Then and now, Peter Ireland

Gregory O’Brien and Justin Paton (eds)
Victoria University Press, $125.00, 
ISBN 9780864735560

It’s given to few artists – in their lifetimes, at least – to be known simply by their surname. The great 20th century instance was Picasso, a star whose life was of more general interest than his art – indeed, a life illustrating a “lifestyle” that may prove to be of more historical interest in a history of publicity than his work may have in a history of art. Against his titanic example, later art stars such as Basquiat, Salle and Schnabel have turned out to be mere comets, despite their trajectories being fuelled by a potent five-stroke of dealers, writers, curators, auctioneers and publicists, an alliance more focused on moving product than the situation prevailing in Pablo’s day.

Possibly the most recognised name in 20th century photography is Ansel Adams, but the Ansel remains an essential part of the credit. Of course, more pertinently, there’s Atget, but he went largely unknown in his lifetime. So, the emblazoning of simply aberhart across the cover of this book is either a calculated branding move or testament to a singular achievement.

A usually unacknowledged element in photo-graphy’s currently high profile is a market need for something new. The assumption that an artist’s visibility is the result of quality and importance is naïve, and increasingly so. The more art is driven by the market and marketers, the more young artists come in six-packs, the next replacing the first as soon as the latter is drained of interest. The scene for those in their 30s these days resembles a Sunday morning street after a particularly drunken night. It’s a dynamic in which only the artists can lose.  Yet, they’re queuing up – lemmings whose motto’s likely to be ignorance is bliss.

The central notion the market thrives on is credibility. It’s about constructing belief in quality, importance and investment value, and providing reassurance about protecting that investment. Such a process feeds on cultural heroes, and the major gallery show with the major publication are pivotal elements in this construction. The independence of public institutions has become subtly eroded by undoubtedly well-intentioned commercial partnerships, not with relatively disinterested banks and insurance companies but with the dealers representing the artists. No-one seems to bat an eyelid. Any critical culture worthy of the name can thrive only in an independent climate, not a cosy one.

The tradition of photography in this country has always been exceptional. Recognition of this generally has been limited only by conformist notions as to what constitutes art. As a medium, its belated acceptance entails not only a higher profile but subjects it and its hapless practitioners to a marketplace mauling for which it is innocently unprepared.  Real masters such as Mundy, Valentine and Deveril never endured the milieu of What’s Hot. Most of today’s hotties are likely to be remembered largely as producers of period pieces relating more to the ambitions of careerism and lure of the market than for anything much to do with art. Watch this space.

Laurence Aberhart is well out of his 30s and has done the hard yards. He worked away successfully for a quarter of a century while remaining largely unknown and uncollected outside photographic and institutional fraternities. That heavy-lidded sceptical eye peering into his view camera is unlikely to be seduced now by what, in this transient and uncritical culture, might pass for trappings of fame. Isolated in Russell, wedded to 19th century technology, and taking the longer historical view, he’s probably safe enough. And while his likely fate is to be admired rather than collected, he’ll resolutely continue doing Aberharts to reshape our culture right to the end.

So, how does this publication illustrate the artist’s singular achievement? That “illustrate” is a key word here.

One of the assumptions bedevilling photography’s acceptance into the pantheon has been its historical function of picturing. What it’s of. At one level, Aberhart’s The Heavens Declare is of a sign on a New Plymouth observatory. But that’s got very little to do with why the photograph has become such a potent image for this culture. It’s the way the various elements of the subject matter interrelate, visually and historically, morsels of fate cooked up into an unforgettable dish by a master chef. It’s become an image transcending mere picture, a crucial distinction at the heart of the book’s selection and sequencing. These follow closely those of the exhibition the book supports, and although the various sections in both are based on Aberhart’s serial practice, the sequences within them and the links between them mirror the photographer’s more telling invention of symbols. Despite Aberhart’s meticulous dating of – and on – his work, his project is anything but chronological. His time, like Einstein’s, is deeply warped by space.

Being a photographer and being concerned with the then of history, Aberhart is often subject to The Curse of Realism. This condition afflicts the literal-minded, is widespread and largely untreatable except by death. It assumes that Aberhart’s project is picturing old things, whereas what he’s doing is making images that speak to us about the now of history, the our lives bit of the spectrum. The hoariest chestnut in the white noise around his work is that Aberhart’s photographs are “empty”. They’re empty in the way that Mozart is dead; an undoubted fact but completely irrelevant to the nature of the art. Human endeavour is central to his project, the structures depicted are allegories teeming with human aspiration and laden with memory. Even those minimal horizons are saturated with an ineradicable human longing for the limitless. Putting figures into them would make as much sense as taking the Mona Lisa out of her landscape. “Empty” here applies only to its own argument.

Martin Schanzel of Printlink may be the equivalent chef in the printing industry, but, superb as the book’s plates are, they must remain replicas of the original prints rather than reproductions of them. The seamlessly sleek tonalities of the photographer’s own prints absolutely resist reproduction. A fact as consoling for those interested in art as it must be reassuring for those concerned with investment.

This extremely handsome publication includes 238 full-page images and two essays of 5000-plus words. The first, by the exhibition’s curator Gregory O’Brien, provides a useful framework for Aberhart first-timers. Essentially descriptive, it’s a personal journey through the work beginning with the word “I’m”. The piece employs a geographic motif to map the imagery, the writer alighting throughout on the details of his landscape (a host of quotations, references to popular culture, other artists and so on) to suggest contexts and connections. The second essay, by Justin Paton, is an absorbing, thought-soaked meditation having all the patina of an Aberhart original. And, exactly paralleling the photographer’s practice, he settles on an unlikely subject – the portraits – to illuminate freshly the larger picture. Seldom has an artist in this country been so well-served by such penetration, elegance and authority in this redemption of the male gaze.

The publisher’s blurb on the front flap states “This book is a landmark in New Zealand art publishing.” A more astute editor might have declared those last two words redundant. It’s a landmark worthy of an Aberhart photograph.


Peter Ireland is a Wanganui-based painter who has been curating and writing in the photographic field for 30 years.    

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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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