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Crushing it

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Monique Lacey takes a simple cardboard box, then squashes it, paints it, and turns it into art. Sarah Catherall explains.

Monique Lacey, All that glitters ain't gold, 2018

Crushing the packaging material is a big part of the 58-year-old artist’s process. By interrupting the rigid right angles of the boxes and disfiguring them, she gives them new meaning.

The Auckland artist says, ‘I either lean on it or jump on it, whichever way the box will move, to get its final shape. It has a bit of humour to it. It can be playful or aggressive.’

The Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design fine arts graduate likes working with found objects, turning commercial packaging, duct tape and plaster strips into sculptures. ‘I really enjoy places like Bunnings where there’s so much stuff, all sorts of things’, even if ‘I don’t know what it is or what it’s for.’

A finalist in the Waikato Contemporary Art Award this year, her current work is making cuboid forms which she describes as ‘trying to collapse baroque and minimalism into each other.’

In a piece called All that glitters ain’t gold, the box and its textured form are minimalist, while the golden light reflected on its surface gives the work a drama that references the baroque period.

Minimalist art emerged in the 1960s, when artists took prefabricated industrial materials to create simple, often repeated geometric forms together, emphasising the physical space occupied by the artwork.

However, Lacey says the period was dominated by male artists. ‘I see my work functioning as benign violations of a male-centred narrative.’

‘I’m crushing the patriarchy but it’s done in a playful way. I’m currently obsessed with Trump and I’m infuriated by him when I’m making the work.’

Her art career began as a painter, and she sees her current works as sculptural paintings on the wall, rather than flat pieces. ‘The big question I ask is, “If I take the idea that a painting is like a bounded volume of some kind, how can the skin or surface disguise or reveal what is beneath?”’

In her artist statement, Lacey says: ‘The works function as benign violations of the established legacies of power that can be tracked back through the histories of the Baroque, De Stijl, and Modernism to the power of the boardrooms that became the resting place of minimalism. Where this language of form and its male-centred narratives were once central and perhaps pertinent, today this language seems outdated, hollow and tiresome.’

Monique Lacey, Blowhold no. 4, 2018

Writing about her work, art critic Francis McWhannell describes the wall sculptures as ‘engorged canvases’. He says that the large diagonal creases and smaller ‘organic fissures’ in the plaster and paint give the works a ‘material richness’.

He observes a potentially productive tension between the minimal ‘austerity’ of the original boxes and the baroque excess of the crushed versions.’The artist not only reconciles opposing qualities, but also uses these to temper her experiments preventing them from lapsing into extremes of asceticism or indulgence. The very form of the works derives from a process of mitigation.’

Lacey has painted the boxes with a range of colours, from sober greys to metallic paints. More recently, she has experimented with coating works in silicone, or dusting them with pigment, creating surfaces recalling those of Anish Kapoor’s powdered sculptures.

Born in Holland, Lacey moved to New Zealand in 1983. She worked as an interior designer, which frequently meant painting walls and old furniture. A painting workshop in 2010 helped her discover that ‘what I really loved was the act of applying paint on a canvas.’

She began experimenting with materials, using household paints and covering canvases with plaster and tar. ‘I’m a maker and I like using different materials. I imagine it’s like being a good cook, where you start to throw different things together.’

She enrolled for a diploma of fine arts at Whitecliffe, and one of the assignments was to make 20 art works over a week. At the end she found she had made 20 wall sculptures. ‘No-one was more surprised than me. I thought, I’m a painter, I don’t really make things.

My tutors told me to go away and make more, and I realised that I wanted to create volume on the wall.’

After finishing her MFA last year, she took up a residency at the Pohchang Academy in Bangkok early this year. Cardboard boxes have been her material of choice, but she is now working on a series of photographs of crushed metal.

She sees a connection between her former career and her art practice: both concern volume and form. A finalist in the National Contemporary Art Award, the Glaister Ennor Graduate Art Award, and the Walker and Hall Waiheke Art Awards, the artist says,’ You do things at a time when you are supposed to I guess.’

First published ArtZone #76


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