Emma Hercus’ Experimental Work Wins $20,000 National Contemporary Art Prize

Emma Hercus in her studio at Holtom’s Art Studio in Paekākāriki. Photo / Rosalie Willis

An experimental work by multimedia artist Porirua Emma Hercus has won the prestigious $20,000 National Contemporary Art Prize for a “majestically layered” assemblage work titled Red Handed.

Working and exhibiting from her studio at Holtom’s Art Studio in Paekākāriki, Emma uses the studio to produce experimental and abstract figurative pieces while studying at The Learning Connection in Lower Hutt.

“The day I painted Red Handed, I was going crazy doing all kinds of abstract stuff. I must have painted five pieces that day already,” Emma said.

Red Handed by Emma Hercus.
Red Handed by Emma Hercus.

“A lot of times you enter art competitions and you’re not even a finalist, so it was just exciting to be a finalist.

“When they read the winner and said my name, I couldn’t believe it, I didn’t think it would be me.

“I just thought it would be nice to get on and meet other artists – it’s great to talk to people who are doing the same thing as you and learn more about their practice, how they do it, how they sell it and make a living out of it and that kind of stuff.

“So winning was really cool, it was so much fun. I had my mom there and she was super excited.”

Emma Hercus with the original linen used to create her award-winning art.  Photo / Rosalie Willis
Emma Hercus with the original linen used to create her award-winning art. Photo / Rosalie Willis

Judge Reuben Patterson, one of the nation’s top contemporary artists, said the experimental process Emma used to create Red Handed resulted in a work that exists as “a celebration of adversity”.

Emma’s original idea was to paint on a piece of linen that she had soaked in a bucket.

Placing it on an old piece of MDF so she didn’t have any paint on the floor, Emma began to paint a swimmer.

Placed face down, the cloth absorbs an image, like the Shroud of Turin.

He collects exploits and remnants from the environment, or from the previous night, collecting hair and memories from tapes and collages that reference bodies violently submitting to arrest and control.

When Emma pulled the linen off the MDF, the effect on the board below was too good to throw away.

“When I took the linen off, what the paint had done underneath was so amazing, I only had to make a few minor edits to it afterwards, right on the board.

“I started painting a swimmer but when I saw that the hands had turned quite red and were in the air I thought it looked like the person had been caught doing something in the act.

“But people put their hands up for so many reasons, it can be welcoming, praying, arresting, I wanted it to be ambiguous and for people to decide for themselves.”

“When I thought about it, I just wanted it to be anyone, for the viewer to make up their own story.”

Emma often gives no specific gender or race in her abstract figurative pieces.

“Generally with my work, I like to give people some ideas but I want to hear their own interpretations and what they think.

“A lot of times it’s way cooler than I originally wanted anyway.”

Emma’s winning work was selected by judge Reuben Paterson and was announced over the weekend at the 2022 National Contemporary Art Award at Hamilton’s Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga O Waikato.

Through the National Contemporary Art Award’s traditional blind judging process (hiding artists’ names from the judge), Red Handed was chosen from 34 finalists and more than 300 submissions.

All finalist works are now on display in a free exhibition at the Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato until November 13.

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