Balm for TV’s dissolution, David Eggleton

Lands and Deeds
Gregory O’Brien
Godwit Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0 908877 68 4

Timeless Land
Graham Sydney, Brian Turner and Owen Marshall
Longacre Press, $99.95,
ISBN 0 9583405 5 2

100 New Zealand Paintings
Warwick Brown
Godwit Press, $75.00,
ISBN 0 908877 73 0

Three picture books about painting. Visually all three are a treat: they provide a feast for the eyes. The covers, for example, are marvels of design, from the chill blue and graphic white of 100 New Zealand Paintings , to the spectacular Cinemascopic dimensions of Timeless Land, to the image conjured up by the dustjacket of Lands and Deeds of a mystical landscape painted by some saintly hermit dwelling in a grotto lit by glow-worms.

Lands and Deeds has been scored like a jazz medley. As you pore over its pages it not only looks friendly, with its individual biographical tables, large-postage-stamp-size black and white illustrations, and scrupulous colour reproductions placed with an eye to rhythmically counterpointing the big-printed text throughout, it also feels good in the hands — all fine white paper and tough binding — and, dare I say it, smells good too, an artifact with presence and substance built out of gum, paper and ink.

In this book (or “colloquium”) Gregory O’Brien’s profiles of 18 painters are supported by a raft of cross-references, a net of intertextual threads. Black and white photographic portraits by Robert Cross capture something of the personality of each artist, some of whom are more knowing about this process than others. The offhand snap of Hariata Ropata Tangahoe merging with her artwork is a knockout.

Timeless Land is now history, a national treasure, a district folk-bible. The first edition has completely sold out and is unlikely to be reprinted. Monumental as a stone plaque, it carries the work of four names with strong South Island links: a reminiscence of Central Otago by Sam Neill, all-weather poems by Brian Turner, burnished prose by Owen Marshall and, laid over one another like rock strata, the harsh New Zealand clarity of Graham Sydney’s paintings of place.

100 New Zealand Paintings is in a way an arbitrary-sounding title, and, in his attempts to be non-hierarchical, Auckland art critic and gallery-owner Warwick Brown has ended up with an anthology where the response has been as much about exclusions as inclusions. His cognitive mapping, it has been suggested, only covers the tip of the iceberg.

Another point to be made is that Brown’s cross-section of the state of painting today is necessarily going to be cursory when he can allow only one painting a painter, no matter how long the career, or how often the artist has chopped and changed style. His potted essays are carefully written but really there’s nothing holding his thesis together apart from goodwill. Why this collection of artists rather than another?

At the centre of the debate is a vortex and it drags in the other two books as well. The generosity of the title 100 New Zealand paintings conceals the agenda, which is to do with work accessible and purchasable in dealer galleries. Given that culture is a process of production, circulation and consumption, the oil paintings (and their acrylic cousins) are an oil bonanza; the local market, aided and abetted by a phone-pool of curators, has discovered it loves painters and their handmade craftwork.

Art, as Billy Apple has shown in works like “Advised, Structured, Arranged, Traded” (1992), is one of capitalism’s proudest possessions, a dignified form of self-advertisement for a triumphant ideology. In the market economy — now that New Zealand’s nationalist rhetoric takes the form of commercials or, as with One Network News, infomercials — zero tolerance is an oxymoron. Here, pace the Christian Coalition party, nothing is forbidden; the licit contains the illicit and capitalist realism subsumes socialist realism, turning Marx towards its own ends. And so small-town New Zealand is being deafened with the electronic chatter of speculations about cultural meanings: if the eye is a camera then “New Zealand” is a shopping channel.

The rise of “enabling technologies” is symbolised by the exponential growth of the Internet. Malraux’s socialist museum without walls, available to everyone with a library card, has become Baudrillard’s hypertext, with total reproduction rights to all computer digitisation reserved. In “digital imaging” fragments from different sources may be quickly and easily combined; arbitrary interventions are easy to introduce and hard to detect. Susan Sontag’s 1960s notion that “photographs are not just depictions of reality, they are reality” — documentation by photography being the ultimate form of evidence — has been displaced. Nowadays, network distribution of images can make it difficult to determine image locations. Images can exist as multiple geographically-distributed identical copies. When digital images can be just downloaded from a database they can resist being treated as privately-owned commodities.

