MARK AMERY finds aspiration in the works of two artists, Eve Armstrong and Sarah Jane Parton, curated as part of City Gallery Wellington’s Contemporary Projects series.

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GENERALLY I find artists loathe being labeled ‘emerging’. They find the term patronizing in its suggestion that they are still in the process of becoming something. Yet it remains a useful reference for those professional artists who have established an early reputation and whose practice from exciting beginnings might now deepen and develop. I like the aspirational quality of the term – something newly independent that must fly or die.

There’s aspiration and a questioning of what you should aspire to in the work of two artists exhibiting as part of City Gallery Wellington’s contemporary projects series. Eve Armstrong and Sarah Jane Parton have both had to endure the hot young thing media tag. Both out of art school several years now (ELAM Auckland and Massey Wellington respectively), they are given rooms of their own here – talents being asked to rise to a challenge.

Both deliver, although there’s the sense with Armstrong’s installation here that, while it will be fresh to those who haven’t seen it outside Wellington, she’s idling somewhat.

Eve Armstrong makes appealing sculptural arrangements out of recycled bric a brac and packaging. They’re the collections you accumulate in the garage, only to finally relent and put out for the inorganic rubbish collection. The things we keep in the hope that they might still prove useful, only to fail, but be given a reprieve here by Armstrong. In this way the work is (like Parton’s) hopelessly aspirational. A wall of cascading flattened cardboard boxes and tape, ready to fall at any minute, is joined by rusty and torn outdoor furniture, old hoses and all manner of bits and bobs that have become separated from the other things that made them once serve a function. They’d be in the 10 for $1 Bin at Trash Palace.

The exhibition is dominated by wrapping materials, plastic containers and furniture – things that provide a temporary housing for things considered more important but which here become an architecture of their own.

This is one of a number of installations Armstrong has made from such materials, and together with her community projects – which have included in Wellington the revival of a community garden in her SLIPS: Small Local Improvement Projects – there is a clear aspiration for Armstrong as artist to, like her materials, prove useful.

To provide them with value the arrangements mimic things of value. Elements are arranged with strident verticals and horizontals in much the same way as painter of landscape might bring nature to aesthetic life. The arrangements in the gallery remind me of the picturesque waterfall or the garden natural feature, where there’s the sense of elementally powerful natural forms contained.

There’s an aspiration to be terribly artful. Cheekily, a pile of old Van Gogh posters is to be found down the back, still wrapped, and consequentially of less value than wrapping paper.

These artful elements are made overtly, rather than subtly for Armstrong’s aesthetic ends, with bricks laid in neat rows, hoses curling sinuously out, and lines of tape added to the floor. These contrived elements run against any misapprehension that these are simply piles of junk, and the dynamic between these formal elements and the chaos is a key tension that Armstrong plays with, with a high level of accomplishment.

This is both the work’s appeal and its failure. It feels like familiar ground, the work ultimately aspiring to do something in collage that we’re long familiar with from modernism, and found in the tension between inorganic material and organic energy in the work of some Italian arte povera artists.

For it to really crackle for me there needed to be a stronger apparent bond between the shape of the installation and the community it has come from – a stronger relationship to Armstrong’s work outside the confines of the gallery. It’s what Armstrong will do next that holds the most interest.

While Armstrong’s plays with the remains of modernism and questions how contemporary artists should now aspire to do good, Sarah Jane Parton’s installation The Way is all about how uneasily different 20th century utopia fit with the contemporary artist, yet retain a seductive appeal.

The ridiculous futility of some of the aspirational persona provided to us are the subject here. There are meticulous portraits of Parton, husband and children as the identikit uniformed family of the future, family on Hawaiian holiday before sunset and in matching swandris with a donkey – all delivered with a beautiful, ridiculous sincerity.

What is ‘The Way’ when each way we have been shown has proven as banal as the ugly, over vacuumed generic apartment interior depicted in another image? Parton doesn’t suggest any answers, but it’s the futile mix of helplessness and determination in her gaze that puts us in the mood to exert change.

At the centre of the installation is a gym mat that invites us to either take an awkward seat to the side or move along to a multiscreen video projection (yet another nod to the empty aspirational aesthetics of her upbringing) of Parton as spotlit gymnast. She undertakes a series of meaningless maneuvers awkwardly but passionately on what resembles an abstracted tangle of athletic field lines.

Eerily alone, and always looking up and away to some unseen force, our heroine then takes the winner’s podium and mumbles an acceptance speech into a microphone, Karaoke style – it’s the chorus of Guns and Roses Paradise City, but recited in Esperanto. Esperanto translates as ‘one who hopes’ and was an artificial language invented by a Polish physicist in the 19th century with the hopes it would become a universal language and foster international understanding. As such then it’s a story of utopian failure, and Parton’s video is full of the echoes of unfulfilled promises of the political and cultural movements of the Eastern bloc.

Yet Parton’s performance is also full of a spare beauty and rigour that still makes us linger culturally over these promises in the absence of better alternatives – those alternatives represented in the accompanying suite of photographs.

Beautifully shot, the videowork alone is the most sophisticated of Parton’s works I’ve seen, and The Way as a whole sees an emerging artist starting to deliver on their potential.

Contemporary Projects: Eve Armstrong, Darryn George, Sarah Jane Parton, Areta Wilkinson and the 'Lost and Found' video programme, City Gallery Wellington, until November 4.