Self-absorbed provincial, Gregory O’Brien

All Our Own Work: New Zealand’s Folk Art
Richard Wolfe
Penguin, $36.95,
ISBN 0 670 87551 1

Charles Brasch wrote in Landfall in December 1950 that Colin McCahon, “hampered at every turn by an inadequate technique… was not well enough taught to meet the demands of his vision”. This lack of sophistication and training Brasch considered symptomatic of New Zealand art in general. At the same time, there were aspects of McCahon’s paintings Brasch admired unreservedly: “Their harshness, their frequent crudity, may seem shocking at first; but if we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that these qualities reflect with painful accuracy a rawness and harshness in New Zealand life…”

Perhaps more than any other major New Zealand artist, McCahon adopted the techniques and priorities of the naive or folk painter. Wanting a vernacular painterly quality at odds with the mainstream western “fine art” tradition, he often used everyday materials such as commercial paints, tarpaulin (instead of fine canvas) and reams of brown paper. His technique was roughly hewn and direct — Dulux rather than Windsor & Newton — a conscious critique of academic or traditionalist art with its one-point perspective, chiaroscuro and refinements of colour, tone and surface. McCahon’s art was preoccupied with religious faith and the christian tradition — just as much naive art is — and this he pictorialised with a visionary intensity. Like many so-called naive artists, he used handwritten lettering in his work and also black outlines; and he was obsessed with the narrative capabilities of image-making, at first in the direct story-telling manner of his religious paintings then later in his stark mindscapes made up of numbers and words.

The absence of conventional “fine art” technique or, in McCahon’s case, its deliberate eschewal, characterises much of the artwork discussed and reproduced in Richard Wolfe’s All Our Own Work — New Zealand ‘s Folk Art. Wolfe, however, doesn’t bear the burden of Brasch’s Eurocentric notion of technique; indeed, if the work in this book is anything to go by, he relishes the opportunity not to be bound by notions of “excellence” or “resolution”. Within the space of a few pages we are presented with an acrylic painting by Teuane Tibbo, a “crazy” patchwork dressing gown and a lampshade made of ice-block sticks. Wolfe is happy not to differentiate between the “high” art of oil on canvas and the “low” art of the paua-shell ashtray. It’s the anarchic energy of folk art at large which Wolfe highlights, as well as the humour, obsessiveness and heightened sense of reality/unreality. This approach makes the book wide-ranging and often surprising.

Paradoxically, however, the book’s breadth and generosity is perhaps its biggest drawback. Its high-speed tour through a wide area of culture allows us little time to dwell on truly exceptional individual artists. Accordingly, the book is not as concerned with specific “outsider” geniuses — artists like Dave O’Neill and Tibbo — as it is with the mapping of a folk art “heartland” — a broad, inclusive, sociologically defined space. The very title — All Our Own Work — establishes an informal, congenial relationship between the reader and the contents: these productions are a part of “us” — of quirky, democratic “New Zealand” folks like ourselves. The pleasures are those of recognition, domesticity and acquaintance. We’re invited in. It’s “Our Place”.

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Wolfe writes in his introduction: “Because of folk art’s ‘outsider’ status, the usual rules for evaluation cannot apply. It can hardly be judged using yardsticks it does not recognise: perspective, composition and modelling, for example. But if an evaluation is necessary, it may simply be a matter of deferring to those ingredients which define its very essence: originality, honesty, directness, unpredictability and unconscious humour, for example…”

Any book purporting to be about “folk art” runs into problems defining its exact ground. Wolfe says, rightly: “The very definition of folk art is subject to endless debate. In a peculiar catch-22 situation those who consider themselves folk artists cannot, strictly speaking, qualify, for a conscious maintenance of the requisite traits is contrary to the spirit of the art…”

While knitted woollen cats and tables made of matchsticks fit neatly into the “folk art” category, the work of so-called “serious” artists challenges the book’s boundaries. Of course, the featured painters do belong in this context, but it also has to be acknowledged that their work has links that are just as strong with the “fine art” productions of the mainstream art world. Artists like Tibbo and O’Neill have much in common with such non-naive artists as Tony Fomison, Nigel Brown and Michael Illingworth. A possible drawback of a book like All Our Own Work is that it seems to be pulling the likes of Tibbo and O’Neill towards the other extreme, towards the “craft” end of the spectrum.

