Joe Sheehan

Corner of the Universe

15 MAR - 09 APR

Joe Sheehan approaches his work with an understanding of time that moves beyond the current moment and searches for fundamentals in order to understand the present.

A geologic timescale isn’t unexpected, given the nature of his material as an artist – stone created over millennia. But with his three latest works Sheehan doesn’t simply draw attention to the long and ever consistent march of time. Instead, the works find archetypal architectural forms in the rock which are both specific to our time and place, but also fundamental in their position within architectural history. A roof, a wall, window.

Fundamentals are an often-discussed and often-problematic point within architectural theory. The reason being that what is fundamental to one is superfluous to another. The search for what is most important, most intrinsic, is steeped in cultural nuance, the recent memory of landscape and the economic value placed upon architecture. Sheehan is aware of this and his latest works play within this field of influences.

In the European tradition, Laugier’s primitive hut is often taken as a starting point of a discussion of fundamental architectural forms. Published in 1753 and famously illustrated as the frontispiece to his ‘Essay on Architecture”, it is, when viewed with modern eyes, an example of how all architectural forms are derived from cultural context. With free-standing columns, entablature and a pediment, it resembles a Greek temple constructed as a bivouac by 10-year-olds on summer holiday – but a Greek temple nonetheless.

While surely the value of shelter is shared amongst all humans it must be said that Laugier’s version of the primitive hut is steeped in his own understanding of architecture, and predicated on his education within a classical tradition which idolized the Greeks and Romans. It also illustrates a moment within the 18th century when excessive Baroque ornamentation forced a questioning of what was really the underlying value of architecture.

If we consider Laugier’s example alongside Sheehan’s new works we find a similar line of thinking. Sheehan has taken three forms of architectural signifier and rendered them painstakingly in stone. Each work is unmistakably of Aotearoa New Zealand. Hewn from the stone of these islands and presenting forms that are familiar to all of us, they demonstrate Sheehan’s position in the world and the history of our place. Like Laugier, Sheehan draws attention to the historically fundamental as a way of understanding a contemporary condition.

This begins with the stone. Sheehan is fastidious when it comes to the selection of stone for his work. Not just as a craftsman and rock hound, but as a storyteller. ‘Block’ is carved from a 3-tonne piece of metasomatised Basalt drawn from an abandoned quarry in Greenhills at the very bottom of the South Island. This region has been known by Māori and Pakeha as a source of exceptional fine-grained very hard stone for hundreds of years. It has been a source of material as the story of a civilisation has been rendered in stone in Aotearoa. It is now, however, undergoing a transformation that is akin to many other landscapes within New Zealand. It is being prepared for new housing.

Our definition of landscape within New Zealand has always guided our approach to the environment as either pure or profane. Here again we see a landscape that will be redefined from quarry to pastural utopia in order to fit a predetermined real estate narrative. As the cost of housing and the political peril associated with dealing with the issue of housing increase in tandem, we see more landscapes being transformed in this way to accommodate lazily designed and resource-hungry subdivisions. Sheehan imagines a future crush of roofs in ‘Block’ that will occur not only at Greehills but is emblematic of landscapes around the country. He finely carves each corrugation of the pitched roofs in a meditative fashion. The time and care involved is the complete antithesis to the design of the homes he is commenting on.



With ‘Corner of the Universe’ Sheehan shifts scales to carve a full-size corner of a weatherboard home. In doing so he also unearths and presents an astrographic vista that contrasts the scales of time that humans consider. Sheehan brings together in this recognisable form timelessness in the cosmic and geologic sense and the ephemerality of most human construction in New Zealand. Again, Sheehan is elevating the ordinary, but in doing so draws attention to the rising cost of basic shelter as he gives the weatherboards the Rosetta Stone treatment. Shelter becomes luxury. The work becomes a juxtaposition of the instant and eternity, the banal and the delightful.

‘Looking South (for John Edgar)’ is the most personal piece within the collection. Sheehan orients his work within his own history and the influence of his friend and mentor, John Edgar. Edgar was Sheehan’s first link to the southern reaches of the country with its stone riches and equally rich history. Both being based within the North Island, the pair found themselves always looking south through time and place to consider new carved works. Edgar’s works often incorporated way-finding instruments such as compasses and place markers as he developed works that explored the ways we orient ourselves in the world. Sheehan takes this influence and creates window mullions that can be read as both grid and crossed marker. Through this fragment of a window, we look out into the history of an ancient riverbed, some 280 million years in the past. As if fossilised, Sheehan creates another recognisable architectural form but highlights that the forms are not cold and impersonal. They are instead overlaid with the memories of people and their influence upon us.

With these three new works Sheehan does that most architectural of practices – the constant shift in scale from the aerial image through to the 1:1 detail and back again. He works between these scales effortlessly and uses the scale shift to strengthen the argument of the works. His work explores space, the values we attach to it and the implications of our architecture on the world we inhabit. His architectural inquiry in these works is potent and prompts reflection – for those of us in the architectural profession as well as for the wider public. With this collection of thoughtful artworks Sheehan uses his position as a significant artist and carver to develop an important discussion of architecture, landscape, time and place within New Zealand.

Dr Sarosh Mulla: Director, Pac Studio


Photography: Kallan MacLeod and Sam Hartnett

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Joe Sheehan
Block
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Block
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Block (detail)
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Block (detail)
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Block (detail)
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Block (detail)
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Block (detail)
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Block (detail)
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Block
2021
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel brackets
1100mm H x 1060mm W x 1800mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe
2022
installation view

image description

Corner of the Universe
2022
installation view

image description

Joe Sheehan
Looking South (for John Edgar)
2022
Pakohe (Colac Bay Argillite), steel brackets
760mm H x 1220mm W x 100mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Looking South (for John Edgar) (detail)
2022
Pakohe (Colac Bay Argillite), steel brackets
760mm H x 1220mm W x 100mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Looking South (for John Edgar) (detail)
2022
Pakohe (Colac Bay Argillite), steel brackets
760mm H x 1220mm W x 100mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Looking South (for John Edgar) (detail)
2022
Pakohe (Colac Bay Argillite), steel brackets
760mm H x 1220mm W x 100mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Looking South (for John Edgar)
2022
Pakohe (Colac Bay Argillite), steel brackets
760mm H x 1220mm W x 100mm D
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe
2022
installation view

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe
2022
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel base
1800mm H x 700mm W x 440mm D (basalt)
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe (detail)
2022
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel base
1800mm H x 700mm W x 440mm D (basalt)
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe (detail)
2022
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel base
1800mm H x 700mm W x 440mm D (basalt)
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe
2022
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel base
1800mm H x 700mm W x 440mm D (basalt)
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe
2022
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel base
1800mm H x 700mm W x 440mm D (basalt)
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe (detail)
2022
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel base
1800mm H x 700mm W x 440mm D (basalt)
PRIVATE COLLECTION

image description

Joe Sheehan
Corner of the Universe
2022
Basalt (Greenhills, Southland), steel base
1800mm H x 700mm W x 440mm D (basalt)
PRIVATE COLLECTION