Nick Austin’s Archive Fever

Robyn Maree Pickens on a master of conceptual meandering.

Without play, nothing moves, as we know from losing teeth. 

—Lauren Berlant 

Whangārei-born artist Nick Austin has lived in Ōtepoti Dunedin—with his partner, the painter Saskia Leek, and their daughter Agatha—ever since he was the Frances Hodgkins Fellow in 2012. Although I live just down the road from them, this is my first visit to Austin’s and Leek’s central-city studio. I ask if I can look around, but my eyes have already darted between art works and objects crammed into the small space, lingering on postcards and handwritten notes stuck to the wall above Austin’s standing desk. After days spent in a fruitless quest to identify typologies and taxonomies of the visual puns that comprise his painting and sculpture practice, I find myself making tangential connections that nevertheless make sense of his idiosyncratic archive. I make an effortless connection between the brick sculpture of a house Austin is constructing on his desk and large paintings stacked against an adjacent wall, still in their cardboard packaging. It might seem unusual to take note of stacked paintings, their contents sealed and inaccessible, yet stacking, sealing, and opacity are formal arrangements, affective states, and subject matter at the centre of Austin’s practice. 

As there are always exceptions to organising principles, only some of these characteristics coalesce in one of Austin’s best-known series, Travelling Envelope (2012). With their deadpan, wry humour, these acrylic-on-newspaper paintings feature a large, lone envelope hitchhiking in all seasons. The envelope always has its back to the viewer and an arm extended as it faces each single car on each deserted road. Austin withholds the identity and story of his epistolary protagonist, and, by placing the impossible object (a personified envelope) in an otherwise plausible setting (a country road), he rearranges our perceptive apparatus. We are forced to ask uncommon questions: Why does an envelope have an arm? Why is it travelling? How will it fit into the small car?

Beyond these incongruities, however, the constrained tension of this series is generated at the intersection of timing and compassion: Will the car stop for the envelope? The impossibility of the personified envelope becomes a cipher, a wandering traveller able to be inhabited by any viewer facing an ethical dilemma concerning care between strangers. Perhaps it is true that, before there is movement and change, there has to be play. 

Before making the Travelling Envelope series, Austin painted envelopes stacked, each smaller than the one beneath, in a three-tier tower formation (Priorities 2007). The other evening, when I first entered the studio, Austin appeared to be engaged in a comparable act of play. He was stacking brightly coloured Lego-like bricks to complete the last wall of the house sculpture. This particular end wall incorporated two real bricks positioned to represent a beige door at the bottom left and a white window part-way up on the right. The real bricks simultaneously retained their brick ontology and became representational signifiers of doors and windows in a house made from educational toys. In this visual and sculptural pun, there was a doubling, if not a tripling, of the real brick across medium, material, and function. Unusually for Austin, this work is Untitled (2022), and yet there is a predecessor, a painting of a sealed, brown cardboard box, also Untitled (2013). Similarities and differences between these two works abound. Both are rectangular, but, where the cardboard box enigmatically withholds its contents, the roofless house reveals its interior and real brick inhabitants. 

My recollection of Austin’s box paintings provided another impetus to momentarily consider the stacked paintings still in their cardboard wrapping. The point is not so much that seemingly endless connections and comparisons can be made across Austin’s eighteen-year exhibition history, but that, with time, his archival play becomes more apparent and layered. The envelope and brick are two useful, similarly shaped objects of enclosure to track Austin’s layered play.

Both appeared in Austin’s mid-career survey exhibition Life Puzzle at Whangārei Art Museum (9 April–10 July 2022). For Austin, the exhibition provided an opportunity to show the rich, interwoven bodies of work he made in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, on residencies overseas, and in O¯tepoti Dunedin. It included the three-tier envelope tower Priorities (2007), a later iteration 2020 (2020), the Travelling Envelope series, the Shark Envelope series (2014), a pillow-envelope sculpture I’m Pregnant (2017), and sheets of NZ Post stamps featuring Travelling Envelope #9. As part of the public programme, participants could write a letter and send it into the real world with a travelling-envelope stamp. In an inversion of the real brick in the toy-house sculpture, the painted envelope has become a real stamp (and a miniature painting in a different medium). Real bricks appeared in Life Puzzle, stacked in a vertical column approximating the size of a single bed with a real pillow affixed to the top (Panadol 2007). In 2014, Austin superimposed a framed coloured-pencil-on-paper drawing of a spider meeting a wristwatch on an arm or pipe onto an acrylic painting of a brick wall on the Big Wall of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery (The Town Wrist Watch). Economically, he only painted on half of the Big Wall, effectively turning it into a Small Wall. Austin’s archival play stretches the contract between real and representational to its thinnest point or amplifies it to the thickness of a thesis.

A work in Life Puzzle that suggests Austin’s September 2022 exhibition at Robert Heald Gallery will be part two of his mid-career moment is Life, Post-Cricket (2022). This work—which will provide the title for his September exhibition—is an idiosyncratic archive, a curated selection of books hermetically sealed within a clear-Perspex vitrine. The book titles and their authors—who share their names with famous Aotearoa New Zealand cricketers—suggest anomalies. For instance, there’s Chris Cairns’s Send in the Clowns: Political Cartoons: Volume 2 (2017) and Stephen Fleming’s Pyrography for Beginners Handbook (2020). None of the authors are professional cricketers, which makes this collection of eleven books arranged on a pitch-green background both a real and a redirected-real archive.

In the studio, Austin introduces me to one final transpositional swerve across ontologies and mediums that will also feature in Life, Post-Cricket at Robert Heald. We turn away from the brick sculpture to focus on a long, skinny painting of a denim-clad leg on which a fabric poached egg has fallen or been stitched. The egg has landed sunny side up and the painting is called Casuals (2011). Austin also shows me a brown jersey. It has elbow patches, but they are eggshell not leather. The small fragments of eggshell have been glued on, but with gaps that could resemble stitches from a distance. This is Egg Jersey 3 (2022). I had already noticed Austin’s elbow sticking out of the worn blue jersey he was wearing. I had already been reminded of the travelling envelope’s bony elbow. Austin then holds the eggshell-elbow-patched jersey above the poached-egg-on-jeans painting and the organising principles of reality shift again. A fabric poached egg has been cracked from a real egg. The eggshell fragments have reassembled the egg into its customary shape that doubles as an elbow patch. The jersey is real; the singular leg is painted. “These will go together,” he says, flatly. Austin is unlikely to lose any teeth.

More from Issue °195, Spring 2022

The Museum of Without

Dane Mitchell frames absence in his current exhibition Unknown Affinities at Two Rooms in Tāmaki Makaurau.

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