New Plymouth

David Hatcher

Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

David Hatcher’s approaches to abstraction have consistently played up the ridiculousness of even the most thoroughgoing attempts to communicate through the “purely” visual. Treating philosophical diagrams and corporate logos with equal acerbity, his high-key wall paintings have dosed these sober figures in such a way as to highlight their endless ambiguity and rootedness in cultural context. The blanket promise of this recent exhibition, “Semantic Bliss”—the title echoing the connotations of unrealistic optimism and probable disappointment in the phrase “wedded bliss”—underscored the banal but messy truth that semantic satiation must always be at least a case of different strokes for different folks. A result of his residency at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 2006, the project deftly engaged with questions of audience and significance in ways specific to the show’s location in Hatcher’s native New Zealand.

Two galleries joined by a square arch became a walk-in Peter Halley cell, charged by a black square facing a white square through the gap from opposite walls. Alluding lightly to modern Western abstraction’s benchmark, Malevich, they were linked by fat radial shafts of monochrome in eight colors that striped boldly across the walls between them, the whole resembling nothing so much as a set for a children’s TV show. In the rooms, thirty-three cubes in matching shades and three sizes—toy size to chest high—appeared as modular furniture. They started to seem like pieces of a spatial-aptitude test, inviting us to slot them through the doorway or through the squares on the wall and out of the gallery.

If bliss is quietly overwhelming, the extrovert color play aims for the requisite surfeit of meaning through its allusion to the counting system of Cuisenaire rods. These teaching aids are also used in Ataarangi, a system for learning te reo Maori, the indigenous language of Aotearoa/New Zealand, in which the rods are temporarily assigned meanings in games that bring language learning off the page and into social interaction. Prominent New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai memorialized the connection in Atarangi, 1990, a Joel Shapiro–esque figure made of super-size aluminum rods. Hatcher opens up a literal, practical connection to this history: His exhibition is to be used as a venue for community activities, beginning with language classes in te reo Maori for gallery staff.

Returning from study and work in Europe and the United States, Hatcher himself studied te reo Maori during his stay in New Plymouth. The practical as well as symbolic importance of language in the colonial situation is acknowledged in his combination of these straightforward formal and relational gestures. In addition to their artistic value, the exchange he establishes for his audience has the potential for practical efficacy. Fluency in Maori has reached a new level in the past few years, with, for example, the graduation of the first generations of children to be educated through primary and secondary schooling in Maori-language environments and the successful launch of a national Maori-language television channel. Language, Hatcher’s work suggests, is an index of inequalities of experience and opportunity, of the kind sometimes overlooked or underplayed in art. Alongside its generosity, it further suggests that participatory works may be as prone as high formalism to assuming or dreaming hopelessly of a shared language.

Jon Bywater