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Wunderūmma at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

Assorted small things

In a room full of perspex cases and salon-hung paintings at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, there are two modest works sitting quietly side-by-side. Wunderūmma: New Zealand Jewellery showcases so many works that it appears overwhelming. In this particular case a fascinating piece from Te Papa Tongawera, titled Randell Cottage Jewellery, 1850-1910, makers unknown, rests alongside Kate Newby’s Most Naturally from 2013. Both works involve a collection of small items carefully arranged, and seeming to promise a good story. You can find them for yourself in case ‘L’.

It took me several inspections of Wunderūmma to get to know this pair and the fascinating story behind the Randell Cottage Jewellery. Long forgotten, the objects were found in a hidden cache of the Randell Cottage in Thorndon, Wellington. A bloom of turquoise oxide now covers the small collection of keys, brooches and other miscellaneous items. No one knows the collector, where the objects came from or why they were chosen. Kate Newby’s work on the other hand consists of a number of carefully clean handmade ceramic and found objects all neatly arranged on a white cotton mat.

Whether created by an artist or otherwise, a collection is directed by method and desire. The ornaments collected by the maker of the anonymous Randell Cottage Jewellery seem to hold sentimental value. Having been found inside the fireplace of a cottage, viewers wonder if the items were stolen as keepsakes. The addition of ordinary objects like safety pins seems at odds with this sentiment but reveals an idiosyncratic personality behind the work. In this case the collector has curated found objects to create a conglomerate whole. Coming from a visual arts background, Newby’s collection is fuelled by an interest in materials. Using both found and handmade objects she exposes an underlying materiality that is present in much of her work. Shiny, smooth and solid; the surface properties of the pieces are their unifying factor. As a maker, Newby’s approach to creating this work is much more involved, and yet Randell Cottage Jewellery and Most Naturally are harmonious partners.

One way that these works compliment each other is in the presence of their creators’ trace. The hand crafted elements of Most Naturally, as well as in Newby’s Mr + Mrs Hands of the adjacent ‘Inside Outside Upside Down’ exhibition, give us an immediate understanding of her maker’s mark; the characteristics of her handling. The other pieces show her material inclinations and patterns of association. Without hand-made items, the collector of the Randell Cottage Jewellery is seen through their inclusions. The Randell Cottage collector would have held those objects, spent time with them. That careful attention is how they were chosen, and it remains present in the work. Sitting guarded by perspex in a museum case, we are now unable to handle these loved objects, never fully seeing them the way they originally were.

These two works initially seemed out of place in an exhibition of jewellery, but their intimacy and desire to be handled lends as much human connection as any bracelet or necklace. Despite this, the Randell Cottage Jewellery and Most Naturally rest self-sufficiently together, in a conversation of their own. As a viewer I can admire the introspection of these collections, it reminds me of the single-mindedness of any creator. I respect the skill required to pursue something as a creator, no matter how small. To select an action and stick to it without judgement, that is the bravery of an artist.

Tamarind Swann

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