PRINT March 1995



WHILE THE PUBLIC galleries and institutions declare new deaths, new purities, new beginnings in art, the Auckland artist-run gallery Teststrip gets down to the dirty business of making art and showing as much of it as possible. Denise Kum, Giovanni Intra, Kirsty Cameron, Guy Treadgold, Susan Hillery, Judy Darragh, Simon Cuming, and Daniel Malone are core Teststrip. They organize the exhibitions, publish the catalogues, pay the rent. “When Teststrip set out on its venture in 1992,” a local writer has said, “it was surreal. Now it has become real.”

Emphasizing this subversive move into reality, Teststrip has recently relocated from the trendy, cafe part of town to K-Road, a strip of saunas and girlie bars. In photography, a test strip is a means of experimenting with exposures, so it seems appropriate that Teststrip should be in a red-light area. Here and at their previous space (which doubled as a bedsit) the Teststrippers have put on one contagiously good show after another.

As its name suggests, Teststrip has no fixed image. Besides the eight core mutineers, it shows a range of other artists whose work is either unknown to public galleries or a bit too rugged to show without explanatory captions and general spit and polish. Teststrip is experimental, trying things out, trying things on. A Teststrip highlight was “Sad Sketches,” 1994, for which Cameron constructed a sickly child’s room, lair of a future psycho: girlie pictures with vampires scribbled over them were pinned to pink floral wallpaper. Tapping a similar vein, Ronnie van Hout glued lengths of cord to the gallery walls to reproduce British serial killer Dennis Nielsen’s drawings of his mutilated victims. Providing a droll commentary on Nielsen’s disfigurative art, several weepy cartoon characters, stitched out of felt, mouthed heart-felt sentiments like “I am sorry,” and “I am sad.”

Teststrip shows often tread a fine line between reporting and celebrating social dysfunction. There is a Nietzschean amorality here, and also a strenuous Romanticism in the style of Keats’ promise that until we are sick, we understand not. Intra’s and Vicki Kerr’s 1994 show “Waiting Room” exemplified Keats’ precarious notion of health. Confronting Teststrip’s usual focus on grunge, they turned the gallery into a pristine white space, sterilizing and curving the walls to eliminate any corners where bacteria might gather. To keep the room uncontaminated, visitors had to wear plastic slippers and surgical masks. Using medicine as a metaphor for social hang-ups, Kerr and Intra were also paying parodic homage to Modernism’s mania for white space.

Teststrip is actively radical while celebrating the bankruptcy of the avant-garde. Its engagement with contemporary society passes through a spirited struggle with art history. Mirroring an old avant-garde convention, its exhibitions often embrace materials and ideas that society has labeled “junk.” This gives bite to another dictum applied to Teststrip: "If junk sculpture is destined to turn back into junk then this gallery considers it its duty to accelerate the process.

Stuart McKenzie is one of the directors of MAP, a film production company based in Wellington.