Drawing in the air, Martin Edmond

The Desire of the Line: Ralph Hotere – Figurative Works
Kriselle Baker
Auckland University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 1869403436

Ralph Hotere and Bill Manhire
Otakou Press, $800 (signed) $350 (unsigned), [no ISBN]

In Dunedin in the mid-1990s, researching the Clairmont oeuvre, I rang Ralph Hotere’s number. I explained who I was, what I was doing and asked if he had any of Philip’s work. There was a very long pause, followed by a deep sigh – a sigh as long as a comet’s tail, the Japanese say. “I wish I did,” he said, as if from the bottom of a deep well. That was all. No small talk. I thanked him and we hung up. Of all the many conversations I had during that inquiry, this was the shortest and also one of the most emotionally fraught. In its brevity and intensity, it stands as an apt index to Hotere’s work.

An intermittent yet always passionate observer of this work, I’ve noted over the years a figurative dimension that has been more or less occluded from the public view. Occasionally, in the back room of a dealer gallery, I saw Hotere nudes with erotic fluidity and power, and a peculiar sense of identity in fragmentation, and wondered how many of these there were. Books like the indefatigable Gregory O’Brien’s Out the Black Window (1997) and Te Papa/Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s Black Light (2000) reproduce a few figurative works, all early, along with examples of watercolour designs for a theatre production (James K Baxter’s The Temptations of Oedipus), but that’s all I’d seen – until now.

Kriselle Baker’s excellent book, The Desire of the Line: Ralph Hotere – Figurative Works, is an accompaniment to the exhibition Ralph Hotere Figurative Works: Carnival, Song Cycle and the Woman Series she curated out of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. This may well be the event predicted by Bill Manhire in 1996: “One day someone will get together an exhibition of Hotere’s ‘Woman’ drawings – and it’ll be one of the great shows”; but the precise relationship between book and exhibition is difficult to gauge without seeing them both. My guess is that it’s close enough for the book to function as a de facto catalogue.

Baker has, in fact, catalogued Hotere’s work; both book and show grew out of that activity. The task gave her priceless insights into the artist’s practice: she records his habit of picking up twigs shed from a favourite tree at the end of his Carey’s Bay garden, and mashing their ends to use as brushes; and describes his technique of drawing in the air above the paper several times before making any marks on it. In these glimpses we are given a portrait of an artist at once innovative, meditative and brilliantly spontaneous.

It is always a reassurance, these days, to find a painter can draw – though I never really doubted Hotere on that score. But the drawings themselves are a revelation, not least for the echoes of other artists they carry: there are traces here, among 20th century artists alone, of Rouault, Matisse, Picasso, Egon Schiele, de Kooning, Dubuffet, even Hockney. Of these, as Baker points out in her perceptive and work-womanlike introductory essay (which is refreshingly free both of jargon and florid over-interpretation), Hotere’s longest, strongest dialogue has been with Picasso.

The three series represented in the generous selection of images (111 plates) are: the relatively brief and early Carnival; the more extended Song Cycle, begun in the mid-70s; and the central and extraordinary Woman series, divided into two chronological periods, 1962-4, and from 1969 on. There is such richness here that there isn’t any point in taking individual examples and expatiating upon them; but a few general points might be made.

It’s clear, from the early work, that Hotere’s engagement with European art, as far back as the Willendorf Venus, of which there are several drawings, is such that he cleared his debts with his great predecessors not by trying to out-art them but via the more direct and honest means of dialogue and acknowledgment of sources. It’s fascinating to learn, in this connection, that one of his early supporters was Roland Penrose, the English surrealist painter and poet, friend of Picasso and husband of photographer Lee Miller.

These debts seem mostly to have been quitted in the painterly works made in Europe in the 1960s, some of which are part of Carnival. At the same time, Hotere began to explore the potential of a superficially simpler engagement with line drawing, initiating the Woman series that would involve him for the next 30 years. The line drawings are remarkable in that they show the artist practising a minimalism that is intimately related to formal concerns shared with other artists of his time, and yet in total variance to them: he essays an economy of means that will produce, not an abstraction, not simply a human form, but a being with a soul.

Thus the Woman of the series is not generic as the title suggests; most, if not all, of the images were drawn from live models but, more importantly, they strike the eye as pictures of women who can perhaps be recognised, though not necessarily as the one who sat for the portrait. The way this happens is a mystery: how is it that a drawing of a woman I don’t know can be, so strongly, one I do? You might as well ask who the model was for the Willendorf Venus.

