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Abstraction amid isolation

SUIT UP: Evan Woodruffe has merged fashion and art in his latest works, with bespoke suits made to order. Picture by Paul Rickard
STILL IN ISO: Fresh from the Mojave Desert, Matthew Couper is connecting with Tairāwhiti in his isolation series. Picture by Paul Rickard
TORN UP: JK Russ filtered her worry for the world into her collage, Hard Sell Future. Picture supplied

There are new threads running through Paul Nache gallery.

Ideas, clothes and isolation blues have woven their way onto the gallery walls, with a new exhibition by artists Evan Woodruffe, Matthew Couper and JK Russ.

Up the stairs and into the gallery, fresh eyes are hit with Woodruffe’s artworks of “fabulous abstraction”, as gallery owner and curator Matt Clarke calls them.

Woodruffe has taken colour and thread and turned the volume dial to 10 for his Lollygagger works. Red runs and drips over the canvas as orange fastens your seat belt. But colour is only one aspect.

A lover of his clothes, fabric and fashion, Woodruffe took the shirt off his back and inserted the fabric into his artworks, with threads and patterns popping out from behind the paint.

You can imagine Woodruffe saw the words “circular economy” and decided to run with it. Once the paintings are complete, the images are photographed, turned into fabric and sewn into suits. So for a price, you can wear a Woodruffe.

It is a nice story thread applied to canvas then back into fabric, Woodruffe says.

“I like the noise of clothes. Iggy Pop in London in the mid ‘70s had no money. He had, like, $20 and he walks past this shop and saw some silver trousers and thought, ‘f*** it, I’m going to spend the last of my money on those silver trousers’.”

Meaning he had no money to get home.

“He put them on, walked down the road, and of course someone picked him up straight away because of his pants.

“Clothes at their most basic are a second skin. They can express who we are. If you’re Rocky you put on your leather jacket.

“I can go to an art event and I don’t have to have any art on the walls. I become the art.”

Stepping out of Woodruffe’s colourful nook, the gallery opens to Matthew Couper’s visual essay on isolated island life.

Beginning in 2019, he began to explore the idea of seclusion, coming back to the idea again and again for his Isolation Painting Series II.

Couper is a New Zealand born artist, living and working in the Mojave Desert, Nevada. After a decade of painting detailed symbolic work criticising society, he needed a break.

From the middle of 2019, Couper began his isolation paintings and has not stopped. He paints, repaints, rethinks and revisits.

The isolation series feature the same island, moody sky, smoke and pipe in each frame.

“It’s all the same painting over and over again to try to resolve things. Trying to make the best painting, even though you can never do it.”

Living in the desert, Couper keeps looking back to Aotearoa’s seclusion and the new “connected” internet world.

“We’re in a world where more people have existed. Yet more people feel like they’re separated — like they’re by themselves. They’re lonely.

“It’s such an interesting way of thinking about it because you’re denying what you see and relationships and you’re obviously not happy.

“What is that? How do I make a painting out of it?”

For Couper, the paintings are a cathartic exercise to work over the ideas trapped in his head.

The series started pre-pandemic, which Couper calls somewhat “prophetic”, but was inspired by his early life.

“It harks back to thinking about the experiences of living on the coast in New Zealand. Feeling that isolation when I was younger and needing to get overseas.”

More paintings are coming. He still wants to reach the peak, massage the project further and dig deeper into the isolation.

“I haven’t resolved it yet. There are more opportunities to do different variations and change the forms a bit.”

With him in the Mojave Desert is his partner Jo Russ, who goes by JK Russ in the art world.

“We miss being close to the sea but it used to be underwater a long time ago,” Russ says.

“The water used to be there. There used to be this expanse. Now it’s our desert sea.”

Russ has on display Hard Sell Future (2020), her subtly sexy, moon-like, space collage of a world on fire.

“We were both going through a lot of crazy stuff in 2019 and 2020 when the work was being made. There was a sense of being isolated and far away from New Zealand and our collections here. I wasn’t feeling overly optimistic about the state of the world.

“It’s definitely a darker work for me,” Russ says.

Russ and Couper moved stateside on something of a whim.

“Matthew won a green card (a green card allows a foreigner to gain permanent residence in America through a lottery system) and we thought we’d see what it was like.”

That was in 2010.

“We had travelled around the US in 2008 but we hadn’t seen all of it. We like the southwest for the climate. We had a friend in Las Vegas and she introduced us to the world beyond the strip.”

Previously Russ focused on photography and it was not until she got to America that she was caught by collaging, and began tearing apart glossy magazines and posters.

“There’s complete freedom. You’re not documenting a scene. You get to create your own.”

JK Russ, Matthew Couper and Evan Woodruffe are on display now at Paul Nache Gallery, 89 Grey Street.