Taking to the air, Janet Hughes

Rosalie Gascoigne: Plain Air
City Gallery/Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0864734727

As I shelved Rosalie Gascoigne: Plain Air among my treasured collection of exhibition catalogues, it set me thinking about the reasons we buy catalogues, and the various pleasures they afford.

While I was still under the spell of the recent exhibition at the Wellington City Gallery, I flicked urgently through the catalogue, seeking to revisit the experience and prolong the enchantment. Way before “merchandise” took on a new life in the marketing lexicon, catalogues appealed to and sometimes satisfied this desire for souvenirs. Not always – some of them reproduce too few or unrepresentative exhibits, or mostly in black and white, and leave you feeling had, aesthetically and financially. No such failure mars Rosalie Gacoigne: Plain Air, which reproduces all of the works displayed, most of them in high-quality colour plates

Generosity seems to have been a ruling principle of the exhibition, which used all the galleries in the building to display a representative selection of Gascoigne’s work. The spacious treatment gave both installations and large wall-hung pieces the ample room they needed to resonate. It also underpinned the exhibition’s emphatic referencing of Rosalie Gascoigne’s avowed ambition to render the very “air” of the landscapes she abstracts. The thematic selection of works in each of the several galleries filled the space with their echoing similarity, as if they coloured the air and spoke with a single complex voice.

The grid is the organising principle of many of the works, and especially the tessellated assemblages of board and sheet metal. They speak of the air by exhibiting its weathering influence, and also by implying extension beyond their boundaries, as if they have been sawn or tin-snipped out of an infinity. More representational, the stylised collaged-wood landforms (Gascoigne’s homage to McCahon) sat wide apart on long walls, like small windows onto vastness. The installations and sculptural pieces were meant to be walked past or around, and the spectator was given room to experience time as a dimension of seeing.

The same generosity flows through to the design of the catalogue, signalled by the dazzling reproduction on the front cover of “Metropolis”, one of Gascoigne’s trademark collages of discarded yellow retro-reflective road signs (the words are banished to the back cover, which is a faded turquoise she also favours). The shape of the page seems calculated to do justice to the colour plates. The taller-than-average landscape format lends itself to reproducing the many long horizontal works with generous surrounding white space, and with the captions high up, out of the way of the images. Double-page spreads of multi-panel works show the images spaced widely, as they were on the gallery walls.

The “Plein Air” installation after which the exhibition is punningly titled is represented whole by means of two panoramic photographs from different angles – again, there is a scrupulous effort to represent the experience of walking around the gallery, contemplating the components of the installation from multiple angles. As a souvenir, then, of a visit to “Plain Air”, the catalogue does as much as a catalogue probably can, and does it very well. And it is a good deal more besides.

Of course reproduction can’t quite replicate the original encounter or do the work perfect justice – but how often is a work accessible at all after the show is over? Illustrated catalogues participate in the great project of making works of visual art accessible, bursting the walls of public and private collections and the barriers of time and place. We can know the art of New Zealand, of Australia, of the world, in a way that very few people could before the advent of high-quality colour reproduction. (The digitised image is a democratic but often inferior alternative.) We can revisit Plain Air even though the works have been crated up and returned, mostly to Australia.

And then there are the words. Few catalogues are just catalogues; most invoke expert commentators and participate in the discourse of art history and criticism. They are, if you like, occasional art books, and Plain Air is a substantial one, bringing together an introduction by Paula Savage, director of the Wellington City Gallery, and essays by Australian art commentator Daniel Thomas, Barbara Anderson, and Gregory O’Brien, who curated the exhibition with Paula Savage. There is also a substantial illustrated chronology by Courtney Johnston. All are lucid and readable. Taking diverse angles and overlapping minimally, they add up to a rich and satisfying whole.