If it’s possible to distinguish between the emotions the artist brings to a work, and those his drawings express, then the primary feeling to be experienced in Hotere’s approach to the Woman series, even given the amount of distortion employed, is tenderness; while the range of reaction expressed in and by the figures themselves is various, from anger, anxiety and pain, to resignation and acceptance, to seduction, joy and abandon. It may be the fact that many of the drawings were made with sticks that gives Hotere’s line a nervous, raggedy, intensely attentive quality that shows him to be, as Baker remarks, “a man discovered in the action of making choices”.

In the context of the book, the images from Song Cycle operate as a coda in much the same way that Carnival is a preface. I went to a performance of Song Cycle in Wellington in 1975, for which Hotere was going to provide banners to be used in the staging. These didn’t arrive in time – I think they may have been left out in the Otago rain – but instead he sent slides, which were projected across the performance space. The light of those projections remains my strongest memory of Song Cycle, a medium both viscous and fluid, through which the dancers moved in an air made of radiance and texture and colour. While the Song Cycle drawings in the book relate strongly to those in the Woman series, in fealty to the performative they are engagements with bodies in motion, not repose.

Since at least 1969, Hotere has worked with the words of poets, inscribing paintings with titles, fragments, lines and sometimes whole poems. Of all those from whom he has drawn texts, the chief revelator has been Bill Manhire. Their book Malady (1969) was the inception of a working relationship that continues to this day. Its latest incarnation is a fine printing of 16 works from the Pine series.

They originated in some poem fragments typed onto the backs of postcards Manhire sent Hotere from London in the early 1970s. Hotere made a series of watercolour paintings around them in 1972, and also produced a set of images using woodblock printed letters: P I N E, usually arranged in series down the left-hand side of the paper with the handwritten piece of poem next to it on the right.

These latter works were printed on a Royal Columbian hand-press at the University of Otago in 1974 and now, more than 30 years later, have been printed again on the same press by Brendan O’Brien, and published in a book whose design explicitly recalls the original Malady volume. In the process, two more Pines were discovered and rejoined the series, though it isn’t clear which these are. I suspect #8: “with your bruises/Furious and cold, waving your testicles” may be one of them.

The complete text of Pine is elusive and I won’t try to pin it down to a single thematic, which it probably doesn’t own; it might be described as fragments about fragments. The title itself is productive of multiple interpretations: the northern hemisphere evergreen tree that has become ubiquitous across New Zealand landscapes; the yearning or sickening we sometimes feel for that which is not with us (the root of this usage is an old word for punishment); and, contrariwise, in te reo Maori, “pine” or “pipine”, meaning closeness, being together.

All of these senses are available in the gorgeous, variously coloured, curtain or screen-like gauzes washed through Hotere’s beautifully printed woodcut stencils; more poignant, perhaps, are the poem fragments the artist has written beside his word trees. Hotere’s hand is by now as familiar to us as that of Colin McCahon, whose sole isomer he may be; but there is a halting quality to these inscriptions I haven’t seen before, a sense of difficulty in the actual process of writing that may have to do with age and/or illness.

Perhaps I can end with another anecdote, one that has nothing to do with fine printing or fine art in themselves but might have something to say about the purposes of making such things. In the 1980s, I was a frequent traveller to New Zealand, most often coming in by plane to Auckland. In those days, before I had Australian citizenship and passport, I was invariably searched at customs. I would be plucked out of the line and left with others similarly chosen – usually Maori guys wearing, like me, black leather jackets – to wait at the side of the arrivals lounge in front of the 1977 Ralph Hotere mural The Flight of the Godwit, which used to be there. It’s desolating to be searched upon re-entry to your country of birth; on the other hand, there are worse places to have to stand than in front of a Hotere.

I used to calm myself by repeating words written on the painting, but the Maori guys I was among, with the Hotere flickering and glowing behind us, would typically take a stance of sturdy intransigence in advance of what remained, in spite of the fucked-up circumstance, a welcome: “He kuaka marangaranga/Kotahi manu i tau ki te tahuna/tau atu/tau atu kua tau mai.”


Martin Edmond’s Luca Antara will be published by East Street Publications in November this year.


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