You can see how this kind of mirror maze might lead to a reassertion of the painted image for reasons of scarcity, authenticity and permanence. Painting becomes invested with something of the sacred, the special, the valuable for its own sake. Gregory O’Brien has pointed out in this very journal that he assembled Lands and Deeds partly in reaction to working in television, with its promiscuous blending of images, its relentless digital amnesia.

Meanwhile, like a textbook example of architectural penile dementia — spectacularly out of scale with its surroundings — the casino tower asserts its grotesque presence on Auckland’s inner city skyline. Here’s the ultimate braindead triumph of corporate architecture, of capitalist realism and inside, to confirm victory, there’s artwork galore by 26 New Zealand artists. (A chance to be struck blind by views of the New Zealand landscape reduced to dancing dollar signs.) This building (like the new national museum in Wellington, which some have compared to an outsize beachside toilet block) is a homegrown example of the pathetic sublime.

Painting offers a balm for eyesight weary of television’s constant dissolution, weary of newspapers’ lack of resolution, weary of the way in which in mass media in general the empty symbol, the cliche-image, substitutes itself for reality, pixel by pixel.

Warwick Brown’s book is a manifestation of a collector’s instinct. He has, as Bruce Chatwin called it, “the eye”. He takes us from Gretchen Albrecht’s humid-blue nocturne to Peter Siddell’s presentation of spiritual weather: an evening calm descending like a benediction on the eerie, weatherboarded emptiness of greater suburbia. He has Jenny Dolezel’s “Petit Guignol”: macabre puppet theatre rendered in poison-lollipop colours. He has the high chromatic keys of the abstractionists: the pupil-dilating brilliance of Emily Karaka’s deep-woven plaid; the monochrome variations of Milan Mrkusich. We can go to him for the sweetest visual confectionery (Pamela Wolfe’s flowers) and the best jagged expressionism (Dean Buchanan’s zigzags).

But the 1991 fragments of Hanly he presents — the pretty fancy paintwork broken up into a jigsaw — are just a whisper of the famous Hanly theme of the “Garden of Eden” in Mount Eden when Hanly painted young men industriously drawing nudes which celebrated the wonder of form: as golden and chubby as breadrolls, or else pale and round like particularly shapely potato tubers. Diagrammatic nudes were joined by diagrammatic infants to make emblems of Innocence. In Hanly’s garden glossy shrubs and tropical flowers bloomed in an endless summer. Densely-worked scribbles resolved into caravans of travelling cloud trailing their shadows. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! Perhaps he tired of eternity.

In Lands and Deeds Gregory O’Brien goes looking for what he wants to find. His choices are all figurative, literary, narrative, painters with belief systems far removed from exploded nihilism, from trash for trash’s sake. Likewise he avoids the self-referential, first-principle, prime-mover abstract painters. Lands and Deeds is a companion piece to his earlier book, Moments of Invention, dealing with New Zealand writers. There, as here, he is a master of contextualisation, a mosaic-maker. By juxtaposing fragments, quotations, captions, small poems, conversations, he allows one piece of information to inform another. His artists, knowledgeable about both sales pitches and defence strategies, appear as articulate explainers of what they’re up to. Boiling down an artist’s life and practice to a few pages, he manages to keep the flavour. But his profiles should be read as introductions. As a critic he has a horror of the definitive last word.

His handpicked artists do not form an orthodoxy. Rather, they stand out for their rather prickly individuality, though they are altar decorators rather than desecrators of altars. However, trying to find a grand unified theory to explain what holds O’Brien’s choices together is like trying to nail jelly to a tree or trying to rivet custard to a wall or trying to glue atoms together. The truth is his explanations of the differences between modernism and postmodernism are hazy, just as his explanations of contemporary ways of painting end up raising more questions than they answer. In the end we’re left with elective affinities (artists he’s drawn to by temperament) and pragmatic considerations such as availability. Essentially O’Brien resists closures, preferring the circular, the inconclusive, the nagging doubt which might be worried into illumination. If he does have any runic touchstones, they are those which turn up over and over again like rosary beads: Catholic, Irish, Celtic; James Joyce, Samuel Beckett; Frame, McCahon, Baxter.

