Fashion, art, sex, death and cigarettes. There’s always a bit of rock’n’roll when Heather Straka hits town!
The surprise here though, is Straka’s presentation of photographs as opposed to paintings. Assisted by a renowned fashion team – stylist, photographer & lighting expert – Straka has produced an exhibition of large format photographs which noticeably echo her distinctive painterly practice. Photography has in fact, played an important part in her painting for some years now. The immaculate stylised paintings of Asian, Maori & Polynesian women made since 2004 have been painted from photographs, using models carefully chosen, always elegantly coiffured and softly lit. The same process informs this exhibition. Except that here the models are younger, they’re all smoking and they are mainly Japanese.
Take the large group portrait, The Anatomy Lesson. Here Straka makes reference to Rembrandt’s 1632 painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, and to her time spent in the dissecting room of the Otago School of Medical Sciences during her 2008 Frances Hodgkins Fellowship. In this work, Straka deals with a number of themes she has continued to explore for several years: the (often conflicting) roles of the anatomist and the artist; the relationship between the artist and the artist’s model; and the politics of sexuality and identity in global society. We are presented with a lifeless human ‘body’ (blonde, white, boyish female) on an anatomist’s trolley, surrounded by an unlikely and inappropriate group of young Asian, schoolgirl-like, cigarette-holding observers. As director, Straka ingeniously sets a scene that suggests kinkiness and voyeurism, all the while illustrating how models are mere objects, there to be manipulated at the whim of the artist and the designer.
The individual portraits are rather more delicately provocative. Self-assurance mingles finely with welcome and compliance. There is a definite element of come hither – particularly from beneath the fringe of Betty and the eyelid of Crystal – while there is a lighter sense of play about Cindy and an almost aloof sense of inquiry in the (uplifted) gaze of Shirley. This is in part, Straka’s point. She pokes at the clichéd Westerner’s inability to tell Asians apart, while playing a clever game of ‘spot the differences’ with the viewer. Hung in a row, the five portraits are the same size, format and composition, but each is distinct. The models are dressed in the same red uniform, their colour bouncing off the stained, signature Straka greenish-grey ground behind. They have the look and names of cheap hospitality, but with grooming and skin to die for. And although each of the young women looks directly into the camera, there are rich differences of eyelid, brow, angle of head and poise with a cigarette. Interaction, as we know, is a subtly beautiful thing. The choreography that Straka delivers is one of desire, discretion and restraint.
– Jonothan Smart