Look This Way: New Zealand Writers on New Zealand Artists
Sally Blundell (ed)
Auckland University Press, $44.99,
Art and letters have always had a close working relationship in New Zealand. Our cultural landscape is pock-marked with painter-poets, jacks-of-all-trades who, when setting about inventing the country’s cultural capital, have used whatever’s handiest or best suits their purpose – language or paint being the artistic equivalent of number 8 wire. And when our artists have specialised in one particular form, either literary or visual, the other is often not far away. Think of McCahon’s relationship with the writer John Caselberg, Hotere’s constant fraternisation with Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare and Cilla McQueen, and Grahame Sydney’s with Brian Turner and Owen Marshall. Yet good writing about art, not just with it, has, until relatively recently, been harder to come by. Hamish Keith once reckoned he got involved with art criticism mainly because no one else seemed to be. While there’s plenty of it about these days, Sally Blundell’s idea for Look This Way: New Zealand Writers on New Zealand Artists (17 writers on an artist of their choice) largely works because it plays to what has become a traditional feature of the domestic scene: the close proximity of writer to artist, not only professionally but often personally as well.
And most of the time the book does work. You’d expect it to, given the calibre of the writers on display. A number of the usual suspects immediately leap off the contents page – Ian Wedde, Gregory O’Brien, and William Dart have all earned their art-writing stripes – but there are also some notable newcomers to this kind of writing: Margaret Mahy, Fiona Farrell and Tusiata Avia. In some ways, it’s more interesting to see what these writers, untried in the art-critique side of things, manage to produce in response to their favourite works of art. And the book is, more or less, a highbrow playing favourites. The brief seems to have been a personal response to, rather than a critical examination of, the work of a particular artist. The writers, then, are largely free to do what they do best – whether it’s tell a few ripping yarns, turn out a poem, or wax lyrical about what it is that grips them when they look at a particular painting. The result is art-writing for those that don’t usually read art-writing.
Which isn’t to say the pieces aren’t shrewdly observant or thoughtfully engaged with the subject matter at hand – often they are both. However, as Blundell says in her introduction, free from the need to sternly critique, the book is also “crowded with anecdote, memory, opinion, perceptive curiosity and observation.” So Stuart McKenzie and Miranda Harcourt explain how, as a newly married pair, they accumulated various Ronnie van Houts, at one point swapping an old Rover for “two Ronnies” (well done on the joke and the swap). With light-hearted if slightly manic humour, they tap into the deeper, more serious appeal of van Hout, neatly registering the artist’s take on the art world itself: “He’s a career artist posing as an enthusiastic amateur. Or maybe he’s an enthusiastic amateur posing as a career artist.”
In fact, the anecdotes are a central part of the book’s appeal, and often achieve a peculiar poignancy: C K Stead’s parting image of McCahon is about the truest and saddest blend of pathos and – bizarrely – joy you can get:
The last time I saw him must have been a year or two before his death in 1985. I had heard that he was no longer able to paint. He was in the street in Parnell, wearing trousers that were too short for him, and pink socks. He knew that he knew me, and that there was reason for goodwill, but I suspect could no longer remember why or in what connection. His smile was innocent and seraphic. I don’t suppose it was typical of his last years (or perhaps it was), but all the wariness and pain seemed to be gone.
Then there’s Gregory O’Brien’s picture of John Drawbridge, in absentia:
Watching as he turned the wheel and drew the paper through the press I was reminded of the fishermen across the road, winching and hauling and labouring. Now John is gone, it is the fishermen who remind me of him.
It’s as if McCahon and Drawbridge are made into characters by the writing. The accounts remain thoroughly personalised and credible, but they add up to something else entirely. At its best, that is the real appeal of this collection: we find out not only what makes the artist tick from one who has seen first-hand, but also what it is that makes for intelligent and telling responses to art beyond endless and obligatory platitudes, or a plethora of biographical details. This is writing which stands alone, but, crucially, is also careful not to lose sight of the art itself.
In this sense, one contribution ranks with some of the great collaborative efforts produced between, say, Manhire and Hotere. Dylan Horrocks’ comic-strip “To the I-Land”, with its Frame-ward gazing title, outlines the career of cartoonist Barry Linton. Horrocks is a savvy artist in his own right, but also knows how to push the narrative buttons. As a result, his incorporation of Linton’s own comics into his strip is not only a lot of fun, but also very pointed. When the lines are blurred between artist and writer – and in this case, between two comic writers – those lines are not only blurred but doubled and re-doubled. It’s really the art, the writing, whatever, that does the talking. Linton talks to Horrocks, comic strip talks to comic strip. Perhaps the right word here is not “collaboration” but “accumulation”.
At times, the voices here are self-conscious or consciously aware that talking about art isn’t what they’re used to doing. That is generally a sign to expect vast tracts of description. Tidy stuff, engaging in its way, but straightforward. Some pieces, such as Wedde’s on Bill Hammond, risk shouting down the art, jostling unnecessarily for elbow room. But all the contributions contain terrific moments, either of insight or creativity, and it’s the moments that are worth re-reading: Fiona Farrell’s story “The Boy who did not Become a Policeman”, written as part of an appreciation of illustrator Gavin Bishop; Mark Williams’ witty traverse through the fine art of smoking in response to Tony de Lautour; Jenny Bornholdt’s poem which accompanies Mary McFarlane’s visuals in almost spooky concert.
Or little gems of truth, like Avia’s “I am always looking for myself”. Avia is primarily talking about her experience as a New Zealand Samoan, and her words will resonate for many in our Pasifika community. But “I am always looking for myself” could also be the tagline for the whole collection. When we see ourselves in ways we might not have expected, or in art that takes us by surprise, then we realise what our way of looking is. In their own fashion, each writer here affirms that, within art, it is how the strange and new capture us and slowly become familiar that we discover ourselves.
Hamish Clayton is a masters student at Victoria University of Wellington.