C K Stead, in his 1994 introduction to Werner Foreman’s New Zealand, a collection of landscape colour photographs, restated a truism: “…for all New Zealand’s present-day image of itself (stock exchange, home and garden, fashion, cuisine, sophisticated drinking, fast travel) the day-to-day realities have only superficially changed: a great deal remains as it has been for 100 years.” In the 1000 years before that, landmarks were notched by a series of navigators from elsewhere: Kupe, Tasman, Cook.

These founders have become icons in paintings by Nigel Brown, which then act as gateway tokens into the country’s history on the covers of texts such as The Writing of New Zealand, edited by Alex Calder. Nigel Brown paints history, he’s a narrative painter, a literary painter and so ideal for inclusion in O’Brien’s project. Humouresque, his work turns the heroic into the anti-heroic. (He’s painted James K Baxter as an outlandish garden gnome.) He traces the transient — the past 100 years — as a blink of the eye. In his 1982 painting “Across Langholm” he provides a take on the suburb. A fenceline, a row of rotary clotheslines, houses, trees and lamp-posts, all utilising the shape of the punga-tree, march neatly across the landscape. In the foreground a tiny man armed with an axe advances heroically, like Man Alone.

For Owen Marshall, Brian Turner and Graham Turner in the South Island it is Colin McCahon who is the great navigator, the maker of myths. Their timeless land is a place populated by farmers, rabbiters and not much else. God and a few prophets maybe. Metaphysicians certainly: “The farmhouses are weatherboard and the sheds mainly shot. The dogs are kennelled in a gull head where mutton bones go to die” and in summer there are “pools of dust like talcum powder along the roads” as the landscape lies “stretched and broken like the dried skin of a rabbit shrunk away from the bones and sockets”. Thus Owen Marshall hymns the place in prose, while Brian Turner finds the tutelary genius of the land teaches moral precepts; endurance, strength, honesty.

It’s not picturesque,
it’s essential, almost
grand, and it aches
like the rhythms of truth
scornful of tittle-tattle.
You have to be here, you
have to feel the deep
slow surge of the hills,
the cloak of before, the wrench
of beyond.
(“Van Morrison in Central Otago”)

Graham Sydney’s paintings, if they need to be analysed — their geomorphological air of certitude is self-evident, ungainsayable, though perhaps a trifle theatrical sometimes in choice of props (a stop sign, a half-demolished railway waiting room) — could be classed as the acme of realism, the epitome of regionalism. They are the inheritors of Thomas Hart Benton’s dustbowl politics and Andrew Wyeth’s nostalgia for tradition; the confederates of W A Sutton’s keeping of the cultural record for a landscape which beggars almost all description but theirs.

Fifteen of the 18 painters featured in Lands and Deeds are in 100 New Zealand Paintings. Those not are Joanna Margaret Paul, Hariata Ropata Tangahoe and Michael Stevenson. For poet-painter Joanna Margaret Paul “painting is like touching”. A painting is “a transaction”, a captured moment of perception. Her overlays and mergings of subtle tints are delicate, almost tremulous; her subjects are intimiste: gardens, domestic interiors, much-read poetry books. She might recite along with Emily Dickinson: “These are visions flitted Guido / Titian never told / Domenichino dropped his pencil / Paralysed with gold.” In her small work “absence” (1988), her mood is indigo, a spatter of bright watercolour, like drops shaken from a spray of flowers just that minute brought in out of the rain.

Hariata Ropata Tangahoe says of her art: “I want to go beyond the sky, where things seem to be coming from, the source. I want to express what is beyond us.” Influenced by douanier Rousseau and Marc Chagall, her paintings of figures are glaucous dreamscapes. In them she’s groping for wisdom, prophecy, the ability to forecast. They draw on “our tangi, whaikorero, waiata, karanga, whakairo and kowhaiwhai — it is all within us.” Her strategies link her to Pauline Thompson, a New Zealander with Norfolk Island connections, who says: “I’ve always found the colours in New Zealand rather distressingly black and white and grey. When I went to Norfolk, I thought the colours were right — they were more golden. Here it’s so bleached out you can’t see anything properly.” Brought up a Catholic, Thompson became a Sufi then left that, but is still very interested in religious mythology which she uses to explore the heraldic and angelic.

