Ways of cooking it – a smorgasbord of art books, Mark Amery

If you were to place all of the volumes on New Zealand art in one bookcase, you’d be presented with one rather higgledy-piggledy collection. Together they would tell an odd tale of short-lived publishing lines, changing institutional agendas, different and competing thematic approaches, publication formats, and publishers. This lack of cohesion may be part and parcel of the book trade in New Zealand or reflect the nature of visual arts culture – I’m not sure. What I’m surer about is that it says something about the size of the market and the relative youth of our visual arts culture and its publishing tradition.

The bookshelf has been getting even more crowded in recent years. Publishers often appear to await the initiative of artists and galleries rather than taking the constructive step of producing a series of volumes that might provide some sense of survey. The result is a continuous, colourful flurry of activity rather than consolidation. Perhaps I ask for too much. There remains, however, a lasting and rather cute irony that the publication of Contemporary New Zealand Painters Volume 1 A-M by Alister Taylor in 1980 has never been followed by the publication of Volume 2 N-Z.

Alternately, you could call it an exciting time in art publishing. We now have a body of senior contemporary artists deserving of the sizeable attention a monograph provides (generally artists schooled in the 1950s and ’60s, whose oeuvre extends to the present day). And an art history just ripe enough to merit experimentation with different ways of cooking it.

Publishers here generally depend on three sources for new art books: the public gallery, the university and the artist. The latter go into publishing often in reaction to not being recognised by the former two.

The high standard of artist-originated publications indicates that artists no longer feel it necessary to always wait for “the academy” to grant them glorification by publication. These are a particularly diverse bunch, and naturally format and design can reflect the artists’ own approach to their work. I’m thinking principally here of three excellent books devoted to the work of senior artists in the past year. While Max Gimblett (John Yau’s and Wystan Curnow’s Craig Potton, $99.95, ISBN 0908802943) is a large, lavish, expensive hardback, Paul Dibble (ed Fran Dibble, David Bateman, $49.95, ISBN 1869534735) is an equally large softback, that is far more accessible, generously stuffed full of enormous colour images of the artist’s sculpture, foundry and the bronze-casting process (a real tribute to what can be done affordably in publishing today). Meanwhile Robert McLeod’s An Orange in a Fried Fish Shop (Craig Potton, $29.95, ISBN 0908802935) is a thinner floppy paperback which allows his superb recent work to dance across the pages. At its launch, he was selling works painted onto the proof sheets.

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Our major public galleries are the unsung heroes of art publishing. They are by far the most prolific of editors, usually maintaining the high standards of editorial and design we look for in art publications. These institutions often manage sizeable publishing programmes on top of their core business without (with the exception of Te Papa) specialist staff. I have a bias to declare, having worked on the curatorial team at City Gallery Wellington. There, during the year 2001-2002, with a curatorial staff of three and a half, we edited nine publications. Staff at the public galleries in Dunedin, New Plymouth and Auckland will have similar stories, with many books of a scale that rise well above that catch-all term “catalogue”.

Notable from Te Papa Press last year were the publications Taiawhio: Conversations with Contemporary Maori Artists (gen ed Huhana Smith, Te Papa Press, $49.95, ISBN 0909010862) and Pacific Art Niu Sila (ed Sean Mallon and Pandoro Fulimalo Pereira, Te Papa Press, $49.95, ISBN 0909010838). Both are bold publishing initiatives, providing accessible resource material that stands alone from Te Papa’s collection and exhibitions. While I enjoyed the way Taiawhio opened up discussion by giving space to the voices of the artists themselves, it felt limited by the selection of artists in terms of providing an overview of contemporary Maori art – a field that remains seriously lacking in scholarship in the public domain.

Pacific Art Niu Sila is more satisfying, with 15 essays from wildly differing perspectives, ranging from architecture and literature to quilting and jewellery. It provides a stimulating and energetic overview of Pacific Island culture, deftly balancing vital new scholarship and an introduction for a wide readership.

The Auckland Art Gallery publishing programme is among the largest with many excellent recent titles. I’m afraid however that the following two aren’t the strongest examples. Marti Friedlander Photographs (Godwit,$59.95, ISBN 1869620658) has been deservedly popular, with editor Ron Brownson wisely choosing to print close to 150 large high-standard prints as one complete set. Disappointingly, this rich body of work is not complemented by equally imaginative essay commissions and design.

While Brownson’s own introductory essay is revealing in its consideration of the photographer’s approach, the chronology is scanty (given the wealth of source material), and an excellent essay by Friedlander herself is buried up the back (recent public appearances with this touring exhibition have shown she is a gifted storyteller). Given that Friedlander has collaborated with writers such as Michael King, James McNeish, Dick Scott, and Jim and Mary Barr, the absence of essays on a range of subjects dealing with our emergent post-war culture is a great opportunity missed. The reader’s job is made all the harder by a design that packs the text in small type into the last two-thirds of the page, with no illustrations to break up the density.

I had similar problems with the design of Brownson’s Gretchen Albrecht: Illuminations (Godwit, $39.95, ISBN 1869620968). Are we expected to doodle on the expanses of white space left in the bottom third of the pages? Here another opportunity was lost. If ever there was art deserving of a lavish hard-backed coffee table book packed with large reproductions (in the manner of Max Gimblett, and Longacre Press’s recent The Art of Grahame Sydney), it is Albrecht’s.

For a painter who inspires so much emotionally and spiritually from elemental sensation and beauty in the abstract, I found some of the writing rather cold, almost scientific in its approach. Brownson at one point writes that the “consecution of symbolic layerings and subjective conflation is central to any understanding of Albrecht’s paintings”. I can’t say I agree.

