Jim Speers

Auckland’s Karangahape Road (popularly “K Road”) is the closest thing the city has to a gallery strip. But the street is also well known as Auckland’s alternative shopping destination, a funky if decrepit alternative to the well-kept but generic city center. So it was entirely consistent with its context that “Crystal Spirit,” Jim Speers’s exhibition at Starkwhite, a K Road staple, alluded to the aesthetics of hipster clothing stores. With a set of large framed digital images screenprinted with text on the wall and a geometric decal spread across gleaming white vinyl flooring, Speers conflated the warehouse-style gallery with a warehouse-style boutique. Arguably more effective seen from the street through the building’s large picture windows than from inside the room itself, the show nonetheless exerted a slick, seductive pull.

Whether or not the display’s superficial attractiveness was supported by any underlying substance, however, is hard to decide. Speers, best known for abstract light boxes that evoke the Light-and-Space art of 1960s California, here eschewed his customary slabs of gently illuminated color for an array of enigmatic found images and short texts. Making use of material harvested from the Web, the fourteen posterlike sheets threw reference after reference in an apparent attempt to absorb the viewer in a game of association, but the seemingly arbitrary selections and juxtapositions were just as likely to alienate. Some panels featured a single image, others combined image or color with a quoted motto or title, and several made a link with the artist’s previous work via color alone.

The group contained some intriguing choices, but determining the way in which the cut was made seemed impossible. A set of stripes in black, white, and primary colors, for example, hung next to a photograph of a field overlaid with the phrase kill magicians in bright yellow letters, itself bordered by a rectangle of sky blue emblazoned with the name georgia turner in sober navy. To the right of this was a black-and-white shot of vintage industrial machinery, an illustration of some oranges labeled white meadows, and a murky backdrop behind the words mystery writers of america. Was one expected to Google each of these components in a quest to arrive, as if solving a crossword puzzle, at a definitive solution? Or just to allow a private poetic meaning to settle gradually around the artist’s otherwise opaque combinations and recombinations?

Soccer fans—possibly a larger group here since the New Zealand national team qualified for this year’s World Cup—might realize that the list of place-names that appears in grass green Helvetica over another industrial-mechanical image is also a list of teams for which the late Northern Irish football legend George Best played. Pop music buffs, meanwhile, may pick up that the aforementioned Georgia Turner was one of the earliest known singers to perform “House of the Rising Sun”; the song is also invoked by another panel that mentions the Animals, who made it into a hit in 1964. Finally, a pair of maritime images is echoed by Speers’s citation of The Log from the Sea of Cortez, John Steinbeck’s account of his 1940 boat trip with Ed Ricketts in the Gulf of California. Ultimately, however—and as the floor’s racing stripes seem to hint—it may not pay to worry at this set of screen grabs for too long. Speers takes an unashamedly subjective, even improvisatory approach to selecting and combining his material. Viewers might equally benefit from being as trusting of their interpretive instincts.

Michael Wilson