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Gavin Hurley

Dr Meyer

2003
oil on hessian
408mm x 304mm

Provenance

Private collection, Auckland. Acquired from Anna Bibby Gallery, Auckland, November 2003.

Exhibitions

Agent, Anna Bibby Gallery, Auckland, 25 November – 24 December 2003.

Essay

In the last decade or so, Auckland-based Gavin Hurley has emerged as an artist of significance in New Zealand. His simplified, largely symbolic portraits of Captain James Cook a...

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Estimate $4,000 - $7,000

The Uncanny Valley

by Andrew Paul Wood

In the last decade or so, Auckland-based Gavin Hurley has emerged as an artist of significance in New Zealand. His simplified, largely symbolic portraits of Captain James Cook and various characters from the New Zealand’s early colonial period, painted with an ambiguously ironic humour, have propelled him to prominence. The style is immediately recognisable, even at a distance.

Hurley’s technique stylises and flattens his subjects to a generic ambiguity where only their most irreducible identifying signs remain, but without falling into caricature. His painting style is a synthesis between the naivety of a nineteenth century amateur folk painter, the hard, mineral, cubist blankness of Fernand Léger, the Art Deco lustre of Tamara de Lampicka and Rita Angus, and the tightly cropped and strangely depersonalised celebrity screenprint portraits of Andy Warhol. Hurley’s work has a loose genealogical affiliation with the work of his contemporary Peter Stichbury (both graduated from Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Art within a year of each other, Stichbury in 1997 and Hurley in 1998), although Hurley eschews Stichbury’s concerns with modelling, volume and space.

The effect of all this is thoroughly anachronistic and retrograde. There’s an ahistorical timelessness about Hurley’s art that fits everywhere and nowhere, a mindfulness and Zen-like self-negation. The portraits, especially, feel like some kind of identikit exercise in which wigs, whiskers and accessories are applied to a mannequin, Mr. Potato Head-fashion—the same cupid’s bow mouth, same arched eyebrow, same suggestion of philtrum between nose and mouth, eyes only differentiated by colour. The source material for Hurley’s painting often has a nostalgic resonance with the past. This trope was particularly overt in the ongoing series Boy with (2013–), cycling a stylised boy’s face, soft and rounded (suggestive of Rita Angus’ Head of a Maori Boy (1938), in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery), through a series of borrowed adult facial accoutrements out of history, cribbed from a vernacular of melodramatic kitsch, paintings and old photographs.

Hurley’s people are impassive, hieratic, schematic, and mask-like; somewhat androgynous, somewhat wistful, their frisson is partly an expression of the “uncanny valley” – the relationship between our hard-wired recognition of faces and the emotional response they elicit. The “valley” lies at the point of ambiguity where the face is just sufficiently not quite right to tickle our sense of the unheimlich or uncanny. This is further enhanced by the restricted palette of muted, ashen pastels, shaded with black and brown, giving the impression of a 1930s advertisement for a porcelain doll, or even earlier techniques like rustic eighteenth century pamphlet woodcuts. Any suggestion of the humanity of portraiture, or the celebrity of identity, are quietly rinsed away. We are required to consider the ontological implications. The face, even at its most nonspecific and unemotive, even as a scaffold to accessorise, is still a sign, and is still communicating something to the viewer by virtue of its basic existence. Given human nature, even if we all looked like a Hurley type, how long would it be before we found some trivial point of difference to separate ourselves by and declare war on one other?