Art on the edge, Neil Rowe

The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont
Martin Edmond
Auckland University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86940 195 6

On the 13th May 1984, in Auckland, the painter Philip Clairmont, aged 34, hanged himself.

In the fourteen years since his graduation, with honours in painting, from University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 1970, Philip Clairmont’s career rise as an artist had been meteoric, coinciding, as it did, with the advent of the dealer gallery on the New Zealand art scene and the resultant burgeoning of the art market.

From the outset his work was stamped with a uniquely personal style characterised by a ferocious energy of gestural impasto painting and a marvellous luminosity of colour. Similarly, his subject matter was early defined: domestic interiors – themselves a metaphor for an inner landscape – fireplace, chairs, tables, wardrobes, mirrors, himself and his wife frequently reflected. The mirror was an entry point to a “magic theatre”, a distorted reality ready framed within a proscenium arch. The light sources are the fireplace, various lamps and, typically, a naked light bulb. The outside world lit by the sun seldom features (except as an ecstatic vision in the late “window paintings”). Themes which predominate are magic, art itself as the transformation of the mundane and particular personal world, insanity, terror, war, mutilation, the holocaust and a dark, if inexplicit eroticism, investing the entire body of the approximately 800 art works that constitute Philip Clairmont’s oeuvre.

Obvious and acknowledged influences are the German expressionists, especially Kirchner and Beckmann, Van Gogh, Francis Bacon and the 15th-century German painter Grünewald, whose Isenheim altarpiece triptych is a constant compositional device, as is the crucifix depicted therein. It is significant that both Bacon and Beckmann employed the triptych format. Outsider Art, Art Brut and the art of insane and disturbed patients also exerted a constant fascination and Clairmont made a systematic study of these. As a schoolboy his mother gave him a book on Francis Bacon, a particularly savage role model for a young artist.

It is no secret, and he was never less than candid about the fact himself, that Philip Clairmont was an inveterate drug user and heavy drinker, both recreationally and in his painting modus operandi. Making art was a dangerous game and he saw it in these terms. Pushing himself to the limit. Living on the edge. Experimenting with perception. Taking risks. Playing for the highest stakes. Russian roulette with pills and needles. Marijuana was standard fare. Opium, the psychotropics – LSD, mescalin, psilocybin – amphetamine and various other chemicals were regularly ingested and were all grist to his mill. He once told me that he was “a walking pharmacopoeia”. He knew the names and properties of a bewildering array of drugs, many of which I’d never heard of, and seemed to speak from personal experience when describing their effects. It was clear to me that this was no mere academic listing of substances but that he meant that he physically embodied them. If the naked light bulb or lamp is the ostensible light source in many of the works, all his paintings seem lit from within with an incandescence reflecting his own deliberately acquired hallucinatory visionary condition.

In the obituaries which followed Clairmont’s death John Coley is quoted in the Christchurch Press: “He spoke of painting binges he would go on when he worked without interruption until exhausted, seeking the exhilaration of the developing image as he did the hallucinatory effect of chemicals.” This seems to have been his typical method of working. Nigel Brown writes in Art News: “He identified with Christ, death and the devil. Drugs and alcohol were a comfort and a curse to him.”

Most of the above is on the public record. In assembling these bare bones of a biography for the purposes of this review – and as someone who knew the artist and also wrote about his work – it is immediately apparent to me how utterly inadequate these notes are for conveying an impression of the charming, amusing and intelligent companion that Phil Clairmont was, his achievement as an artist and the extraordinary quality of the art itself. In attempting this brief précis of a life lived and tragically foreshortened, and the enigma and circumstances surrounding his death, I am astonished at the difficulty in doing justice to the man I knew and to his work. It is to Martin Edmond’s great credit that he has done this so brilliantly and sympathetically in this remarkable book.

At the outset Edmond publishes a disclaimer quoted from Freud: “Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishments and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had, and, even if one had it, one could not use it.” Having acknowledged the problems inherent in the task he has set himself – aggravated by the refusal to cooperate of a key protagonist, the artist’s first wife – Martin Edmond goes on to construct a fascinating account of a complex and singular individual, of a life lived on the edge of a cultivated insanity and of an unusual childhood and family background.

