View of “Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs,” 2016. Center: Mandrake, 2011. Photo: Mark Tantrum.

View of “Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs,” 2016. Center: Mandrake, 2011. Photo: Mark Tantrum.

Francis Upritchard

City Gallery Wellington

View of “Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs,” 2016. Center: Mandrake, 2011. Photo: Mark Tantrum.

In Francis Upritchard’s survey “Jealous Saboteurs,” visitors encountered such characters as a Harlequin with a suspiciously amorous bulge in his diamond-patterned tights, his arms spread with a kind of “Hey, forget about it!” nonchalance (Mandrake, 2011); a putrid-yellow man standing in an archer’s pose with a semi-erection that pointed almost parallel to his extended arm (David [Robin], 2012); and a black woman with an elongated neck clutching one of her breasts (Hannah, 2016). These figurative sculptures were installed on pedestals created by Upritchard’s husband, designer Martino Gamper: elegant supports sliced through with diamonds. These harlequinesque resonances turned Mandrake’s tricksterish presence into a conceptual anchor for the exhibition, an embodiment of what the artist has described as her “slippery politics,” which manifested as a faux-museological hallucination full of messed-up sloths, beautiful furniture, and troublingly ambiguous takes on the consequences of cultural appropriation.

Upritchard, a New Zealander, has lived in London since 1998, developing a practice that slips between hippieish ingenuousness about the Arcadian promises of “other” cultures and a knowing, postcolonial irony, as evoked by the escape from modern life promised by her luridly psychedelic figures, but also her ability to mimic the often ghoulish world-in-a-box absurdities of European collections like the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK, and Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera in Saint Petersburg, Russia. In Traveller’s Collection, 2003, for example, Upritchard turned midcentury German ceramics into pseudo-canopic jars by making lumpy Egyptian lids for them. Nearby were the modified field hockey sticks of the series “Jealous Saboteurs,” 2005, each one transformed into a kind of “primitive” souvenir crocodile. And on top of Sloth in a Cabinet, 2003, she placed a number of pieces from throughout her career, including fake preserved heads; pipes and combs that willfully appropriated Maori forms; a clay crocodile skull with spinning eyes; and little hats and sunglasses—a miniature survey within the larger one. But, framed ridiculously by the prone mammal trapped underneath, it also appeared like something from a nightmarish hipster design store. Upritchard was clearly taking a swipe here at the way we convince ourselves that our need to preserve, collect, and possess is something nobler than straight-up avarice.

The question left lingering after one saw the exhibition was whether this self-awareness is enough to get her off the cultural hook. Given her objects’ indexical relationship with real artifacts and high-end furniture (particularly her collaborations with Gamper), are they just as covetable—and easily consumable—for her twenty-first-century patrons as their original models were for the earlier collectors and museums she (possibly) critiques? Consider the aestheticizing patina she almost always opts for in her found objects: The hockey sticks and other repurposed pieces of sporting equipment are old and worn; the German pottery is second hand; the display cases have been salvaged rather than built new. This instant nostalgia is typical of the inbuilt problematics in Upritchard’s practice, which “Jealous Saboteurs” neither allayed nor resolved: what it means to cherry-pick from other cultures; the clichés and pitfalls of cultural tourism; what happens when surrealism is softened into cutesy kitsch and sculpture tips into interior decor. The fact that these questions were presented so brazenly—particularly in New Zealand, where postcolonial issues are still keenly felt—made it both a clever and uneasy show: The contrast between Mandrake’s relaxed stance and the jesting threat he posed to the quiet, stable order of things seemed to evoke the artist’s own unapologetic, ambivalent desires.

Anthony Byrt