Veering close to kitsch, some of her paintings resemble Mexican or Filipino popular religious tableaus. Her painting narratives, composed out of self-made stories, connect with both Jacqueline Fahey and Gerda Leenards. Fahey paints scenes from a family life. Mixing philtres, she launches probes into the human heart and creates Jungian scenarios at the end of umbilical cords of paint.

According to the expatriate art critic Lita Barry, New Zealand feminist images “are often unconvincing, tending to be overly-derivative, word-drenched, didactic and lacking in irony and pleasure.” There’s no evidence of that with Jacqueline Fahey. She’s thrown away Barry’s self-serving rulebook and painted one of her own.

Gerda Leenards, as if returning to the womb, goes back to her birthplace Nijmegen, Holland, to paint “the golden haze of pollution”. Having learnt from Petrus van der Velden how to saturate her New Zealand painting with heavy, dark tones (she arrived here aged 10) this Wellington weatherhound, taking Rainer Maria Rilke as her text (We don’t feel very securely at home in this interpreted world” — “The First Duino Elegy”) paints various corrosions biting deep into precious metals, into the good earth, the Dutch watertable, and into the internalised landscapes of memory.

Michael Stevenson, who grew up in rural Taranaki, describes his early paintings as southern Baptist hillbilly. Dripping with deadpan drollery, they deal with the trappings of pentecostalism — wreaths, banners, “Jesus Christ Superstar” as gospel and local white trash culture: the vitality of it. Moving by way of Friday night hoons driving big American cars round Inglewood, he’s gone on to explore the American myths of the midwest (of which Taranaki might be considered a cultural outpost) which have metastasised in their country of origin into death fixations: tobacco as a kind of toxic candyfloss, underground nuclear test blasts in the desert, the American conceptual artist ratpack of the 1970s (Carl Andre, Smithson, Serra) as selfconscious macho-men. While his text celebrates kitschmongering, his subtext is concerned with how mass media dissemble: operating from the viewpoint of authorial intent, of authorial ownership, America itself is Narcissus as superstar, it wants to find its own self-image everywhere it looks. Stevenson is dealing with the eternal halflife of its shelf products — its junk — in rural and semi-rural New Zealand.

He’s a successor of a kind to Michael Smither, the Taranaki past-master of soft Mount Egmonts and extra-hard rock pools. A ceaseless experimenter, Smither states: “Part of the process of looking and painting is finding out how to enjoy the things themselves — how to enjoy the people, the oranges, the teapot.” His fascination with form echoes his belief in harmonic proportions and echoes, too, his need for belief. He also comments on the politics of painting, on how the splish-splash sound of paint being applied is getting drowned out by the noise of axes being ground and the whine of ideological chainsaws, as the critical mass of 100 schools of thought grows ever louder. Instead of listening to the vested self-interest of the contracted professional, he prefers the pithy wit of boulevardiers and artists like John Reynolds, who, as well as poking and prodding canvas with a paintbrush, provides his own idiosyncratic voice-over to art-house news.

Stanley Palmer dwells on as well as in the landscape. Palmer’s biomorphic forms recall his near-namesake, the English visionary Samuel Palmer — cumulus cloud resting on a hill’s shoulder; vegetation pushing at the envelope of form. Stanley Palmer quarries his images from the coastal north, where the sunlight hacks out deep shadows and reduces human beings to frail husks.

Toss Woollaston by his own admission is following in the footsteps of an absent master — Cézanne. Using diluted cubism to momentous effect, he’s painting what’s there as attentively as possible: “I like to paint looking, with the light, towards the subject in clear weather. I’ve always ended up painting the thing I see every day. What you see is what becomes exciting when you’ve looked at it 100 times.” Selected from an oeuvre nearly as long as the century, the reproduction of “Joe Woollaston” (1955) sets a high benchmark: its texture is almost tactile.

Like Nigel Brown, Shane Cotton paints and explores history but, a Maori artist, he uses a Maori zodiac to construct a flexible museology. He goes rummaging around in old museum display cases for colonial leftovers, which he then paints in earth oven colours — burnt sienna, burnt umber. Cotton’s Po-Mo opportunism, with its shuffling of post-colonial shards, has ended up creating some of the most weirdly weightless yet totally evocative images in recent art historical memory. His shelves of stuff, hoisted on slender poles which resemble building scaffolding, are a singing whakapapa of traces left by ancestors. The tiki shrunk to the dimensions of an homunculus stays dynamic, land planted in a pot keeps the faith.

