Months ago, I stumbled upon Joe Sheehan’s work quite by accident, whilst researching another artist. My attention was caught: cassette tapes, keys, sunnies, Bic pens, all crafted from pounamu (greenstone). I was intrigued by such quotidian objects forged from a stone of such cultural significance in New Zealand. I made a mental note to catch an exhibition of his, and surely enough one has come around!
Part of the Auckland Festival of Photography, Screenshots at Tim Melville Gallery features several sublime images. Sheehan’s photographs are so magnified that they flood the entirety of the frame. At first glance, I wasn’t immediately convinced that these were images of pounamu. The colours are so saturated; there is a sharp contrast between light and dark in a number of them; and they appear almost alien and abstract. His exquisitely carved pounamu ‘slides’ could resemble anything from epic landscapes to an expansive cosmos.
You can view images of the works on the gallery’s website:
What becomes apparent when looking at his photographs is a fascination with light and perception. I couldn’t help but recall a line from the musical film Gigi (1958) with Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan and Maurice Chevalier, where Gigi’s aunt states that the best emeralds have an elusive blue flame that darts about in the depths. I think Sheehan has managed to capture the dazzling fire in these stones – they appear lit from within.
This light lends to the abstraction of these artworks: when I saw Screenshot 9 (2014,Chromira photograph on Fujiflex Crystal Archive, 43 x 43 cm) I thought it could be a photo of a blazing crevasse bordered by an ebony forest. Similarly with Screenshot 12 (2014,Chromira photograph on Fujiflex Crystal Archive, 43 x 43 cm) it brought to mind Sauron’s eye, and I swear I could see a ghostly Christ-like figure being raptured in its depths. There are a number of transfixing images that can be perceived in his wonderful works, which you really must see for yourselves!
Sheehan’s work is a refreshing exploration of the commercial, political and cultural issues around pounamu in our contemporary world. One such issue would be sourcing, as Ngai Tahu were granted control of pounamu in the ‘90s, and he now works with local stones as well as those imported from Canada, Russia and so forth. It is interesting how Sheehan has crafted items that are often used to record history for posterity, such as pens, cassette tapes, a slideshow projector, and these photographs, in order to reflect on our history and culture. His works are reflective as they are enticing, as he puts pounamu and our thoughts around it under the microscope. Sheehan’s progressive shift from sculpting stones to carving ‘slides’ and photographing them, ask us to widen our view on pounamu and its potential in art.
Screenshots runs until Saturday 28th June 2014 at Tim Melville Gallery in Newmarket, do check it out before it ends 🙂
Thanks for stopping by!
 Anna-Marie White, ‘The Quick and the Dead: Recent Work by Joe Sheehan,’ Art New Zealand 148 (Summer 2013-14): pp. 74-75.