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In the world of nincompoops

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

Francis Upritchard has long since earned her stripes as a leading New Zealand contemporary artist. Based in England almost since graduation from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 1998, she has exhibited around the world. June Fairhead went to look at her solo show in the USA.

Francis Upritchard

UCLA Hammer Museum

Los Angeles, 2015

I was lucky enough to stop off in Los Angeles to catch the recent Francis Upritchard Exhibition at the UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) Hammer Museum.

This was her first solo show on the West Coast of America and comes after a successful solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London last year.

Upritchard, born in New Plymouth, was New Zealand’s representative at the 2009 Venice biennale and is presently living in London where she is represented by the Kate MacGarry Gallery. She has also exhibited widely in Europe and Asia.

Entering her exhibition is to find yourself surrounded by slightly humorous sculptural figures, of different nationalities and different times. It is as if the past has married the future and given birth to the present in the form of slightly sub-human forms.

The figures are painted in bright colours and geometric patterns. Some wear gaudy clothes, others medieval chain mail or Indian garb. All wear trance like expressions on their faces, as if they are perhaps meditating.

However this is contemporary work that reminds us of the pretensions of culture, and how art distinguishes us from the rest of nature, and that we are purely observers.

On first glance the work appears unpolished and unsophisticated because it is so raw. Possibly people relate to the combination of the human figure, primary colours and the archetypal characters, or the sense of quirkiness and childlike quality.

Using polymer clay that’s baked then painted, and dressed in hand made costumes Upritchard creates worlds within worlds. This is a place where the past present and future collide in a fantasy world that crosses between the medieval mythology of jesters, knights, mandrakes and present day non-conformists, psychics, hippies, and “nincompoops” ( the name of one of the pieces).

Then there are the Dinosaurs with their lumpy bodies and sharp teeth, a cross between cuddly and fierce. These are made from Balatta an earthy substance that Upritchard discovered in Brazil when there on a residency. She likes to push the boundaries of materials, whether it is glass-blowing, welding or modelling.

She is drawn to a variety of arts, crafts, and design from around the world produced over the past several centuries, and an array of objects and techniques have informed her work: the fifteenth century German sculptor Erasmus Grasser’s wooden figures; the Bayeux Tapestry, made in the eleventh century with its scenes of the Norman conquest of England, the bronze figures of the Chola dynasty in India, and the blank expressions of the masks used in Japanese Noh theatre.

All these not so human figures have a presence about them, or an attitude that alludes to the idea that our world is something we create. We are part of nature but we are not quite part of it, we live in a liminal area of the past present and future that overlaps, a world we carry in our minds.

These figures are truly haptic pieces, everything from the modelling, painting and dyeing of some fabrics are done by Upritchard. All are intricately modelled and shaped into interesting stances that bring a sense of otherworldliness and are quite an antidote to the work of artists such as Jeff Koons whose work is entirely machine made.

Yet, when asked by an interviewer whose work Upritchard would most like to own her answer was 'one of Jeff Koons' pink pieces it would brighten up my back-yard.' She lives on a council estate in London. A sense of humour and the absurd is never far from the surface.

Hopefully she will brighten up New Zealand by coming home with her installations sooner rather than later.

First published ArtZone #59

June Fairhead lived in New Zealand for ten years, where she worked in publishing. At the time of writing she was an artist living in Ireland. After studying Fine Art in the UK, she now enjoys keeping a keen eye on the English and European art scene hunting out Kiwis exhibiting abroad.


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