Objects in a landscape, Bill Sewell

The Art of Grahame Sydney
Grahame Sydney and contributors
Longacre Press, $99.95,
ISBN 1 877135 31 3

The Central Otago I know does not figure much in Grahame Sydney’s art. The particular area I remember best is the Strath Taieri, a plain under the great wall of the Rock and Pillar Range, no more than an hour’s drive northwest of Dunedin. I used to spend the odd weekend there, in a tiny roughcast shearer’s cottage near a locality (for that is all it is now) called Sutton. I can visualise the precarious schist tors, like abandoned battlements, on the opposite hillside; the line of willows tracing the windings of the Sutton stream; the magpies quarrelling at daybreak; the sun at midday focussing with desert power; and at the end of the day, the way the light left the landscape, paddock by paddock and slope by slope.

But Sutton does feature in one of the many Central Otago images in The Art of Grahame Sydney, his superbly produced new book: an egg tempera painting from 1990 of the now disused, tiny Sutton railway station, with not a soul in sight, the railway tracks heading straight for the base of the Rock and Pillar Range, whose flattened top is obscured by a bank of cloud, no doubt brought down by a rising westerly. He gets it absolutely right. Not just the minute representation of a familiar place – a skill for which he is justly famous (or notorious, depending on your artistic creed) – but also, in his own summation, “the emptiness, the disturbing solitude and sense of past lives”. Two other plates from the book also speak to me personally. First, there’s the cottage in “Fog at Stan Cotter’s” (1975), which is not dissimilar to the one I knew at Sutton; and secondly, “Coal Range”, an etching from 1980, which shows the top of a (no doubt) Shacklock coal range, of the type used mainly for heating at the Sutton cottage.

I don’t know what it’s like to approach Sydney’s work without having first experienced Central Otago. I look at Sydney’s pictures of that region and its appurtenances with the eye of someone who – like Brian Turner, who contributes an important lyrical essay to the book – has already evolved their own personal Central Otago iconography. Sydney reinforces and enriches that iconography, but it is still essentially our own. I would like to think that such prior familiarity makes no difference: that these images of Sydney’s are so compelling that the uninitiated viewer is drawn first into their spaces, their mystery, their universality, and only afterwards, and idly, wonders about the actual locality represented. Much as happens, I suppose, with the early Renaissance painters so admired by Sydney, or indeed the landscapes of J M W Turner, Paul Cézanne, Georgia O’Keefe, Sydney Nolan, Colin McCahon.

What does Grahame Sydney do to enrich my vision of Central? Perhaps strangely, it is not his evocation of the landscape that comes first to mind. Certainly, the landscape is a presence in many of the images, but often it is only that. Other things are foregrounded, and I want to consider these in particular.

For many years, Sydney painted or etched not so much the landscape as objects in the landscape – specifically, objects created by human beings. Some of these have become New Zealand icons, as recognisable almost as the Buzzy Bee or the Edmonds “sure-to-rise” symbol. They include rural mail-boxes and private bags, long-abandoned and skeletal vehicles, roadsigns, broken-down sheds, telegraph poles and fences. In one case only, so far as I can determine, does the landscape provide a backdrop for a portrait – of his former wife, in that celebrated, disquieting and yet oddly tranquil 1978 painting, “Rozzie at Pisa”.

Three things strike me about such pictures: they show evidence of both imperfection and decay; they are frequently viewed front-on and uncompromisingly; and they tend towards abstraction, and sometimes even surrealism. Often the imperfection or decay is immediately and dramatically apparent. “Midwinter at Miss Nyhon’s” (1974) shows a derelict dwelling (situated not in Central, but perhaps on the Otago Peninsula) in which decay is well advanced: the watertank has corroded into collapse; the cladding has fallen away in one place; the spouting has detached itself from the roof; and the corrugated iron roof itself has lifted. In “Chevrolet” (1977), we see the stripped shell of a 1940s saloon car in a field, its single hollow headlight giving it a one-eyed look. But there are more subtle indications.

In an early oil, “Family Home” (1972), for instance, it is the foliage in the foreground, some leaves browning at the edges, others with sections chewed away by insects. In the watercolour “Evan’s Shed” (1983), it’s the lining hanging down from the ceiling, the uneven boards under the door. In “Facade” (1994), it’s the small piece of broken pane in a window of an otherwise immaculate building façade. It might be no more than the lean of a telegraph pole, a wallboard slightly askew, the weathered paint on a road-sign, a wisp of cloud over a mountain top.

Such a focus, such allusion, is no accident. In his essay, Brian Turner identifies clearly the concern expressed in these images of imperfection and decay. What Sydney portrays, he says, are “moments of quietus”, continuing,

But it’s evident that such moments are seldom more than momentary, and the whole adds up to strong intimations that nothing we’ve created is immemorial. With understated vehemence Sydney’s art often warns, Beware of what appears benign.

So his pictures put mere mortals and the things they make in their place: against that patient landscape, with its staunch block ranges, the easily-provoked wind and the coming and going of the light, we construct, in Ursula Bethell’s phrase, no more than “small, fond, human enclosures” that deconstruct even as we look at them.

