Jonathan Else: Welcome to a new series

Nigel Brown
Gregory O’Brien,
Random Century, Auckland, 1991, $33.95

Gretchen Albrecht
Linda Gill,
Random Century, Auckland, 1991, $33.95
(New Zealand Contemporary Artists series)

On the strength of these first two titles, anyone wishing to know more about New Zealand painting will find this new series useful, and I wish it every success. These affordable paperbacks are authoritative enough for the student, yet glossy and attractive enough to hold the layperson’s attention; the colour reproductions are plentiful and accurate.

The two authors take strikingly different approaches. Gregory O’Brien uses extensive quotes from Brown himself, limiting his own observations to introductory comments, for example ‘Brown’s paintings are strong humanist statements, places where the artist and person co-exist’. This technique successfully prevents an author’s subjective agenda from dominating the artist’s own personality. However, O’Brien can miss the boat in providing a deeper discussion of the artist’s major themes. If Brown’s work is so bound up with his own personal experience, why has O’Brien not attempted to ask the direct questions which seem to arise from that experience? He seems to refer to Brown’s imagery in a generalised, descriptive way, while losing opportunities for deeper exploration. Thus while considering the archetypal nature of Brown’s images, he never discusses an obvious archetype which occurs at regular intervals throughout Brown’s work: the New Zealand male, that solitary brooder in his black singlet. I would have been fascinated to know the artist’s own views on New Zealand masculinity, as it appears to be mythologised in works such as ‘The Tramper’ (1980), ‘The Black Singlet’ (1982), and ‘Big Boots’ (1985). In ‘interviewing’ Brown, O’Brien seems to have kept his distance and avoided getting too close.

This distance is not always reverent. When Brown’s views on gender politics are briefly touched on, and he speaks of ‘the need to listen to what the women’s movement has to say’, O’Brien criticises him for having a case of the liberal mushies; yet the discussion which has been begun is left hanging in midair. In providing an informative chronological journey through Brown’s work, which sidetracks to discuss groups of images, O’Brien can also avoid taking such discussions to their central crux.

In contrast Linda Gill, describing the work of Gretchen Albrecht, is not wary of imposing a subjective reading onto the paintings. She seems to have embraced the concept of subjectivity as a valid approach to abstract expressionism, and justifies it early in the book by stating that the artist herself ‘has encouraged every kind of reading from the mundane to the spiritual’. Gill’s work echoes this variety, with results that can be successful. Her discussion of Albrecht’s ‘Hemispheres’ in relation to their sources in female sexuality and the shell/egg imagery used for the Virgin Mary in early renaissance painting is confident and informative.

In other places the reader may tire of the thick layer of literary quotations which can bog the paintings down rather than illuminate them, and whose relevance can seem tenuous. At times Gill comes across as an emotive enthusiast, and seems slightly lost in gaining a critical overview of Albrecht’s work as a whole. Important questions remain unanswered concerning Albrecht’s position as a feminist in relation to other feminist artists in New Zealand, and as an abstractionist working in a period which, since 1980, has seemed dominated by the figurative. Gill does respond successfully to the power and mysticism of the works, yet allows her poetic response to obscure a more critical examination. The book’s final words reveal the awkwardness of this situation: ‘It may very well be that the transformation of those strokes of blue into a minor miracle of luminosity is what the painting is most deeply about’.

 

Jonathan Else is attending the final year of Bachelor of Fine Arts at Elam, Auckland and Bachelor of Arts in Art History. He is a gay artist specialising in discussions of sexuality and spirituality.

 

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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