Dazzling, dizzying cornucopias Stella Ramage

Marcus King: Painting New Zealand for the World
Peter Alsop and Warren Feeney
Potton & Burton, $80.00,
ISBN 9781927213704

Vivid: The Paul Hartigan Story
Don Abbott
RF Books, $65.00,
ISBN 9780473337117

Marcus King and Paul Hartigan belong to that interesting group of New Zealand artists who have successfully combined personal fine art careers with employment as commercial graphic designers and advertising illustrators. At various points in their careers, Russell Clark, Ralph Miller, Graham Percy, Milan Mrkusich, Dick Frizzell and doubtless many others have also juggled day jobs and private artistic practice. With the exception of Mrkusich and Frizzell, these artists have often been relegated to the margins of our national canon (hence the flurry of monographs in recent years intent on reclaiming their artistic legacy from oblivion). Are they suspected of lacking the passionate commitment of the “true” modernist artist: the torment of McCahon, the dedication of Angus, the activism of Hotere or the self-destructiveness of Fomison? The authors of these monographs firmly reject such Byronic assumptions, arguing effectively for a broader, more inclusive version of our national art history that acknowledges commercial art as a valid contribution to our visual culture.

King rated barely a name-check by Gil Docking in 200 Years of New Zealand Painting. Peter Alsop and Warren Feeney aim to redress this in Marcus King: Painting New Zealand for the World. It comes from the same stable and shares the same lush production values as Selling the Dream: The Art of Early New Zealand Tourism (Peter Alsop, Gary Stewart and Dave Bamford, Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing). A New Zealand Post Book Award finalist in 2012, Selling the Dream mined Alsop’s private collection of tourism posters produced by the New Zealand Railways Department and the National Publicity Studios from the 1920s onward. It drew deserved attention to the skilled graphic artists who produced them. By focusing on just one of these, Marcus King, the new book aims not only to retrieve King’s reputation as a significant 20th-century New Zealand artist, but also to trace the sometimes convoluted relationship between private practice and public career. Forewords by Frizzell and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins provide a kind of postcolonial permission to enjoy an artist disdained after the 1960s when a more politicised modernism sought edginess rather than sea and sunshine.

A series of themed essays is followed by a stunningly printed Gallery section showcasing King’s works. Since the essay section itself is also generously illustrated – using archival photographs, scanned pages of press articles, drawings, notes, sketches and full-bleed details flooding entire spreads – the whole provides a dazzling, indeed dizzying, visual cornucopia. In his work for the National Publicity Studios, King would paint small coloured sketches of designs destined to become silk-screen tourism posters. Often the authors have chosen to show these sketches alongside a full-page detail of the eventual posterisaton, with a cross-reference to the complete poster in the Gallery section. Needless to say this entails a great deal of flicking backwards and forwards – quite a workout given the book weighs two-and-a-half kilos – but displaying three formats allows for some fascinating comparisons: the small adjustments between initial sketch and finished poster; the jaw-dropping finesse of the silk-screen stencil-cutters; the importance of text and border to the final balanced design.

But the point of devoting a monograph to King is to explore aspects of his career beyond tourism posters. One of the essays is devoted to his place amongst New Zealand’s landscape painters and the influence of his teacher at Elam, impressionist Edward Friström. In his day, argue the authors, King was as well regarded as contemporaries Nugent Welch and Margaret Stoddart for his colourful, painterly panache. Again, the quality of the reproductions adds weight to their argument. Perfectly lit enlargements show every three-dimensional paint-stroke and even the texture of the canvas beneath. These go some way to remedying the perennial problem of art publications – the smoothness of the page. Indeed, art books play an important role in encouraging the creation of high resolution digital images. The collaboration here between archives, collectors, photographers and book producers is admirably acknowledged in the appendix.

King’s colleague at the National Publicity Studios, Alan Collins, provides a genial but insightful introductory memoir. Collins recalls an auction at Bethunes around 1950 where King paintings were going for the tidy sum of around fifteen guineas (King, incidentally, failed to honour a promise to the young Collins to sell him one for half that). Private versus public practice is further glimpsed in another Collins anecdote: a work-trip to Mount Cook produced only four paintings for the Publicity Studios; King’s departmental head was apparently displeased by their paucity. Collins recalls that “Later, however, Marcus’s own personal paintings emerged of Mount Cook from every possible angle!” And, on the topic of King’s small preparatory sketches, Collins continues: “I later learned he charged five guineas for [them]!” These financial details give an intriguing sense of King’s double life as both freelance painter and government employee. Yet it is left to Collins, rather than Alsop or Feeney, to provide the everyday feel of living inside this entanglement.

As well as public posters and private paintings, the book considers King’s murals, created to promote the New Zealand brand at state-sponsored national and international exhibitions such as the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in Wembley and the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition held in Dunedin in 1925. This chapter includes some fascinating archival photographs of exhibition pavilions from the 1920s and 30s which capture their “unashamedly propagandist and fervently nationalistic” flavour, as well as their heedless colonial naivety. King’s work for these is characterised by a dryer, more illustrative, narrative style than his Friström-esque beach scenes. A work such as Town and Country Landscape (c.1950) – used for the front cover – shows a pristine modern farming scene with a gleaming cityscape burgeoning in the background. It epitomises the mid-century mythologising of Pākehā colonial progress. Māori featured in King’s posters and exhibition paintings solely as “Maoriland” decorative branding. Such representational strategies were normal, of course, for the period and the exhibitionary context – some overseas tourists, it was said, were surprised on arrival to encounter real-life Māori not wearing cloaks and piupiu – but, by this stage in the book, I was becoming uncomfortable with the lack of postcolonial critique.