It appears that in his more recent work, Sydney has moved away from this very disconcerting preoccupation. Rather than imperfection, the pictures seem to attempt to capture the very opposite. Thus we find a series of exquisite, almost exclusively land- or skyscape images, such as “Evening at Ben Ohau” (1994), “Evening at the Turnoff” (1996), “Hawkdun Spring” (1996), “Hinterland II” (1998). The imperfections depicted here are so subtle I am not convinced they are imperfections – since they appear limited to a track scored on a mountainside, a hint of cloud perhaps portending rough weather. As beautifully executed as these pictures are, I find them less satisfying than those focussing on human vestiges because they come dangerously close to a popular romanticism.

But in much of the earlier work Sydney often employs a specific technique to avoid any hint of romanticism: he makes the images confront us head-on, sometimes to the point of excluding the context entirely, so that the viewer has no choice but to scrutinise the detail. This is reminiscent in certain respects of Robin Morrison’s “road” shots of Kiwi dwellings, halls and business premises, but much more clinical: without the warmth, without the human subjects. So in “Volunteer Hall” (1974), or “Weatherboards at Cluden” (1975), or “South Mine” (1981), or, again, “Façade”, we are forced to examine each of the weatherboards, each ripple of corrugated iron, or simply the angles and shadows, so that we extract some meaning from the image. In the less harshly uncompromising pictures, such as “Chevrolet”, “Private Bag” (1977) or “Question, Lowburn” (1978), there is less of a confrontation – the object is still squarely at the centre of the picture, but set more solidly into the context of the landscape.

Of course, viewed in this way, the objects can begin to detach from reality. We see them less as what they purport to be and start to regard them as shapes that are interesting in their own right: they become abstractions. For instance, in “Weatherboards at Cluden”, the joins in the boards, their warps, and the shadows cast by their overlaps, create a dynamic pattern that draws the eye away from the photo-realism of the door and the steps to the right of the picture. The material for such paintings is not specific to Central Otago only, though that is where Sydney found the material that established his reputation. Quite apart from the weatherboard walls, abandoned vehicles, and mail-boxes, he has picked out objects as varied as a dried-out carrot (“Carrot”, 1984), a skiff resting upside down on a trestle (“Missile”, 1986), the flap of a circus tent (“Circus”, 1988). When we turn to the later landscapes, we notice that this abstraction is not created through a microcosmic scrutiny, but by means of bolder lines and bands or blocks of light and dark, as in “Hinterland II” or “Maniototo” (1996). Somehow it is much less challenging.

Occasionally, the images tip towards surrealism, and it is difficult to construe this as anything other than deliberate. An early oil, “Family Doll” (1972), shows an eyeless, armless doll, with misshapen feet, propped on a sofa under a window that looks out on a typical Central Otago landscape: the effect is grotesque, sinister. “Question, Lowburn” brings a perfectly ordinary road-sign indicating a sharp bend into such prominence that it questions the whole notion of direction, travel, progress against that “timeless land” (the title of Sydney’s previous book). And, most graphically of all, in “Demolition at Waipiata” (1986), Sydney takes the inspirational “gift” of a building façade (actually, the old railway station at Waipiata) through whose window- and door-frames you can see the landscape beyond, and so creates a Magritte-like subversion of perception and existence itself.

There is much more that can be written about Grahame Sydney’s art, and this book, generous as it is with both reproduction (143 of them, mostly in colour) and word, provides a number of different perspectives. In his contribution, Brian Turner almost pugnaciously claims Sydney as some kind of fellow spirit, who has no interest in “art as play”, who does not engage in “cultural cringe”, and whose art “releases the poetry of the land”. There are also essays from Michael Findlay, Belinda Jones, and brief autobiographical vignettes from Sydney himself, as well as a major interview by the Dunedin photographer Reg Graham.

Findlay’s major insight is to view Sydney’s work in cinematographic terms, where many of the images “present us with an opening scene” beyond which there is a narrative. Jones tackles the difficult issue of Sydney’s nudes, which, because they are so naturalistic, have attracted criticism as being pornographic objectifications of the female form. I find myself in agreement with Turner, who considers the nudes “a little chilly for [his] taste at times”; but Jones does make a good case for taking them seriously, impressed as she is “by Sydney’s exploration of the beauty of the human form and the interplay of light on skin, the effect of movement on the geometry of form, and the symbolic potential of the figure.” The latter she reads as “the impermanence of beauty and youth and the vulnerability of the human condition” – which of course brings us back to those imperfect and decaying human artefacts in the Central Otago landscape.

But it is Sydney’s own contribution to the text that I find most interesting. Artists working in the visual media are not always the most lucid interpreters of their own work, but here Sydney is his usual articulate, meticulous and sensible self. In the vignettes and the interview we learn of his early dedication to work and study, as well as his penchant for “making things”; and of his unswerving belief in his own artistic course – though as a regionalist, “a peasant on a back road”, as he modestly put it in his 1998 Hocken lecture. He also shares with us something of his method: the often overlooked place of fiction and invention in his work; his “time exposure” drawing; his fondness for diagonals. Finally, and crucially, he emphasises the need to see beyond that virtuoso technique of his – which is so distracting, so seductive, so very dazzling.

Bill Sewell is the co-editor of New Zealand Books.

The Art of Grahame Sydney is shortlisted in the illustrative arts section of the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.

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