Hooked on wonder and mystery, Damian Skinner

Shane Cotton
ed Lara Strongman
City Gallery Wellington and Victoria University Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0864734697

Jeffrey Harris
Justin Paton
Victoria University Press and Dunedin Public Art Gallery, $69.95,
ISBN 0864734867

Engravings on Wood by Leo Bensemann 
ed Peter Simpson
Holloway Press, $500,
ISBN 095831354

Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary New Zealand Art for Young People
Gregory O’Brien
Auckland University Press, $34.95,
ISBN 1869403282

In the big scheme of things, it might be premature to say that we live in one of the best times for art publishing that Aotearoa has ever seen. But, certainly, on the evidence of the four books in this review, we live in a time when publishers are confident enough to publish diverse books about art in Aotearoa. These books also say something about the breadth of art history going on here at the moment, and something more about the richness of our artistic practice, although that’s probably always been present, waiting for writers and publishers to catch up.

Shane Cotton, published by Victoria University Press and the City Gallery, Wellington, follows an established City Gallery format. Curator Lara Strongman writes an art historical essay examining the themes of the show while invited contributors tackle their specialist areas. In this instance it works well. Essays by Robert Jahnke and John Huria argue for specific Maori frameworks for Cotton’s work, with Huria’s placement of the art in a Maori literature context opening up important ways to understand Cotton’s use of text as well as his interest in ahi ka and turangawaewae. Backing up Strongman’s survey of the last 10 years of Cotton’s painting are Blair French’s essay on postcolonial theory and contemporary art, and an essay by Jim and Mary Barr about Cotton’s most recent work, which was painted especially for the show and still unfinished at the time of writing.

More than most retrospective publications, Shane Cotton is concerned with the exhibition as a specific event. Along with the good quality and large-scale reproductions of Cotton’s paintings, the catalogue features four large photographs of the paintings on display at the City Gallery – two of which feature Cotton’s latest series, the paintings completed for the exhibition itself. Along with the Barrs’ essay about work in progress intended “to be displayed on a single 40 metre long wall in the City Gallery”, these photographs pull the publication away from the timelessness of most retrospective catalogues.

This close focus on the show itself is a consequence of including Cotton’s new work, and the gallery’s validation of its significant presence in a retrospective catalogue – rather than by sticking to work already tested by critics, audience and buyers. Blair French makes the point when he comments that “It is rare for an artist’s work to be treated as a measure of a nation’s cultural identity – as a tracking of the national psyche – at the very time of its production.” Consider the pressure of producing a new body of work for an exhibition and catalogue that enshrines your importance as an artist, while also wanting to avoid the implication that your new work isn’t as important, or as good, as the old. As Paula Savage observes, “This catalogue publication is intended to open up future scholarship into Cotton’s work, asking questions of the paintings rather than attempting to pin them down at this relatively early point in the artist’s career.” Hence the focus on the exhibition itself, which authorises the literally new.

While also a retrospective catalogue, Jeffrey Harris occupies different terrain from Shane Cotton. The City Gallery publication is big, well-illustrated and serious, its scale, design and text intended to account for an important contemporary artist. The Dunedin Public Art Gallery publication is also big and well-illustrated but ultimately brash, its scale, design and text working to represent the character of Jeffrey Harris’ painting. The result is graphically bold – the design tugs at the edges of your awareness as you are reading it – but never without purpose. Bright colour marks the section beginnings in Justin Paton’s essay, and the page layout echoes the composition and effects of Harris’ paintings. Jeffrey Harris is a perfect balance between book and exhibition catalogue.

Justin Paton is a good writer who knows how to spin a narrative and get his hooks deep into the reader. He takes his clues from Harris, a painter of “disappearances and returns, reversals and disavowals, perplexing silences and sudden intensities”. He remarks that “In a culture that sees progress as a desired outcome of change, here is an artist who has insisted on his art’s right to be circular, obsessed, self-devouring.” In homage to these traits, Paton has two beginnings, one starting with a painting recently completed, and one starting with a story from the artist’s teenage years.

