Exhibition Foreword Return to Installation Photos

Greg Donson

The completion of Matthew Couper’s residency at Tylee Cottage in March 2007 coincided with the 21st year of the artist-in-residence programme and the 88th year of the Sarjeant Gallery’s existence – two histories running parallel and overlapping. The Sarjeant’s history is as weighty as the Oamaru stone of which it is made, and it is the only gallery in the country still operating out of a building occupying its original footprint – a Greek cross. Eighty-eight years of no interruption or pause for re-building, re-naming – non-stop operation. That's not to say that there haven't been alterations, but they’ve all occurred within the confines of the building, invisible from the outside. Some have been physical: acres of mustard-coloured carpet laid and then later uplifted, picture rails covered over by MDF board, the dome painted sky blue.

From the outside, the gallery remains the same as it was when it opened its doors in 1919. This is at once a blessing and a curse. The gallery’s most significant infiltration was Billy Apple’s removal of The Wrestlers from the centre of the Dome. It was this removal of the keystone that further freed up the gallery’s exhibition programme philosophy.

Matthew Couper has created a body of work that specifically responds to and mixes up the gallery’s past with art history. Figures from the Renaissance fresco painter Masaccio occupy the same spaces as Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson. Théodore Géricault’s 1819 painting The Raft of the Medusa is recalled as Couper remakes the Sarjeant’s most infamous copy – The Wrestlers – in a combination of polystyrene and plaster, drops them from a great height and then reassembles the pieces, labelled and contained on a wooden palette as though they have just arrived out of museum storage. Like the figures on board the raft of the Medusa, there is a desperation to the fragments of The Wrestlers, as there is to many museum pieces – just shards of a bigger puzzle.

Objects of inherent vice occupy the gallery space as Couper makes us walk over paintings before we arrive in the show, makes us think, why can I walk on that work but not touch that? How can that illuminated fake human waste be here? Couper doesn’t let us walk simply into his paintings; we have to visually negotiate obstacles – scaffolding, chasms and do-it-yourself wooden bracing whacked across the foreground of the three main works in the exhibition.

With Couper’s interest in Renaissance painting conveyed through the work in this exhibition, it’s appropriate that he is now exhibiting in a building designed along classical conventions, a Greek cross with a lofty dome at the centre. Couper’s work has long been preoccupied with the classical Greek idea of the other: everything outside of the Greek world was exotic, monstrous. Being an artist-in-residence does entail an“outside-ness” as the artist temporarily enters a community. How deep that engagement is depends on the artist – whether it be with just the artistic community or the community in a wider sense.

Since Couper’s time as a student at the Quay School of the Arts, Wanganui has been transformed. A physical example of this change is the site of the arts school, which has now been engulfed by a large development expanding the local tertiary provider’s footprint. All this is happening right next door to the artist’s current studio. The climate of local politics has also changed dramatically, from a flat line to a Richter scale of debate that has, at times, polarised the community.

Like previous Tylee resident Julian Hooper, who kept a diary of drawings, Couper records his time in Wanganui through a series of ex-votos. Hooper used the diary pages as the basis for the paintings contained in his post-residency exhibition. Couper’s ex-votos play an integral part in the overall picture, like all the work in the exhibition; each operates on its own, using a currency that doesn’t rely on exchange with its companions. However, that is the success of this body of work; each component stands on its own as well as the whole project being an articulate response to a place and experience.