Michael Shepherd, also obsessively revisiting the colonial divide, in a sense has no faith to lose. He’s an elegiac mourner amongst funerary statuary, building on geometries of order, on the equilateral triangle. Preserving a version of the past, his paintings have the granular texture of dried flowers. His iconography of war — the land wars, the world wars — includes bandages, bullets and battlefields. For Shepherd the landscape is a topology of defeated sites. On the reverse side of works like “Five Fiscal Envelopes (the language of colonialism)” (1995) is Ken Mair as millennial prophet with road barricades of second-hand refrigerators. Shepherd replaces contextual clutter with barbed irony. Figuring out who pays for what and why — who owns what and why — is a way of disguising the vacuum at the centre. Like the Jorge Luis Borges character, Funes the Memorious, Shepherd is blessed, or cursed, with a perfect historical memory. He cannot forget.

His studied sepulchral gloom connects with that of Richard McWhannel who shuttles back and forth in his painting concerns, often ending up with self-questing self-portraits which have a self-mocking undertow: “I love painting headgear, a hat is architecture, a frame … the dunce’s or sinner’s cap has the pure architecture of a church spire.”

Trevor Moffitt’s South Islanders — men (and women) straining for self-sufficiency — are folkloric, like the sheep-rustler MacKenzie and the West Coast gunman who snapped, Stan Graham. His working-class realism can be contrasted with Fahey’s middle-class social realism and Nigel Brown’s less repressed working class Aucklanders. Moffitt respects his fretful sleepers, his coal-flat-town dwellers. Painting their faces as fleshy, barely differentiated blobs, he situates them in workaday situations. His hardboard heroes gleam, as if greasy with lanolin taken from the backs of sweaty sheep.

Fellow Christchurch painter Bill Hammond is a contemporary of Fomison and Clairmont. Like theirs, his work engages in a kind of flirtation with the diabolical. Rigid as Egyptian hieroglyphs, his bird-heads, derived from Walter Lowry Buller’s History of the Birds of New Zealand stare expressionlessly out to sea, which is portrayed as an impenetrable darkness. Hammond’s anxious images mock their own anxiety and undermine the own hyperactivity of detail with absurdities of scale and image (for example “samples” of ocean).

Amongst his nexus of influences is Rudi Gopas, the Lithuanian painter who taught at Ilam Art School. Gopas, with his European sensibility, made an impact on many, including Geerda Leenards and Dick Frizzell. Frizzell is a “primary producer”, a problem-solver, looking for ways out of painting impasses and cul-de-sacs. A graphic art virtuoso his melting pot of imagery bubbles with a mix of the High and Low. He seeks to avoid the sterility of repetitive picture-making, where the end product is dead on arrival, unable to hold the eye. Frizzell’s garish icons make him the godfather of the bad painting school, the up and coming generation of merry pranksters.

In an interview for “Anthology” on the Concert Programme Gregory O”Brien suggested that Killeen could almost be seen as being at the centre of the Lands and Deeds project. Killeen’s aluminium cut-outs, painted in pale and creamy shades with a whisper of more violent colours, are bits or units which can be randomly arranged and endlessly remade. He’s a signwriter, a maker of signs. (The Robert Cross photograph shows Killeen as a semiotician, in a brown study.)

Hitching Killeen to James Joyce’s star — his polyphonic world language Babel — O’Brien points to how Killeen plays around with sign systems, with taxonomies. Like that of Barbara Strathdee, his work discloses piecemeal scraps of visual information, hinting at hidden processes.

He ransacks books of human anatomy, books on paleontology, on the structure of crystals, on world war II tank ammunition, on Navaho sand painting. In works like “Born Alive in New Zealand” (1985), Killeen fuses nationalism and internationalism, deeds and land, then stands back to watch the possible permutations mutating like a computer virus, like a snippet of DNA already outfitted with coded programme instructions. It’s emblematic of the process O’Brien describes in the Afterword: artists offering “the stories out of which various individual and collective identities can be nourished and constructed”.

David Eggleton is a Dunedin writer and critic.

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