While not exactly a welcoming introduction for the newcomer, Brownson’s essay is an impressively revealing and concentrated consideration of Albrecht’s work in relation to cosmology, geometry, metaphysics and religion – with gems of poetry hidden within. Take Brownson’s farewell note: ”Albrecht sees her painting as being a vessel fired by love’s available light seeking insights from the desiring heart of appearances.” Mary Kisler and Bronwyn Fletcher meanwhile provide rich and enlightening diversions into Albrecht’s work in relation to 15th century Italian painting and the self-portrait respectively.

Nevertheless the focus of the book seems to be about providing us with the “real significance” behind these works, “by searching for the visual intelligence that informs them” (as Chris Saines’s preface puts it). This by itself seems a somewhat limited way to engage with an art that provides a powerful sensual engagement with the eye of a broad public. As if to say, “Read this first, so you’ll understand what you’re seeing”.

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Michael Dunn’s handsome hardback New Zealand Sculpture: A History (Auckland University Press, $99.95, ISBN 1869402774) couldn’t be more different from the Albrecht. It reads as close to a traditional art historical textbook as we’ve had for a while, Dunn’s mandate being to provide an “accurate and undistorted” view of our sculptural history.

Up into the 1980s such hardbound volumes seemed the staple art publication fare (certainly as far as painting was concerned). They seem now to have all but disappeared, replaced by books bound for the coffee table, clubbing together selected contemporary artists with no attempt to be comprehensive or to adumbrate a history. The danger is that the reader can take Dunn’s claim to be “undistorted” to mean “unbiased”, particularly when there are no other histories of our sculpture available. I have two principal concerns of this kind with regards to this otherwise highly recommended book.

First, Dunn has excluded traditional Maori carving, stating that it is outside the scope of his study because “it has its own distinct cultural history and identity independent of the European tradition”. And there I was, thinking that the book was called “New Zealand Sculpture: A History”. Traditional Maori sculpture has had more impact on contemporary sculpture than all our war memorial statutary.

Secondly, sculptural practice since the 1970s has become largely subsumed by installation practice – and has been as much preoccupied by how the object operates in a space as by its form. This certainly doesn’t rule out a history of sculpture. It does mean, however, in a country where that history is very short (especially if you omit traditional Maori sculpture) and has, until relatively recently, been pretty undistinguished, that the notion of maintaining an “accurate and undistorted” approach is rather fraught. This is tackled more directly in Priscilla Pitts’s Contemporary New Zealand Sculpture: Themes and Issues (Bateman, $59.95, ISBN 1869531698). There’s simply not much of a traditional historical line to toe. Dunn doesn’t avoid these issues, but devoting a chapter to “Post-Object and Conceptual Art”, followed by one to “Contemporary Maori Sculpture”, does raise issues as to the restrictions of his selected scope.

That said, this history remains of immense value. Informative and thoroughly readable, Dunn’s writing displays that great gift of being packed full of facts whilst maintaining momentum and clarity – steering clear of prose as dry as masonry. The chapters devoted to public statuary, for example, reveal fascinating details about the silent figures we take for granted on our city streets. There are many gems to discover here. Dunn considers the first New Zealand sculptor of significance to be the widely unknown Margaret Butler (1883-1947), and the illustrations left me longing for her work to be on permanent display at Te Papa.

Canterbury artist Pauline Rhodes doesn’t appear in Dunn’s volume. This is a worry given that Rhodes’s work provides a breadth of vision and consistency in practice which allows us to assess sculpture’s changing place within the broader reaches of installation. There are a number of significant sculptors who happen not to exhibit in Auckland (principally exhibiting instead in public galleries) and who are not mentioned in this book. Dunn provides the following defence: “If the selection of recent sculptors suggests an Auckland bias, this has been caused more by the size of the city and its increasing importance as an art centre than by any other considerations.” Considerations like the author’s own residence in Auckland, for example.

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Pauline Rhodes’s environmental works (which she calls “Extensums”) are located so far into the wilderness and are so temporal that photographs are their only lasting record. Her interior public gallery installations (“Intensums”) offer another perspective, their use of makeshift materials and external weathering bringing indoors the temporal nature of our physical contribution to the exterior landscape.

Paul Dibble has spoken of our “camping site” approach to building in New Zealand, referenced in the thin edges of his forms and his compositions of tottering elements – all in that most solid and European of sculptural materials, bronze. Rhodes’s thinking is more complex and her ideas take more time to grasp, but her installations explore more purely our young sculptural relationship to the land. Christina Barton’s Ground/Work: The Art of Pauline Rhodes (Victoria University Press, $39.95, ISBN 0864734336) provides a survey of Rhodes’s career that brings into focus the strength of her oeuvre over the last 30 years.

This book is a marvellous example of how sensitive, clear book editing and design can illuminate the ephemeral and ever-evolving practice of an installation artist. It left me wanting to see similar volumes devoted to other long-serving practitioners like Merylyn Tweedie and Andrew Drummond.

Barton pulls together contributions which offer a strong, illuminating response to Rhodes’s lengthy installation practice rather than the tangential flights of fancy that have become an art writing cliché. Ecologist Geoff Park writes on the “Extensums” and architecture lecturer Sarah Treadwell on the “Intensums”. Importantly, Barton herself provides clear, accessible documentation of Rhodes’s impermanent work since the 1970s, piecing together a continuum of artistic practice with an informative chronology and two sets of high-quality plates. Well structured and the size of a book of poems, the volume is given additional clarity by designer Sarah Maxey, and if there were design awards for art books, this would be a winner. Handy for those trips outdoors.

 

Mark Amery is currently script development manager at Playmarket and occasional art writer and curator. His last contribution to an art publication was “Peter Black – real fiction” in Sport 30.

 

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