BY Jennifer Kabat in Features | 12 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 161

In Focus: Kate Newby

The art of tiny revelations

BY Jennifer Kabat in Features | 12 MAR 14

Stained cotton sheets, pebbles made of clay, a lump of concrete – Kate Newby’s work can look radically slight. In 2011, the New Zealand artist fell in love with some nails that were embedded in the floor of the Auckland gallery Hopkinson Cundy (now Hopkinson Mossman), and for her show there, ‘I’ll follow you down the road’, she re-created their line with shiny new ones, turning off the lights so that only daylight from the windows illuminated them. Last winter, on the remote Fogo Island off the coast of Newfoundland, Newby made a pothole at the end of a track. Approximating a puddle, it filled with snow, melted, iced over and will eventually (if it hasn’t already) disappear – an earthwork in miniature.

Newby often celebrates the minutiae of everyday life; her work is an invitation to look further and see more. Consequently, what she creates is frequently overlooked, and she doesn’t worry about whether you know where the ‘art’ is. Her series ‘Pocket Charms’ (2011–ongoing) includes nails, coins and pull-tabs from cans – some found, others remade and cast in silver – which remain indistinguishable from the originals. When Newby first exhibited the charms in 2011, as part of the biennial ‘Prospect: New Zealand Art Now’, they were hidden in the pockets of gallery attendants, who would take the work home with them at night. 

Let the other thing in (Drew), 2013, c-type print, 42 × 32 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland

For several years, the artist has been working on the series ‘Let the other thing in’ (2011–ongoing), which comprises rocks for skimming on water. She’ll hand a porcelain pebble to a friend to skip across everything from a swimming pool on Long Island to a remote pond on Fogo, from the East River to the Mississippi – wherever she and the friend happen to be. But what exactly transpires? Is the moment itself art? Or the pebble she’s made? Or the friendship being celebrated? Or the throwing away of something she, an artist, has created? Or, is it the photographs she takes on her iPhone to record the event? Whatever the answer, something ephemeral is marked that becomes a way to consider all of these questions.

Last September, at La Loge in Brussels, Newby created the installation ‘Maybe I won’t go to sleep at all’ (2013), which spread across all four floors of the Masonic-lodge-turned-gallery. Gauzy sheets billowed over the ceiling. Bold swatches of yellow silk were laid on top of the cotton, which was covered with rain-stained striations and footprints. Seen from a window above, the room was calm; it reminded me of watching clouds from an aeroplane. From below, in the former temple itself, the installation reconfigured the room, veiling the lights and wooden grille overhead. Temples and churches all drive attention to the front, to the altar, but Newby interrupts that. She makes you look up, not forward, transforming the hierarchy endemic to the space.

For her show ‘Crawl out your window’ (2010) at Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst (GAK) in Bremen, Newby hung a soiled curtain in the gallery. Here, the dirt had accumulated when the artist and her friends used the sheet as a picnic blanket, while at La Loge the stains came from Newby hanging bolts of fabric outside her studio on the top floor of the building – both works, however, serve as a kind of diary. At GAK, the artist made a corridor with the sheets, shaping light from the window and drawing attention to the outside. Looking out of the window and across the river, the visitor could see scrawled on a wall: ‘Try, try.’ Newby wrote this in response to a Lawrence Weiner piece on GAK’s riverside foundations: ‘having been built on sand with another base (basis) in fact.’ His statement was both about culture and about the island on which GAK stands, which is sinking. Newby’s exhortation was filled with hope and humour: try and try again, even if you know it will fail. Her graffiti will be painted over or wear off – people might miss it entirely – but it’s about the encouragement to see, to respond, and the hope offered up in the tiny revelations available to us if we look. 

‘Maybe I won’t go to sleep at all’, 2013, exhibition view at La Loge, Brussels. Courtesy: La Loge, Brussels

‘Crawl out your window’ won Newby the 2012 Walters Prize. Bestowing the award, judge Mami Kataoka described the work as ‘the most reserved but radical way of transcending the fixed architectural space for contemporary art’. A ‘translation’ of the GAK show installed at the Auckland Art Gallery, it included a concrete ramp with a puddle, gum and silver pull-tabs stuck in the surface. It looked like something from the street dragged into a museum and, indeed, Newby has written odes to stretches of footpaths and carrier bags caught in trees. In a gallery setting, the ramp was as confusing as the concrete mound the artist created in La Loge to force the temple doors open. The concrete stops you short. Is it blocking the entrance? Do you walk on it? Are you allowed to? How do you interact with something defined as art? Newby’s questions are subtle. This isn’t institutional critique, nothing that heavy. The answers are left open-ended.

Newby’s work reflects her daily observations and, in her hands, the banal becomes transcendent – but that doesn’t make it pretty or graceful or grand. Her approach is confusing and potentially awkward. It’s meant to stop you, to ask you to notice more, like her pothole that you may or may not see. In an email to me about a wind chime she was going to hang on Fogo Island, Newby wrote that she likes her work to be a bit ‘renegade’, something you could ‘encounter if you’re out walking or might hear from a distance’. In the end, she couldn’t install the chime; the wind was too strong. So she held off and, last autumn, hung one at the highest spot in Copenhagen as part of a group show at Henningsen Gallery. Of course, there are no signs or directions to the piece. After all, it’s an invitation. 

Kate Newby is based between Auckland, New Zealand, and New York, USA. In 2013, she had solo shows at the Fogo Island Gallery, Newfoundland, Canada; La Loge, Brussels, Belgium; and Hopkinson Cundy, Auckland. This year she will be included in group shows at Arnolfini, Bristol, UK; Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland Slopes, Melbourne, Australia.

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.