The book is in four parts. The first deals with its genesis and chequered history. Edmond has been working on it for a long time, one way or another: first as a catalogue essay, then as a documentary film and, as this became untenable, a fully illustrated monograph and catalogue raisonné which, although completed as a final draft, ultimately had to be aborted because of problems of copyright in the ownership of photographs of the art works. It documents Edmond’s travels and research talking to, almost, everybody who knew the artist – curators, fellow artists, family and friends. That he persisted against the odds and the shattering disappointment of the copyright issue, demonstrates not only the author’s tenacity but his belief in the importance and intrinsic interest of the story he had to tell. It also manifests his commitment to Philip Clairmont’s art and his determination to do something to restore the artist’s reputation and work from the oblivion of censorship and neglect that has befallen it. The resurrection, in fact, that is the title of the book.

The second part is the biography proper. All the known facts from the artist’s birth to his death 34 years later. Philip Rex Haines was born in Nelson, at a place called Hope, in 1949 into, as Edmond puts it, “the maelstrom of his parents’ disintegrating marriage”. Two years later the marriage did terminate and Thelma Haines went on the road with two young sons, Philip aged two and his half-brother Brian aged seven, working in domestic service in both the North and South Island for the next three years. When Philip was five the small family, fatherless, returned to Nelson for the duration of his schooling. In 1966, in his sixth form year, his mother changed the family name to Clairmont. Thus, aged 17, Philip Clairmont was born and it was Philip Clairmont who enrolled at the beginning of the following year, at Canterbury School of Fine Arts.

It was at art school that Clairmont’s drug-taking began in earnest although as an asthmatic child he consumed a fair range of prescriptions, including, it is suggested, some of his mother’s barbiturates and amphetamines. The family had a close relationship with a doctor whom Phil used to see regularly and discuss chemically altered states of perception with, and who, in fact, gave the young man the publication Psychopathology and Pictorial Expression (1963), which was to exert a continuing influence and point of reference in his work. Whether this doctor also gave him drugs beyond necessary medication is not established but one of the more bizarre sequences documented in the book is Edmond’s visit to, and interviews with, this unnamed mentor. Very early on, it would seem, the Faustian bargain was struck by the artist to use drugs as a tool towards, as Edmond puts it, “finding the subject matter for his art in his own psychopathology”.

From art school his career as an artist and his moves from Christchurch to Wellington to Waikanae to Mangamahu and finally, fatally, to Auckland are charted and delineated. The increasing chaos of his life, his wildness, craziness and growing alcoholism are well described. Three days before his death, late at night, Clairmont visited his ex-wife to reclaim paintings, ostensibly owned by her as part of the divorce settlement, which he believed, rightly or wrongly, were about to be destroyed. The police were called. Four arrived with riot batons and drawn pistols, and the artist was beaten unconscious. Twelve stitches, a blood transfusion and four hours at A&E later he was charged with aggravated assault and possession of an offensive weapon, a steak knife, picked up in the kitchen when he was cornered. He collapsed again at Auckland Central and spent a further four hours in hospital before going home. Three days later he was dead.

The third and fourth parts of the book constitute a polemic towards a re-evaluation of Clairmont’s art and an attempt to redress what Edmond considers has been a systematic attempt to erase it from the art historical canon. A great deal of the work has never been seen publicly, much of it now owned by the artist’s ex-wife and widow. A retrospective exhibition mounted in 1987, including only 39 works, Edmond considers perfunctory and inadequate. It does seem a chance was missed there to seriously evaluate Clairmont’s work.

It would appear, however, that the main culprits in the neglect of Philip Clairmont are fashion as ordained by the art history departments of our universities, the curators and the art market in their constant search for the cutting edge, and the demands for attention by current practitioners. Painting itself is unfashionable, let alone the passionate, emotion-charged, figurative expressionism that is Clairmont’s art.

Martin Edmond has written an excellent and immensely readable book. It is to be hoped that it goes some way towards galvanising a public gallery to mount a re-evaluation of Philip Clairmont. The resurrection is overdue.

Neil Rowe is a Wellington art critic and bookseller.

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