The Work of Art

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Michael Lett is excited to be back on the strip.

In 2003, Michael Lett’s eponymous gallery opened just along from Urge bar and the Prostitute’s Collective on Auckland’s Karangahape Road. The first show, Dive, featured a video of female models swimming in a pool observed by the artist, Steve Carr, clad in scuba gear. Subsequent exhibitions (over 100 of them) have seen the gallery smeared with mud and half-filled with pink balloons, walls erected and demolished and work made from every possible substance (spit, bran flakes, paper towels) displayed in every way imaginable. “I try not to let the commercial imperative get in the way of the artist’s vision,” Lett says. It’s an approach that has seen Lett earn a reputation as one of New Zealand’s leading gallerists.

Michael Lett’s interest in contemporary art began early. At age 15, he would bus in from Orewa to visit Auckland’s dealer galleries; at 16, he bought his first work (a painting by John Reynolds). Following University study and work in both public and dealer galleries, Lett opened his gallery at age 25. “My experience of working with artists at other galleries wasn’t always as collaborative as I thought it should be,” Lett says. “I wanted to work with artists in a more collegial, mutually respectful way.”

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In 2011, Lett left the original K’ Road location and moved the gallery into a converted 6000 square foot car workshop, a space that offered room to present more ambitiously scaled projects. In late May this year, the gallery returned to K’ Road, moving to the newly renovated historic Union Bank of Australia and New Zealand building situated at 312 K’ Road. “The opportunity arose to relocate into these elegantly scaled rooms, which offer different possibilities to a sprawling warehouse. There’s also an amazing basement space that is in complete contrast to the gallery above… in a previous life it was a bank vault, and in a parallel universe is probably a cruise club.” 

Lett is excited to be back on the strip. “There’s no doubt that it’s one of the most interesting streets in Auckland. It has a certain energy that I love and it doesn’t hurt that is has some good bars too.”

Since 2003, Lett has built up a formidable stable of artists, ranging from established figures such as Shane Cotton to younger talents including Campbell Patterson and Imogen Taylor. “My interests are wide-ranging. The gallery doesn’t have a ‘house style’ of work. I’m drawn both to intimate drawings and rambling installations, and often find myself attracted to work that I don’t fully understand,” Lett comments. “It’s about the artist too: I need to know that we can develop a strong relationship.”

Michael Lett
Michael Lett

One of those artists is Simon Denny. “Simon and I spent a lot of time talking in the lead up to his final art school presentation. It was clear that he had a unique way of working, and was making very sharp work. I was intrigued and excited enough to offer him a show and the keys to the gallery. Simon spent the four-week summer break making his show in situ. The rest is history.” Denny, now 32, is based in Berlin and is widely regarded internationally as a key figure in ‘post-internet’ art. Denny’s project Five Eyes has been chosen as New Zealand’s official representative at the 2015 Venice Biennale (the so-called ‘Olympics’ of the art world).

And Denny isn’t the only artist Lett has seen rise from art school to art star, with a number of the gallery’s artists having received accolades internationally. “It’s important that our artists look beyond the context of the New Zealand art world,” Lett says. “I really believe in these artists, and their work deserves to be seen beyond these shores.”

Article | Alexis Drake. Photo | Russ Flatt

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