Curator's radar: Joe Sheehan - Art Collector

Issue 63, January - March 2013

This profile appeared in the Curator's radar feature, part of the annual special issue 50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2013.

Joe Sheehan, Shhhhhh..., 2010. Coromandel granite, 36 x 36 x 36cm. Courtesy: the artist and Tim Melville Gallery, Auckland

Highly regarded for his sculpture in stone – including New Zealand greenstone, South Australian nephrite jade and Tibetan quartz – Joe Sheehan is known for his technical virtuosity as well as his quirky selection of subjects. He has carved everything from cassette tapes, remote controls, AA batteries and light bulbs to paint tubes and television sets. It is this mixture of traditions and the everyday that draws people to his work as he explores the contemporary relevance of stone carving in New Zealand.

Sheehan’s works recently featured in a 10-year survey exhibition at Pataka Art & Museum in Porirua in New Zealand, with the exhibition now slated to tour to the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui and others in 2013. Put together by Helen Kedgley, Pataka’s senior curator of contemporary art, the exhibition included 50 objects, many gathered from public and private collections. Kedgley explains that, apart from regular shows at Tim Melville Gallery in Auckland, Sheehan’s meticulous carving practice does not allow him to make or show a lot of work each year. This, coupled with the small scale of the objects, has meant that he has not had many exhibition opportunities in public or regional galleries. As a result, this 10-year survey has been particularly well received, being described as “unforgettable” by renowned academic Jonathan Mane-Wheoki.

Kedgley says that as a curator she is drawn to the strength of Sheehan’s conceptual framework as well as his technical skills, as he draws on themes such as environmentalism and consumerism, especially the speed with which today’s technologies become outmoded.

“As a Pakeha (non-Maori) carver, Sheehan did not feel constrained by the spirituality associated with greenstone,” she says. The artist agrees, commenting: “While I felt very privileged to be working with greenstone, I didn’t want to be bound by its history.” Instead Sheehan is interested in exploring more contemporary, bicultural stories. His move to other stone sources is seen by Kedgley as a radical departure from his original material but one she believes has also been liberating for him, allowing him to work with materials less loaded with cultural significance. “In some ways,” Sheehan says, “I am lucky that I stand outside of tradition.”

Sue Gardiner

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