“Art is a time machine,” says Dr Lara Strongman, senior curator at Christchurch Art Gallery, Te Puna o Waiwhetu. “It gives you the ability to look through the eyes of people of the past and new ways to frame how you see things today.” Having worked at a number of galleries around the country, and with a PhD on the relationship between popular culture and contemporary New Zealand art, Strongman is fascinated by the power galleries have to connect people and ideas. “There’s a continuous interchange of ideas going on. They really are an engine room, I think, for the production of new forms of culture.”
From the vault of Christchurch Art Gallery’s contemporary collection, Strongman has curated Your Hotel Brain, bringing works out of storage to shed new light on them. Those featured have one obvious thing in common: they’re all New Zealand artists who came to prominence in the 1990s and early 2000s, many honing their craft in Christchurch.
Ask Strongman about her favourite works in the exhibition, and you’ll find another side to the story. They’re also all artists she first met when starting her career in Christchurch. “They’re artists whose work has absolutely informed the way I look at the world.”
Tony de Lautour’s five-metre-long painting, Underworld 2, (pictured top right) reflects our current culture where everything is jostling for attention in a digital world, she says. “I think it’s an amazing visual metaphor for this moment in history.”
Shane Cotton’s Untitled (Head) 3-5 (pictured below right) is a mesmerising work of reflection for her. “He’s conflating customary Maori practices and histories with modernist European painting; putting those things together and transforming them into something new that speaks of this place and the place of Aotearoa New Zealand in the wider world.”
Spot Strongman on the gallery floor and she’ll likely be wearing “artgallery black”. She’s fond of homegrown brands including Helen Cherry, Kowtow and Ingrid Starnes and sees jewellery as a chance to showcase local talent such as Rangi Kipa, whose necklace she wore for this shoot.
As passionate as she is about art, Strongman has another “obsession”: TV, which she reports on during a regular slot on Radio New Zealand. Her current recommendations? The Casketeers and Deadwood.
Strongman often does her viewing research at home with husband Neil Semple (projects manager at the gallery) and children Thomas
(14) and Lily (10). While their Strowan abode is still suffering from earthquake damage – “My home aesthetic at the moment is large cracks in the wall and peeling paint,” she jokes – her walls are still a source of pleasure, lined with a collection of works from artists she’s worked with and whose company she’s enjoyed over the years – “old friends whose works are now old friends, too”.
This time it’s personal – Lara Strongman has close ties with every piece she’s selected for the new exhibition Your Hotel Brain at Christchurch Art Gallery.