Slipping through the net of art history, Christina Barton

Don Peebles: The Harmony at Opposites
Justin Paton
Robert McDougall Art Gallery & Hazard Press
$34.95
ISBN 1 877161 00 4

Of the public art galleries in New Zealand, the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch has a commendable record for publishing substantial and well-researched catalogues to accompany exhibitions they have organised, profiling prominent artists in Canterbury. Recent publications like those devoted to the work of painter Doris Lusk and ecclesiastical carver Frederick George Gurnsey demonstrate a dedication to an increasingly rare level of scholarship in the necessary tasks of selecting, describing, cataloguing and contextualising bodies of work, as well as ably giving some sense of the life of the artist and the progress of their career.

The recent catalogue, published to accompany the touring exhibition Don Peebles.-A Harmony of Opposites, is no exception. Lavishly illustrated in colour and black and white, with a substantial essay by Justin Paton and the useful additions of full exhibition history, bibliography and biography of the artist, this publication provides a well-presented resource on an artist who, despite being widely regarded as one of our senior artists, has, as the author argues, slipped through the net of art history.

Thus the remedial task of making Peebles’ life and work better known has been ably undertaken. But, in my view, the question why he has not enjoyed greater prominence has not yet been fully answered. Paton considers Peebles’ exclusion to be no bad thing, signalling, in occasional asides through his text, his antipathy to the kind of dry categorising of which he argues art history is guilty, and to which Peebles refuses to conform. But it is likely that the approach he has taken in his essay, though succeeding in celebrating an important artist, may indeed result in Peebles’ continuing marginalisation.

Certainly Peebles is widely known as a major abstract painter, who is represented in public and private collections throughout New Zealand, whose canvases regularly appear at auction, and who would be a necessary inclusion in any major overview of painting in this country (as his inclusion in Michael Dunn’s recent Contemporary Painting in New Zealand attests). He has thus been supported by the market and by the institutions of art – notably in his working life as Head of Painting at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts.

This, however, has not led to his inclusion as a major figure in art historical accounts. As Paton asserts, this is because Peebles’ mature work does not register local content, especially in terms of the specificities of landscape, and has therefore not been commandeered in the construction of a particular New Zealand art history. But neither has he been regularly enlisted in the critical arguments which have sought to oppose a local New Zealand art with one imported from overseas, which have, in the literature, tended to oppose those for and against abstraction. (Take the case of Francis Pound’s support for abstract artists like Milan Mrkusich and Gordon Walters in opposition to a nationalist like Colin McCahon.)

This, Paton argues, is because Peebles has been little interested in the critical frameworks which structure our understanding of what constitutes New Zealand art. Instead, Peebles has doggedly pursued his own path, based on his absorption and adaptation of various modes of high, late and, most latterly, post-modern abstraction. However, such an assertion of independence belies the equally important fact that Peebles has been championed by a community, well served by its public art gallery, which in turn is known for its commitment to both regionalist and expressive practices – the former represented by the likes of W A Sutton and Doris Lusk, the latter by Alan Pearson and Peebles.

This seems to me to be a vital point and one which Paton could have brought out more forcefully in his account. For what is it in Peebles’ work which lends itself to the support of a gallery like the McDougall, which has been quite clear where its allegiances lie? Why have artists like Sutton, Lusk, Pearson and Peebles enjoyed the gallery’s attention and not others from the region – locals such as Neil Dawson, Gordon Walters, John Hurrell, Julia Morison, Peter Robinson and Pauline Rhodes, all of whom have enjoyed far more attention elsewhere? Why indeed does the Christchurch art scene cling to a particular conception of the artist which much current practice and critical writing seek to undo? The clue may indeed lie in Paton’s text, which even he may be surprised to realise is a highly conventional art historical account.

In engaging and colourful prose, Paton brings Peebles to life, as an artistic personality of dedication, self-critical acuity and visual and manual skill. There are passages in his essay which really animate the works, transcending the purely visual and engaging the reader/ viewer’s senses to an almost visceral degree. Here is a sustained piece of writing which traces all the major stages in the artist’s career from his tentative beginnings in Wellington in the 1950s through to his current practice in the 1990s. We are told what the artist thinks and feels as well as given insights into his methods of working. From this one cannot help but be left with a sense of admiration for Peebles’ lifelong commitment to art, and a clear sense of what the writer believes constitute the artist’s major achievements.

But only partially does the author endeavour to place Peebles into a specific social, cultural or historical context. We are told little of the local artistic community within which he largely operates and we are told even less about the legacy he may have left as a prominent teacher in the district. Early on, we are given enormously useful accounts of the influences Peebles absorbed in the time he spent in Australia and England – the two parts of the text which supply really useful historical research – but later, once the artist has entered his mature phase, his relation to, for example, American art (according to the biography, he visited the States on two occasions) is somewhat fudged, as is his relation to other New Zealand artists who have remained committed to abstract practices.

Instead, Paton begins and ends in the artist’s studio, offering us privileged insight into the sacred domain of this creative man. Sequestered here, the artist is not so much part of a specific context, but an independent and indeed isolated observer who brings things from the world into this sanctified realm to transform them from the mundane into that rarified thing called “art”. As the appearance of his studio attests, this entails an ongoing struggle to bring order out of chaos, to find some balance between the competing drives of intellect and intuition, vision and craft, which are then posed as the central concerns not only of the artist but also of his exegete.

This I find the least convincing aspect of Paton’s narrative, largely because of its highly conventional nature. Paton, despite his protestations otherwise, presents with uncanny precision the archetypal artistic subject, who, as in so many of the accounts which litter the annals of art history, is constructed in and through the formal features of his paintings and likewise mirrored in the configuration of his workspace. Being granted access to the artist’s private world is therefore posed as a metaphor for accessing the true identity of the artist. This functions as a metonym for Paton’s characterisation of Peebles as someone who can “see through base matter to present us with objects which register his intensified relation to ordinary experience.

Paton’s narrative, then, replicates the creative acts which he seeks to explicate. It, like Peebles’ work, is an act of re-presentation which no more provides us with access to the real than does the artist in his engagement with his materials. But, as all good modernists should, Paton conceals this fact. His presence as intermediary between the artist and his audience is of necessity downplayed. Perhaps this is why the chair is empty in the photograph with which the essay ends. For it is not the artist’s chair, even though it sits in his studio, as he is otherwise engaged in mute communion with his work in progress on the wall to one side. It is of course the author’s seat, for he is the absent presence who provides the necessary language which allows us to enter the space.

Paton’s celebration of Peebles conforms to a model which is out of step with current conceptions of the artist and indeed of a critical art history, but which is entirely in line with the ideological position of the institution and the community for whom he is writing. It is not only an older and now debunked nationalist art history which is unable to accommodate Peebles, but also the newer art historical discourses which are more wary of such mythic characterisations. Had Paton focused more on showing how Peebles operates within a broader context – which he does here and there – he would have more successfully proven the artist’s place in our culture. Indeed, the overlooked decades of art history in New Zealand – the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – are exactly the periods which deserve more institutional attention, if audiences are to ever properly gain an understanding of what contemporary art means and how it functions in what is still an underdeveloped if not immature culture. Instead what his text ultimately conveys is the tenacious isolation of its context from those other discourses which are shaping New Zealand art now.

Christina Barton lectures in Art History at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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