Ultimately, it’s impossible — as Wolfe is well aware — to fit artists into categories. How, for instance, do you classify an artist whose work has certain naive characteristics but is also grounded in an awareness and understanding of western art and modernism? I am thinking of practitioners like Peter Donovan and Hariata Ropata Tangahoe (who are mentioned in the book) and Reginald Nicolas, Craig Collier and Brian Gregory (who aren’t). In this day and age folk artists inevitably know about the tradition of western art even while remaining aloof from it — witness O’Neill’s enthusiasm for and knowledge of Goya, Turner and Degas. In this age of reproduction you don’t need to have a university degree to know what a Picasso or a McCahon looks like.

As I have suggested, McCahon isn’t far removed from this vexed naive-or-not question either. When McCahon’s work was exhibited in Edinburgh in 1990, critic Tim Hilton tackled the matter in the Guardian Weekly of 13 May:

Is Colin McCahon a primitive? For years we have been hearing rumours of this — apparently — isolated and eccentric New Zealand artist… McCahon wasn’t a primitive in one elementary sense, for he was a keeper and deputy director of [the Auckland City Art Gallery] He was an adminstrator as well as a professional artist, quite well aware of current worldwide trends….

Hilton summed McCahon up as a “genuine, self-absorbed provincial” — a description which could well apply to the convincing naive artists in Wolfe’s book. There is an unashamed provincialism about their approach (and its sphere of reference); there is an element of self-absorption (as there is in all convincing art but even more so in art of a “visionary” nature) and there is an element of honesty — of truth — which all genuine art must have at its core.

From beyond the confines of this book, figures like Illingworth — a highly trained artist whose mature work was produced in a deliberatedly naive idiom — place more stress on the folk art categorisation. If it’s a question of whether or not an artist is self-taught, a figure like Jeffrey Harris could well enter this survey. On the other hand — surprisingly perhaps — included in All Our Own Work is a piece by Auckland artist and kitsch-collector Judy Darragh (who has a diploma from Wellington Polytechnic).

I imagine a publication and/or exhibition of a different nature would be needed to traverse the space between the “conscious”/trained art and the “subconscious”/naive art — a project that would productively bridge the gap between Tibbo and Michael Stevenson, Fergus Collinson and McCahon, Tangahoe and Rita Angus.1

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All Our Own Work includes some 200 photographs, of which perhaps two-thirds are of paintings or relief sculptures. The remaining third are of art objects of a less pictorial nature — for instance, a tie made of seashells, a toy wooden aircraft and kauri gum carvings. For the purposes of this review I have concentrated on the paintings or relief sculptures because to me they seem to present both the most compelling and complex work in the book.

With very few exceptions, All Our Own Work represents artists by a single work, accentuating isolated productions rather than an artist’s work as a whole. Tibbo (1893 – 1984) is the only artist in the book with more than two reproductions of her work (she has three). We don’t get a sense that these artists have an oeuvre.

While a number of artworks produced by prison inmates goes some way towards broadening the spectrum, the book has a tendancy to paint a rosy picture of the folk artist, belying the depression, anxiety and melancholy that often underlie this kind of art. Much supposed folk art, I would suggest, asks to be read as a non-conformist, subversive intervention into the national record rather than as the epitomy of mainstream concerns. At times the art is tied up in kooky right-wing politics, neuroses, an intense (at times dysfunctional) sense of isolation and various forms of self-made or adapted spirituality and mysticism.

I crave a book that picks out a smaller number of practitioners and takes us deeper into both their brushstrokes and imaginative materials, drawing us further into the lives of the individual artists to establish the fundamental ground of the artworks. With naive or folk art, biographical information is often integral to understanding the works themselves.