In his careful delineation of what Harris does and has done, Paton doesn’t let go of the possibilities of the work. This is not a methodical plod to some art historical finish line by the end of the book. Paton clearly enjoys the experience of writing about Harris, and is kind enough to let us see it. All the same, Jeffrey Harris doesn’t lose sight of the things you want from a retrospective catalogue. As with Shane Cotton, there are quality reproductions, a chronology, and plenty of art history.

Of all the books reviewed here, Engravings on Wood by Leo Bensemann is the most fantastic, an apt word in all senses for both the technical aspects of this publication and its subject matter. A collection of 22 wood engravings selected by Peter Simpson from the Leo Bensemann estate, this book is an excellent example of traditional art history. In his introduction, Simpson carefully answers all the outstanding questions about the wood blocks and the artist who made them. There’s nothing flashy here, just the evidence of hard work and good research. It works well because Bensemann is a deeply interesting and well-connected artist – the key names of artistic and literary culture from the 1930s to the 1950s rise fast and furious from Simpson’s excellent text.

Simpson explains the wood engravings while also introducing the reader to Bensemann’s work as an artist. He never exceeds the limits he has set himself, yet manages to tackle a number of bigger subjects, such as Bensemann’s relationship to nationalist art and literature – an integral context but one which sits awkwardly with the seeming “foreignness” of his subjects, most of which are not indigenous. The art history continues with Simpson’s detailed notes on each of the engravings, carefully describing the context for each image, providing all necessary information such as date, notes on technique or connections to other Bensemann images.

But it is as a book, a physical object, that Engravings on Wood excels and surprises. As a note at the back states, “Engravings on Wood is letterpress printed by Tara McLeod on an Asbern cylinder press at Holloway Press.” As a child of mass-produced paperbacks, I lack any experience of the technical processes involved in this publication and am stunned by how beautiful a thing a book can be. Part of the effect comes from the lack of any reproductive method getting between the reader and the engravings themselves. These are actual engravings, printed from the wood blocks and collated into a book, rather than prints that have been photographed and then reproduced. At the risk of offending bibliophiles, Engravings on Wood is the kind of book you want to cut up and frame in order to make the most of the works of art contained in its pages. It is a perfect publication for an artist who did so much of his important work in graphic media, and was closely associated with the Caxton Press and the publishing of artisan books in Aotearoa.

If Engravings on Wood is the most amazing of these publications (due to its production and the unusual imagery of Bensemann’s engravings), Welcome to the South Seas is probably the most daring in terms of approach. Gregory O’Brien has written an art history book for kids. It’s a lovely idea. After all, we always talk about how good art is, how edifying, how important culture is, how much we can learn from it. Reading this book is like overhearing a conversation between an adult and a child – you can imagine the questions, the strange tangents, the comparisons that open up art works to viewers who stand differently (shorter) in the world.

There are a couple of brave things about Welcome to the South Seas. One is the art. This is, with the exception of a few old classics from the likes of Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Michael Smither, a book of contemporary art and artists. The selection is bold and serious. While it is a book for children, it isn’t childish. O’Brien isn’t afraid to back the artists, and his audience. He takes both seriously. Another brave move is O’Brien’s willingness to have his conversations with children in public. “The first time I saw Denis O’Connor’s The Birdman and the Engineer,” he writes, “the objects on the gallery floor looked like strange eggs which were hatching …. The next time I saw this sculpture I thought the 23 pieces looked like clouds that had crash-landed on the gallery floor.” I imagine that these were risky similes for a professional curator and art historian used to writing for adults within a discipline with specific rules and expectations.

It is, I think, a gamble that pays off. I’d certainly like to read Welcome to the South Seas with a child. And I would do so, confident in the knowledge that there is plenty more for them to read should they get hooked on the wonder, and mystery, of art.


Damian Skinner is a freelance curator and art historian who lives in Wellington.


Welcome to the South Seas won the non-fiction category of this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.


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