Electricities: Work in progress, Gregory O’Brien

I am sitting in an Auckland dealer gallery pondering some photographs of Michael Smither’s paintings, including one New Plymouth public garden scene called “Poet’s Bridge”, the title of which strikes an encouraging note – there can’t be too many such public properties dedicated to poets. The owner of the gallery then shatters my meditation, informing me that “The Poet” in this case was a racehorse that had won the garden’s benefactor a whole pile of money.

In recent months I’ve moved from one sphere of employment to another. From spending hours on end in a room with as many as eight televisions going at once, to standing silently, my face a few inches away from an oil painting. Concerning these different confrontations, these different kinds of engagement, there’s a quality in the latter encounter which I find myself overwhelmingly drawn towards and which, for want of a better description, I’ll call “the poetic”.

Depressingly, it seems Barbara Kruger was mostly right when she said television was “an industry that manufactures blind eyes”. Baudrillard also maintained television was “directly destructive of meaning and signification, or neutralises it”. It’s not hard to feel at odds with the medium (although then along comes the Dennis Potter interview – thank god – to redeem it).

Working in television was a decisive factor in my deciding to undertake the project I am working on, Lands and Deeds, a book of interviews with 18 New Zealand painters.* My objective was to rediscover how alive the eye and mind could be, after a time spent in what I had often found myself thinking of as a kind of “twilight” zone. I recall one of my workmates on The Edge walking into the videotape editing suite one afternoon and, as she stood there talking, her long hair extended horizontally from the side of her head to touch the doorframe which must have been alive with static electricity.

Her hair remained there, just like that, reaching for the doorframe.

The digitised environment, as far as I could make out, was a zone in which “poetry” was generally absent or, at least, neutralised. Regardless of the purchase television has on the public eye and mind – and its persuasiveness is undeniable – I move off, for a time anyway, into smaller, cherished things.

Alongside Lands and Deeds I have been working on a satellite project, a series of short poems about painting and painters, entitled The time and how/ A Century of New Zealand Landscape Painting / a 32-page sketchbook. The poems are fragments of real and imaginary conversations with artists, some of them in the book, some not. They are also, conveniently, a series of sketches or miniatures. According to the English critic Tim Hilton, “miniaturists can always do stranger things with colour than muralists, and they get away with their risks and discoveries just by painting small”. The poems are epiphanies – glimpses rather than prolonged investigations – which touch on the difficult commingling of seeing and doing which is the act of painting.

I was thinking of the commitment of an artist like Rita Angus:

The journey as far as the road

Rita, the young will not enter
the convent

the city has bright lights, too
bright lights.

It turns them on and off
for you.


Looking across the broad field of New Zealand painting since the second world war, much seems to have been bypassed or underrated. While, in Lands and Deeds, I’ve hopefully pulled such undervalued living artists as Trevor Moffitt and Pauline Thompson back into the picture, the sequence of poems goes further back, lingering around the work of earlier painters from George O’Brien to Michael Illingworth. It became evident to me there were some very deep pools which hardly anyone had yet bothered to look into – for instance, the work of Illingworth, which makes me think of a visual arts equivalent of Hone Tuwhare.

Landscape with two beaches

If the landscape, Michael, is a
woman lying down

would we drive our cars
on it, like this

around and around.


Last August I travelled down to Invercargill to interview the 86-year-old painter William Reed for The Edge. While visiting the little-known artist, who painted extraordinary work while stationed in the Pacific during the second world war, the necessity for various kinds of retrieval jobs on the past impressed itself upon me.** Shows like the Auckland City Art Gallery’s Fifties Show – for all their limitations and partiality – are valuable in this respect.

Art institutions and criticism often seems obsessed with the distant past – “the historical” – on one hand, and with the present – “the hot, new thing” – on the other. Much “recent” work seems to fall through the gap in between. Lands and Deeds and The Time and How constitute my very small, personal retrieval job.

