Would You Like Art With That Bungee Jump?

In New Zealand, jump off a bridge, then go shop for art. Pictured here: Paul Mason's bronze
In New Zealand, jump off a bridge, then go shop for art. Pictured here: Paul Mason's bronze "9 Crucibles" at Wellington's Avid Gallery. (Avid Gallery)
By Gretchen Cook
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 26, 2006

Jet boating, bungee jumping, kite boarding, heli-skiing, sport fishing -- that's what a trip to New Zealand is all about, right? Kiwis have thrill-seeking down to an art, and the greatest of the great outdoors to seek them in. But visitors often overlook the thrills to be had within four walls -- art gallery walls, to be specific.

New Zealand's contemporary-art scene offers plenty of kicks for connoisseurs and museum-phobes alike, with innovative materials, bold new takes on old traditions and wow-factor displays. The works may be housed in buildings with edgy architecture or set among natural wonders (with no admission fees), and all comers will be welcomed with an unpretentiousness not usually found in such venues.

Stuffing some of these works in the overhead bin might be a bit of a challenge, but there are plenty of travel-friendly objects if shopping's your bag. They can also be more budget-friendly than you'd expect: Though Kiwi artists are gaining worldwide acclaim, their relative obscurity generally prevents them from commanding top dollar. Exchange rates, the economy and the notoriously tight Kiwis keep prices down as well.

Geographical isolation sends many islanders off for an "OE," Kiwispeak for overseas experience. That may explain the artists' sophisticated grasp of so many schools of art. While there's nothing new in marrying Old and New World elements, the country's long tradition of abstraction produces styles strikingly unlike those usually associated with ethnic imagery or folk art.

Many Pakeha (whites of European origin) artists have embraced Maori traditions, but best known is Gordon Walters, one of New Zealand's most revered painters. His vast series using the elegant Maori koru motif (also Air New Zealand's logo) is the result of years of working on an abstraction of that design. The sharp, precise lines of an almost machine-made quality create a dazzling 3-D positive-negative effect. Even those who find abstract art inaccessible will marvel at the simple beauty of Walters's works.

The country's unparalleled natural beauty is another muse for its artists. Colin McCahon can encompass an entire vista in almost a single brush stroke, while Maori artist Simon Kaan draws on his origins as well as those of the Chinese and Europeans for his gorgeous minimalist seascapes. John Edgar uses his background as a research chemist and prospector to capture nature in exquisite stone sculptures.

These are the leading lights to look for, and most major contemporary galleries will carry at least a few of their works. Such masters can command prices heading into the tens of thousands, but a bit of hunting can unearth some of their smaller works for a bargain. Overall, be prepared to be unprepared for what awaits you.

In Auckland

Take Auckland's Sue Crockford Gallery (2 Queen St., 011-64-9-309-5127, http://www.suecrockford.com/), tucked in the corner of a stately old office building. The soaring ceilings and huge picture windows with panoramic views of the city's shimmering harbor recently offered the perfect backdrop for a collection of . . . garbage. The vast white walls were hung with Bill Culbert's surprisingly beautiful work, basically old plastic bottles skewered on fluorescent tubes.

One of the country's senior artists, Culbert dumpster-dives for detergent bottles and other mundane vessels, paints them vivid colors (or leaves them au naturel) and illuminates them to remarkably lovely effect. Items at the gallery start at $3,000.

Elsewhere in Auckland, head to the Ponsonby Road strip, where hundreds of Victorian houses drip with elaborate wrought-iron verandas and cornices. It's also home to the quirky new Objectspace (8 Ponsonby Rd., 011-64-9-376-6216, http://www.objectspace.org.nz/) and the well-established Masterworks (77 Ponsonby Rd., 011-64-9-378-1256, http://www.masterworksgallery.com/).

Another prime location for art seekers is the chic Parnell shopping district, whose galleries include Artis (280 Parnell Rd., 011-64-9-303-1090, http://www.artisgallery.biz/) and Ferner (367 Parnell Rd., 011-64-9-309-0107, http://www.ferner.co.nz/).

The setting is the draw for the Parnell and Ponsonby spaces, which are mostly small and architecturally unremarkable. But you'll find some big names displayed to their best advantage, and the tony locations don't necessarily translate into higher prices. Artists' pieces are rotated frequently, so ask for those not shown. The galleries are sure to have a few in the back, or the staff will have contacts for where to get them.

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