Paula Savage’s introduction treats Gascoigne’s oeuvre art-historically. She canvasses influences and affinities, placing her in the currents of Australasian art, and in the larger contexts of modernism, assemblage art, geometrical abstraction, and of course landscape, ever Gascoigne’s subject and obsession. Academic commentators are surveyed briefly but effectively – all in all, a businesslike introduction, useful to readers more and less familiar with the works and the literature. And the style demonstrates that even businesslike art-historical discourse does not have to be ugly, overwritten and under-intelligible.

Daniel Thomas, now retired curator of the National Gallery of Australia and director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, and someone who knew Gascoigne well, speaks from a position of eminence, but his writing is colourful and engaging. He begins with Gascoigne’s personal “physical presence”, then sets about accounting for the corresponding quality in her work – trying to pin down the experience it offers the viewer and characterise its sources. His title and ruling metaphor, “Rhythm and Lift-off”, refers to Gascoigne’s liking for dance; and he dances us adroitly through considerations of influence and place, biography, anecdote, response to and interpretation of works. He writes agreeably, and the whole performance rather mimics the workings of the whole catalogue with its multiple angles and voices.

Gregory O’Brien also comes in at a curious angle; his essay is called “Plain Air, Plain Song”, and it approaches Gascoigne’s art by way of sounds that have engaged her imagination – birdsong and Romantic poetry. The sections of the essay pursue a sequence of verbal and conceptual associations, many of them suggested by the titles (often puns) of her works. Their headings will give you an idea of the sheer imaginative reach of the treatment O’Brien gives to Gascoigne’s oeuvre: Bird/Song, Parrot/Country; “Free of the mind’s grasp”; Ornithology: an alphabetical list of some works …; “The bird on the bough”; Habitation; Airborne; Plain Air Depot; Of air and atmospherics: an alphabetical list …; A  song sung of a district; The Romantic Poets: an alphabetical list of works …; “Stammmering concrete poetry”; Visual sonnets and surrealist games; Walking backwards into the light; and finally, The weight of words delivered on a truck to the Art Gallery of New South Wales (of a work bearing so much collaged signage that it began to fall to bits).

This essay is hugely rewarding. The list suggests a certain audacity, and O’Brien reaches widely, and boldly, but always in order to engage swiftly with the works in a way that sets them resonating mutually. And while the starting points may seem quirky, they are always justified persuasively and referred to the primary evidence in the form of the plates and the lists of Gascoigne’s titles, which are placed so as to pull together thematic strands from the preceding sections.

The poem-like lists are distinguished typographically in a way that makes them function as verbal analogues of Gascoigne’s works – purposeful assemblages of found material around unifying themes. They also encapsulate the spirit of the whole essay, which is at once creative – a work in its own right, with its own shaping imperative – and immensely respectful of the work it explores. This respect, along with O’Brien’s elegant prose, ensures that  the various analytic frameworks brought to bear on Gascoigne’s creations illuminate them and enrich our experience of them. (The essay as a whole is comparable to O’Brien’s Hotere: Out the Black Window (1997), exploring Ralph Hotere’s collaborations with poets.)

Barbara Anderson’s short piece “Open to the Weather – Discovering Rosalie Gascoigne” is explicitly a personal response, and is also gracefully written. But when it takes off from the works in subjective directions, I cannot help but compare it adversely with O’Brien’s insistent movement always towards an understanding of the works. Still, it contributes valuably to the collage of perspectives that is the catalogue as a whole.

A tiny gripe. Diffused light through frosted glass doors at the City Gallery was put to spectacular use illuminating “Piece to Walk Around”, a patchwork of saffron thistle sticks laid on the floor basket-weave fashion. As you walked around it, the shifting light made the identically-coloured sticks seem to change hue magically. What a shame then that this is one of the few works illustrated in the catalogue, not with a colour plate, but with a black-and-white photo from an exhibition of the piece elsewhere! Still, the catalogue is a treasure, well worth the $49.95 outlay – an occasional art book that does justice to the occasion and also functions independently of it.


Janet Hughes is a Wellington writer


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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Review
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