While Wolfe does a good job establishing the origins of folk art in the colonial environment, drawing attention to figures such nineteenth-century practitioners as Preston, Gustav von Tempsky and A J Cooper, for some reason no examples of their works are reproduced. These paintings would have been valuable in establishing the origins of a pakeha tradition of folk art. As Wolfe points out, it is a tradition we are talking about here.

The current vogue in art circles for “bad painting” — ie, the work of Saskia Leek, Ronnie van Hout, Tony de Lautour, Peter Robinson — places some of the trappings of folk art rather closer to the centre of artistic discourse than, I suspect, they have ever been before. In a similar although less mischievous fashion the folk art references that permeate the productions of Shane Cotton, Chris Heaphy and John Walsh reassert and develop the tradition of post-colonial Maori figurative painting dealt with in Roger Neich’s important book, Painted Histories (Auckland University Press, 1994).

Prominent contemporary artists such as Harris, Dick Frizzell and Gavin Chilcott have all entered into a dialogue with the folk tradition, both in its localised permutations and with foreign figures such as the Cornish marine painter, Alfred Wallis. Cases like these make it impossible to consider folk art as a ghetto — rather it has to be seen as a part of the essential history. Some of the smarter and more responsible curators — people like James Mack (who has provided a forward to this book) and John Perry — have been aware of this productive inter-relationship for some time.

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Despite recent steps in the right direction — such as this book and the touring Not Bad Eh? exhibition, curated by Perry and Laurence Hall — folk art is under-examined and under-exhibited. Exhibitions of folk art are usually held in provincial centres, in places like the Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui, and Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum. Committed dealerships are rare, perhaps the most notable being the Christopher Moore Gallery in Wellington which represents and actively promotes the work of O’Neill, Peter Donovan, Reginald Nicolas and Ivan Hill. Moore has also usefully produced a stream of small catalogue booklets to accompany these exhibitions, providing at least some documentation of this largely undocumented art-form.

While All Our Own Work adds much that is valuable to the subject, it does so within the confines of a social-history type publication. For the work to really kick in it needs to be presented in a more generous and integrated format.2 The layout (with the pictures located in the body of the main thematic/historical text and the biographical information stored out the back) wrenches the artworks from their originators. This seems to assert the primacy of the nexus between folk art and popular culture (as opposed to individualist) around which the text operates.

The biographical notes — compiled diligently by Perry — include artists whose work is nowhere to be found in the book (painters like Donovan and Tangahoe), which is both useful and frustrating. There is a sense that the text of this book, its illustrations and the index of artists are running along slightly different tracks. It’s disappointing to have E Norton’s fabulous painting of “a surfboard rider holding a bikini-clad companion in an outsretched hand” cited in the index and not have that painting (a memorable inclusion in the exhibition Not Bad Eh?) reproduced.

Wolfe writes consistently engaged and engaging prose. He has a great eye for detail and a sleuth-like ability for tracking materials. He is in this field for the long haul. Much to his credit, he is fond of the amusing yet illuminating snippet — he points out, for example, that in Angus’s famous 1941 portrait of Betty Curnow the subject is wearing a blouse made, on account of wartime fabric shortages, from tea towels.)

Wolfe has produced a valuable, warm-spirited and enjoyable book. Unfortunately, Penguin’s marketing department has dressed the volume up like an exercise in lightweight, rather obvious kiwiana which does little to advance the case of the artists represented or to establish “naive”/”outsider”/”folk”/”innocent”/”self-taught” art as a serious topic. There’s certainly a history of New Zealand naive painting waiting to be written and it would be a pity if this volume precluded more. I hope Wolfe, Perry and Mack will continue their invaluable endeavours.

Gregory O’Brien curated the current touring exhibition Hotere — out the black window and wrote the book of the same title.

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Posted in Art, Non-fiction and Review
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