Artist Judy Millar creates a show-stopper at Auckland Art Gallery

Photography by David Straight

A Hard Place

A brand-new, puzzle-like artwork by Judy Millar at Auckland Art Gallery exuberantly fills a tough space.

“I’m like an anti-conceptionalist,” says artist Judy Millar, as we stand gazing up at her liquorice-strap-like sculpture, ‘Rock Drop’, suspended within Auckland Art Gallery’s previously barren south atrium staircase space. The plywood installation is stickered with enlarged images of Millar’s paintings, its geometric structure cascading down the stairs and shape-shifting from every viewing angle. It was designed and commissioned specifically for the space, and Millar thinks of it as a cross between The Flintstones and the artwork of Jean Dubuffet. “Something warm and friendly and cuddly and kind of dumb and cute, but also very appealing,” she says. While the structure is a complex arrangement of plywood pieces that slot together, the meaning behind it is open to interpretation. “I like things that are fluid,” says Millar. “Thoughts aren’t crystallised ideas, they’re much more fluid than that.” Here, we find out more about the artwork.

The title

‘Rock Drop’ came to Millar as she read Homer’s The Odyssey at the beginning of her artistic process. In the story, the character Ulysses has to navigate a passage called the Wandering Rocks, a natural formation that shipwrecks many sailors. “They think the rocks move,” says Millar. “Which of course is not true, it’s just that the perception of them is so difficult. So this idea of the wandering rocks and how perception alters or challenges us was really a lot to do with the title.” 


The piece is made up of two very different patterns; one visible from the top of the stairs, the other visible from the bottom and both painted with a mix of oils and acrylics. The black and white side hints at Millar’s fascination and love for comic books, whereas the colourful, ribbon-like, swirly side is more playful and child-like. The latter was created on tiny ribbons of paper, painted and then twisted before being photographed, enlarged and screen-printed to fit the piece.


With the actual planning of the final structure using computer-aided software, Millar took a back seat and left it to the engineers at Jarrah Construction. “They’re about to work on Avatar, so they’re very skilled prop makers,” says Millar. The structure was built by a boat builder from Team New Zealand.


Millar had a friend tell her they thought the work was a cross between Duchamp’s 1912 painting ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ and the fictional film characters of Transformers. “I thought that was so cool,” she says. “I actually spent a plane ride watching the latest Transformers film with the sound muted, because I’m not at all interested in the story, but I’m totally into the visuals.”

The space

Millar says she enjoyed the challenge of working with a difficult space. “There’s not very many people who can or would want to take it on, but I really like dealing with complex, tense spaces, because I love to work off the tension of the space.” She hopes the artwork encourages people to sit on the stairs and write notes.

‘Rock Drop’ can be seen at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki until Sun 7 Jul, 2019