London based, New Zealand artist Francis Upritchard makes figurine sculptures that embody elements from different epochs, creating characters in various guises and gestures that espouse uncertain intentions and ambiguous meanings.
Disconcerting and slightly deviant, these characters traverse across the ages and cultures, blending the ancient and the (post) modern, eastern and western cultures and sometimes even across gender lines. They generally embody an inherent familiarity; their ambiguously familiar gestures are reminiscent of someone that one might have seen somewhere before, but can’t quite remember where exactly.
For the 2009 Venice Biennale, Upritchard produced a 3-part installation, entitled ‘Save Yourself’, of 3 dioramas of figures standing on custom made tables. These 3 parts would be called Lonely, Long and Dancers respectively, and can be seen as part of a story.What that story is about is quite a mystery. Is it about the pursuit of happiness, where people of all cultures find freedom in a ‘tribal’ dance, while in contemporary culture, even grandmothers can find happiness dancing in a shower? Long (2009) seems to be the most intriguing of the three; a ‘purgatory’ stage between heaven and hell, where people do something to find themselves, be it making a vase, philosophizing or taking a long hard look in the mirror. Characteristic to Upritchard’s work, its never so simple in that there are references to historical figures from other cultures (India in this case), tribal cultures, the contemporary man giving a speech and a woman sunbathing. The third part, Lonely (2009) depicts a solitary woman, without clothes on, in a strange leaf-less forest that has been spray painted in rainbow colours. She seems to be pointing at something, talking to herself since there isn’t anyone around. It might be worth noting that she isn’t trapped, so Lonely (2009) can be seen as the first part, with Long (2009) the second and so on. For the 2017 Venice Biennale, its more existential reflections, this time in relation to a curious nostalgia for fundamentalism and conservatism that has recently emerged, the opposite of what the avant garde had been striving for over the past 100 years.
“The modelling or making of something transforms the memory of what it actually was in the first place.” Francis Upritchard
Here, a red skinned man with black stripes, reminiscent of a smiling version of ‘Darth Maul’ (without the horns) in the Star Wars movie, The Phantom Menace, is shown along side an Asian woman on a pedestal, behind a standing dark skinned woman with an ‘afro’ hairdo. While race might have something to do with this, the red skinned man is an ambiguous race since there’s nobody in reality with red skin and black stripes.
Two other nude woman are sitting on the floor are rendered in Upritchard’s ‘contemporary person’ representation of bi-coloured skin; one with a helmet and the other looking druppy, like she’s high on drugs or alcohol. And lastly there are two, grey abstractly sculpted pieces, one of a man wearing a squid-like creature, and the other of a squid on a column.Are Asian women being put (by society) on a pedestal, and black people being thrust into the limelight? It would seem so, but maybe not for the right reasons. In any case, they all don’t seem very happy, except for the red skinned man who faces indifferently away. That everyone seems disjointed from one another might also describe the (fractious) state of the contemporary man (and woman), where some are left to suffer alone, while some enjoy themselves alone and others struggle with squids or strive for whatever it is they want. While Save Yourself (2009) might be a 3-part guide on how to save oneself, The Pavilion Of Traditions (2017) is a snap-shot of modern day life in 2017.
As the Jealous Saboteur exhibition depicts a timeline of the history of New Zealand up to the current, it is this modern day ‘jester’ character, Mandrake (2011) that captures the imagination. A historical character that entertained the monarchy, court jesters also held an important role in that they were one of the few who could bring bad news to the king, and survive.
In Mandrake (2011), it is the diamond pattern that makes a historical reference to the court jester, but that it is done in multi-colours and mono-chromatically on his face suggests a contemporaneous context, courtesy of Andy Warhol’s silkscreens. Still, his modern shades and scarf cannot belie his court jester roots with the whimsical ‘that’s all folks’ or the ‘I don’t know, not my fault’ gesture. But what does this have to do with anything or, why would someone like that be here?
While celebrated jesters possess a certain amount of intelligence, they were generally not ‘the three wise men’ material; I imagine some of them were fools. That some court jesters managed to survive bringing bad news to the king is not, a given. Which is probably why Upritchard highlighted one here. An ephemeral character, one is never quite sure if they’ll be seen again. Always ready to entertain with a song and dance, they are both clever and foolish at the same time which incidentally characterizes the narcissistic contemporary experience where everyone thinks they’re a star and everything’s a spectacle.
Mandrake (2011) Detail
Which also relates to Nincompoop (2011); an old English word that no one ever uses anymore for ‘idiot’. With a face that seems ambiguously male and female at the same time, this character seems to be a mixture of a lot of other things without explicitly saying what it is. Displaying a certain regality with the flowing robes, like a Roman noble, but that assertion is quickly squashed as it is observed that he wears it unbuttoned and his trousers are more like basketball warm up pants. His head gear on the other hand, seems somewhat like that of a pampered woman, like someone who was having a sauna.
Perhaps the word ‘Nincompoop’ was used to make a reference to antiquity; why else would it be used? That the meaning of the piece is found in the ageless characteristics exhibited by people, as human beings don’t tend to invent new ones over the centuries. Or maybe its just an expression, an artistic gesture after she met someone who was sort of like that. All in all, her figurines seem to embody a mixture of different epochs, cultures, sexes and character traits to describe the current human condition.