an unearthing does take place. The kauri was a figure in New Zealand’s cultural mythology long before McCahon, and her layering of discordant shapes, the dark yellows and browns and blues in response to him, seem to act to upset the notion of landscape as site of spiritual renewal. Tablet might be considered complementary to the more polemical work in the show, for in its perpendicular relation to the gallery space, in the deliberate positioning of the clamps as a means of preventing the work from disintegration, the work might perhaps serve as a monument to the precariousness of representation itself.

Ava Seymour’s work will be on display as part of I Like Girls at the Peter McLeavey Pop Up, from 26 August.

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  1. BeaT says:

    Hey awesome!! Always wanted to know how to get into the McLeavey gallery. Very informative interview.

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