This poem addresses the late Robert N Field:

Recognition – One

Field or valley, Robert,
we watched you walk,

your colourbox overwhelmed
by daffodils,

the day’s paintings
watching as you approached them.

Maybe these sketches are “love poems” about painting. They are also about trying to resolve the different voices – the painter’s voice, the voice within the painting, my own voice and the voice of Lands and Deeds, the book as a whole going about its business.

Occasionally the voice in the poem would be a merging of my own voice and someone else’s.

After visiting Toss Woollaston, I was left with:

Beside the fireplace, Upper Moutere

I like the light
behind me

falling directly
on the subject, the light

coming from where
I am.


In the course of my investigations, I found myself going around and around that mulberry bush of New Zealand painting, Colin McCahon. He crops up throughout the book of interviews (as omnipresent as Baxter once appeared above the firmament of New Zealand poetry).

Painter with clouds

I see my paintings
reflected in lakes,

like billboards hammered up
against blue sky,

between the colours of earth
and heaven

although I am not
a religious man,

believe me.


The poems also present themselves as diversions – they are an opportunity to vanish down side roads (which is, after all, the poem’s prerogative: no-one asks where it’s come from or how it got there). They can also pick up a loose thread and, as they say in The Industry, “run with it”. For instance, Joanna Margaret Paul’s playful description of herself as “the last plein air painter” led to this small meditation:

The plainness of air

Joanna painting
the spaces between

fenceposts, as a tree
is made of wood

and a forest is made
of air.


My writing has always proceeded in some kind of relation with painting and painters. In my first collection, Location of the Least Person, I doffed my hat to predominantly European sources including Marc Chagall, Edward Burne-Jones and El Greco. Days Beside Water (1993) dipped specifically into the American painterly tradition as embodied by the work of Albert Pinkham Ryder, Marsden Hartley and Philip Guston. Working on Lands and Deeds provided the impetus to move the project closer to home and figure a few ways around the New Zealand artistic tradition.

I’ve always been preoccupied with painter-poets: Jean Arp, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Kurt Schwitters, Marsden Hartley and Elizabeth Bishop … I’m interested in the energy – a very different kind of electricity to that which I observed in the audio-visual suite – that crosses these circuits, that transcends boundaries and definitions. I’m also interested in work that is “poetic” in the old-fashioned sense of “the poetic” as the quality which is immeasurable in all the arts. That notion inhabits The Time and How and also, from my point of view, the paintings scheduled for reproduction in Lands and Deeds.

In his excellent book The Dominion of Signs, Nick Perry writes, concerning television, that “the prime function of the programmes has become the delivery of audiences to advertisers; the centre of gravity has shifted towards the commercials themselves”. While the grim fact keeps coming back to me that, without corporate backers and advertisers, the “poetic” will almost invariably be relegated to the margins, I’d like to think poetry is an act on behalf of those margins, inferring, ultimately, that they are the real centres.

Beyond my own concerns and priorities, the book of interviews, Lands and Deeds, will end up being its own argument, content with and at odds with itself. At present I’m integrating the paintings within the matrix of the text, the quotations and Robert Cross’s accompanying photographs of the artists. Again, in the relationship between these parts, we are going after a certain poetry. I think the artists have this quality already – it’s up to the book to reflect something of that.

*The artists are: Michael Smither, Gerda Leenards, Dick Frizzell, Stanley Palmer, Joanna Paul, Bill Hammond, Barbara Strathdee, Nigel Brown, Hiriata Ropata, Richard Killeen, Michael Shepherd, Jacqueline Fahey, Richard McWhannell, Trevor Moffitt, Michael Stevenson, Pauline Thompson, Shane Cotton and Toss Woollaston.

** A written account of this visit, entitled “Recognition”, is published in Art New Zealand 74 (Autumn 1995)


Gregory O’Brien is this year’s writer-in-residence at Victoria University of Wellington.


Tagged with: , ,
Posted in Art, Literature, Non-fiction, Poetry, Review
Search the archive
Search by category