So it was with some relief that I came to the chapter “Documenting Māoridom” in which the authors tackle “Maoriland” representation while defending King for his research into indigenous and historical detail. His Māori may exist only as romanticised cyphers, they concede, but the depictions of pā, pātaka, weaving and games are accurate. So that’s alright then. Their staunch championing of King’s well-meaning portrayals of Māori even extends to the suggestion that the artist’s work could have “implicitly provoked” some kind of critique of colonialism. They cite recent postmodern works such as Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus [infected] video installation and Wayne Youle’s Fool’s Gold (a posterised riff on King’s Treaty of Waitangi painting) as being comparable to King’s polite illustrations. That’s a long bow to draw. The authors would have done better to allow King his “accuracy” without trying to reconstruct him as an unlikely and anachronistic radical. Crucially, Reihana and Youle are Māori and their passionate critiques of colonial power are anything but “implicit”. The authors themselves suggest that King’s “cinematic” murals led audiences of the period to treat images transparently as historical truth. They do not deliberately reference layers of artifice as do the works by Reihana and Youle. So complete is that acceptance of verity that King’s two murals of the Signing of the Treaty of Waitangi have been repeatedly used as de facto illustrations of the event without any artist acknowledgment, a point on which Feeney and Alsop are plaintive.

If King was passé by 1970, Paul Hartigan embodies the urban, comic-book pop culture that overtook him like the motor car sweeping past Toad’s gypsy caravan. Hartigan has never undergone the eclipse of fame suffered by King, but, despite some highly visible public commissions, neither has he enjoyed as much recognition as some contemporary artists. In Vivid: The Paul Hartigan Story, Don Abbott will change that. Although not a conventional biography, it is structured more chronologically than the King book. Abbott begins with teenage precociousness, progresses to Elam art school, where Hartigan produced some terrific American-inspired pop-art painting, and thence to an eclectic commercial practice in Auckland in the 1970s. Hartigan’s extremely hip Snake Studios overlooking Queen Street produced arty fabric designs, advertising banners, trendy screen-printed tee-shirts and sundry promotional material. Their “Christmas giveaway” art pieces blurred any supposed distinction between commercial and fine art. Abbott is excellent on the cultural buzz of Snake Studios, where everyone who was anyone in the contemporary art scene gathered. It’s surprising Hartigan and his colleagues got any work done.

But, alongside the commercial enterprise, Hartigan never stopped his quirky painting, and Abbott takes us through his evolving lexicon of shapes and letters and words and numbers and enigmatic squiggles that, like Cy Twombly’s smears and scribbles, hint at meaning just beyond reach. Abbott is keen that we should appreciate that Hartigan’s neon works from the 1980s on and for which he is best known, are part of a broader, integrated practice that has always continued to include paintings (and, latterly, ink-jet graphics, too). But there is no escaping the actual glass-and-gas work, and the author devotes a substantial portion of the book to analysing some of the artist’s major public commissions – notably Whipping the Wind for Landcorp House in Wellington (1988); the Pathfinder façade panels for the Govett-Brewster Gallery in New Plymouth (1997); and Colony in the atrium of the University of Auckland’s engineering school (2004).

Abbott also discusses smaller gallery works designed for interior display. But I particularly appreciate how the author gives serious consideration to Hartigan’s commercial neon sign company – Gone on Neon – which he operated during the 1980s, by which time the medium had already achieved pop-art retro-chic status in the United States, after its tacky nadir in the post-war period. Abbot is good at teasing out these threads, recognising that Hartigan’s self-conscious reclamation of such a medium means that advertising signage and fine art merge and “cross-pollinate” (as Abbott happily puts it), in much the same way as do the 1930s tourism posters of the National Publicity Studios discussed above. One outcome is a fun piece of Wellington trivia: how many people realise that Whipping the Wind in the turret of Landcorp House was created by the same artist who produced the iconic Green Parrot neon sign for the Tory St café at the other end of the CBD?

Illustrated to the point of overkill – did we really need quite so many separate shots of Colony at every conceivable angle and time of day? – nevertheless I wondered why Abbott failed to give any space whatsoever to other New Zealand contemporary artists who work with neon light. Bill Culbert is an obvious point of comparison: his SkyBlues (2006) stands in delicate curlicues not far from Whipping the Wind in Wellington’s Post Office Square, while Auckland’s Neon Collective of Clair Bell, Jim Scharfe et al must surely have been influenced by Hartigan. Overseas, Tracey Emin, Jung Lee and many others have employed the medium’s emphatic broadcasting qualities to interesting effect. Both a strength and a drawback, perhaps, of the monograph, is this rather airless narrowness of focus. The next book, perhaps?

Vivid emerged from Abbott’s Masters thesis, but is written so fluently that it only occasionally shows. One instance where it does intrude is in the laborious and lengthy over-analysis of Colony, which feels like it started life as an earnest academic research essay. Doubtless it deserved its A+, but I found it wearing. However, a distinct benefit of the book’s thesis origins is its comprehensive and elegantly laid-out appendices: a select bibliography; a chronology; a full exhibition history; an index, all of which were sorely missing from the King book.

These two beautifully produced monographs on very different artists with apparently little in common work surprisingly well together to illuminate the often overlooked relationship between commercial and fine art.

Stella Ramage is a Wellington-based writer and reviewer.

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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