Queen of kitsch Judy Darragh on her latest Ōtautahi exhibition, the magic of op shops and returning to her hometown. Words Josie Steenhart
Christchurch-born artist Judy Darragh was on a visit back home when she came up with the title of her latest exhibition, now showing at the Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki (CoCA).
“My dealer, Jonathan Smart, his gallery is out at Linwood, and up from him is an op shop that I always go to, and across from the op shop was this business called Competitive Plastics,” she explains down the phone from her house in Auckland’s Western Springs.
“And I just loved that idea. It was this great sort of ‘50s or ‘60s-looking building, and this idea of competing and plastics… I was going, wow! You know, these two quite powerful words…”
For those unfamiliar with Judy’s work, one of her more prominent materials of choice over her 45-year career in art is plastic, particularly found plastic objects, often with a retro bent – a medium that’s earned her the title ‘Queen of kitsch’.
“So there’s the whole idea of plastics as a material, which I use a lot of in my practice. I’ve been pulling plastic out of the recycling and the op shops and highlighting it and trying to talk about this material, and the problems of the material, and the gorgeousness of the material,” she says.
“We love it because it’s bright and shiny and colourful and that’s why toys are made out of it. So we’re attracted to it. It’s a very useful product, you know? It’s such a cheap, versatile material.
“But then it’s also a problem, in terms of what happens to it, and of course now we’re confronting huge issues with plastics and the environment. So all of that.
“And then the idea of competition – we live in a very competitive environment. Often in the arts, there’s quite a lot of thinking about competing, which is unfortunate, competing for funding, and all that sort of thing.”
The result of these two powerful words for Judy was first shown last year at Auckland’s Objectspace gallery before being installed without fanfare (thanks to Covid) at CoCA in late February.
“We didn’t have an opening, that all got cancelled, so we installed the show and then bailed,” she says with a laugh. “It just felt like, no one’s having openings anymore, no one’s having artist talks. But the show looks amazing. It actually looks at its best ever, in a sense.
“I extended on it, made some works bigger. So it’s got more punch,” she explains. “That space is quite difficult because it’s got a lot of stuff going on in the ceiling, you have to work hard not to let that get in the way. So yeah, we just made everything bigger, scaled everything up, and it kind of works. It was great to be able to do that.”
Having seen photos of Judy’s Auckland home, which she shares with partner Grant Major, an Academy Award-winning production designer, and son Buster, found objects aren’t reserved solely for her work, with carefully curated collections on display in every room. Why does she think humans are drawn to collect things, to create collections of connected objects?
“A lot of the things I collect are old, and there’s a lot of nostalgia around them. I can’t remember who it was, but someone once said to me, ‘People who collect things must have had really happy childhoods’. And that always stuck in my mind because I did, you know! And I remember growing up with my mum’s china cabinet, just full of the most gorgeous things that she would collect – cups and saucers and glass and stuff.”
“So there’s just something joyous about spending time with objects, and there’s a power in objects – they call it the ‘thingyess’ of objects. It fulfils a visual need. You can touch them, you can see them, you can think about them. So objects are really important, you know.”
It was an object too, or a pair of objects, that were the final straw for a young Judy Darragh growing up in “a very conservative Christchurch”. Crossing Cathedral Square to catch a bus home, a woman made a derogatory comment about Judy’s shoes, onto which she had spray-painted silver stars. “I knew I had to leave,” she says.
She does, however, credit her hometown for two very important people, both of whom have had an impact on her life and career to date – her high school art teachers.
“In college I had Rhondda Bosworth, who’s a very important New Zealand woman photographer. We’re still in touch, and it’s pretty funny, she said to me last time I saw her that she had given me the 6th form art prize because she had just sensed something in me. My work wasn’t that great or anything, but she sensed something… I thought that was just so amazing, what an intuition that she had.”
Winning the prize showed Judy a career in art was a real possibility. “I thought, oh my god, this is amazing, you know, this is real! Because I had no understanding of visual arts, we didn’t have artists in our family, and dad always said, ‘When are you going to stop this art rubbish?’ A lot of friends talk about that – their families couldn’t understand them being artists. I think they were scared because, how are you going to make a living, what does that mean, as a career choice?”
“And I just loved Rhondda, she was quite out there, she had funny glasses and wore unusual clothes. I just thought, oh yeah, I want to do that, I want to wear op shop clothes. So she was sort of inspirational.
“And then I went to Papanui High for my 7th form year and there was [artist] Sylvia Giddens. She was amazing. She used to live in Papanui, above a shop, which I thought was cool, and she said she’d painted her bedroom yellow. And I thought, oh my god, a yellow bedroom – how joyous waking up in a yellow bedroom full of sunshine! And guess what, I now have a yellow bedroom!”
Having previously only returned to Christchurch intermittently to see her parents, who have both now passed away, Judy says in recent times (global pandemic notwithstanding), she’s been returning to the city more and more.
“Which is interesting,” she muses. “I think there are some really good people down there now. I think it’s a good time to be there. There are more opportunities, you know, you can make more opportunities.”
Judy Darragh: Competitive Plastics is on at the Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki
until May 7, 2022.