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A masterpiece in 160 parts

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Some artworks stand above all others. Here’s why

Hamish Coney

[Art]

In the last few months I have had the good fortune to see a number of artworks I would call masterpieces. This has caused me to ponder on just what constitutes that rarest of art objects: the masterpiece. In January, at the New Gallery in Auckland, I stumbled upon one of the most startling juxtapositions of paintings I have ever seen.

Like two prizefighters glaring across a room, Colin McCahon’s Urewera Triptych of 1975 and Peter Robinson’s Strategic Plan of 1998 hung on opposite walls. Both are heavyweight contenders for the great New Zealand painting of the 20th century: massive, profound and brooding. The space between the two artworks was electric.

Later in summer I had the good luck to be present at the opening of sculptor Gregor Kregar’s outdoor installation, Vanish. The location at the Connells Bay Sculpture Park on Waiheke is one of the seven wonders of New Zealand and certainly added to the enjoyment of this massive artistic achievement, but it would still be a masterpiece if it was installed in a field of cornstubble.

Vanish consists of 160 sculptural self-portraits arranged as row on row of multi-coloured infantry. It is quite the literally the artist as an army. It is a work of ambition, endurance, engineering and self-exploration. To stand in and around Vanish is exhilarating.

Talking with Kregar, I realised how much labour went into making this masterpiece. Vanish took three years of his life, as well as 6.5 tonnes of clay, three tonnes of plaster, two tonnes of LPG and 250 wheelbarrows of concrete. Over 80 firings were needed to create the 160 individual sculptures that range in height from 40 to 150 centimetres. Sixteen different steel molds were fabricated to make the plinths the work stands on and these were cast and placed in a ten-day period. That’s just the bases—the installation of the figures was a full-time job for a team of technicians over three weeks. The job of transportation was a mammoth undertaking requiring individual crates to be made for each figure and a fleet of trucks, cranes, horse floats, boats, trailers and tractors.

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To create his masterpiece, Kregar needed to master a dazzling range of skills: design, casting, firing, glazing and months of finishing work for the 160 figures. He then reinvented himself into a world-class project manager to effect the movement and installation of ten tonnes of sculpture at its home on Waiheke Island. This was a job that required thousands of man-hours and dozens of skilled staff and, in the end, bucketloads of human grunt and heavy machinery to complete.

It began however, as does every masterpiece, with a single moment of inspiration. Every great artwork is an inspired expression of an idea, but explaining the nuts and bolts of the work is the easy bit. Getting your head around the idea that ultimately makes or breaks an artwork is a bit trickier. So what, after three years of toil, is Vanish about?

Finding meaning is where you and I come in. Depending on where you stand, the figures increase or diminish in scale and so your perception will alter. It is both a self-portrait and a metaphor for everyman. We see the individual and the crowd. Kregor has literally revealed and hidden himself through reproduction. The profusion of colour and size telescopes both the figures’ unique characteristics and their role as symbols for the mosaic of genes that make up the entire human race.

Vanish is an artwork that holds the viewer for an eternity and begs you to weave among the multitude. It affords us the chance to physically interact outside and inside as well as through the medium of touch.

So here’s my definition of a masterpiece. It starts with a big idea; then there is the slog to realise the physical object; there is a real sense that the artist is pushing boundaries in scale, complexity or technical accomplishment, and it has a mysterious and electric physical presence. But, most of all, a masterpiece is exciting!