Art Icons of New Zealand: Lines in the Sand
David Bateman, $49.99,
Whenever a new book offering another survey of local art appears a number of logical questions present themselves. Will any previously overlooked artists be included this time? Who will be left out? What new light can the latest volume bring to such a well-established discipline? In short, when we hear a new survey of New Zealand art has appeared, we do well simply to ask: why?
Oliver Stead’s title hints at the projected ambit. Art Icons of New Zealand suggests New Zealand art has matured to the point that among its products are those which have not only come to represent a distinctive local art, but also spoken to some aspect of national identity. Exactly what is meant by national identity is at best elusive – and often contentious – but perhaps the point is to recognise the extent to which cultural production manufactures a sense of nation, just as political events and sporting achievements do.
Stead’s idea is to take 40 iconic works by 40 separate artists and from them evoke a kind of portrait of the national character. It’s a good idea. And yet, inevitably, it cues more questions: why only 40 works? From which 40 artists? And how to pick a single work from each? At this point Stead’s book is likely to upset some. The idea of local icons seems to hint at stability, and in the case of everyone’s obvious first picks – Hodgkins, Woollaston, Angus, McCahon, Hotere – there can be no dispute, but the next tiers are trickier by far. Especially when it comes to our more recent artists. Stead finds room for Shane Cotton, Michael Parekowhai and Ani O’Neill, but has none for such established presences as Seraphine Pick, Ronnie van Hout and Jacqueline Fahey.
The simple answer is that the line must be drawn somewhere. Another look at the title suggests this was part of Stead’s thinking: metaphorically, a line in the sand might represent a benchmark but, like any line in the sand, the boundaries of an artistic canon can be redrawn by curators and commentators whose enterprise is matched by their knowledge. Fortunately Stead is one such contender.
In his introductory essay he outlines how the icons of New Zealand art must be those “of a symbolic nature that are well known to a reasonably wide audience in New Zealand and that form an important part of the common visual currency of the country.” How, then, could an artist like Grahame Sydney be left out? Aren’t his landscape paintings of South Canterbury and Otago utterly iconic for many New Zealanders? Yet while the dust jacket proclaims “There are certain images … that have embedded themselves in the consciousness of many New Zealanders”, and asks, “Why have these images become insinuated into our visual vocabulary?” – terms which would seem to ensure Sydney’s inclusion – Stead’s essay reveals a deeper purpose than to merely document and repackage our most popular artworks.
Although Stead covers familiar territory – touching on such established tropes as the “harsh clarity of the New Zealand light” theory, as well as the perceived “tyranny of distance”, which affected artists such as Woollaston and McCahon – he offers more than a mere traverse across a well-trodden critical landscape. Instead he manages a nuanced and refreshing take on the makeup of the cultural fabric from which our most important art is made. Rather than deny the importance of traditionally held artistic concerns – landscape, light, religion, our relationship with Britain and Europe – Stead further defines these by cleverly underlining the peculiarities of Maori and Pacific art. Doing so reveals New Zealand’s forays into modernism and postmodernism in a new light:
While Maori visual imagery tends to be overwhelmingly an assertion of genealogical identity, conceived within a genealogical framework (“this is who we are”), post-
contact European visual imagery in New Zealand is frequently reflexive and self-questioning, asking over and over “who are we?” and “what are we doing here?”
informed by more than two centuries of contact between European and Polynesian visual traditions,
New Zealand art has acquired a series of characteristic signatures that speak of the casting of lines into deep space at the edge of the world and of the divining of elemental rhythms in nature. Ralph Hotere … [once said] that he felt his art was about “dividing space”. As the history of modern New Zealand has often been about dividing and subdividing apparently vacant spaces, the abstract, linear division of space seems a significant leitmotif in our artistic makeup.
It’s hard to disagree with Stead on these points. Further, acknowledging how separate Polynesian and European approaches to visual culture have combined to generate art that is recognisably New Zealand allows for several notable inclusions which might easily have been overlooked: not only copies made by early colonial artists of Maori rafter patterns and paddles, but also the Deed of sale of part of Cloudy Bay – boasting the moko of Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha – and the pre-contact sculpture Uenuku, which, although shrouded in mystery, in Stead’s view speaks to both ancient tradition and modern abstraction.
Admirably, such works sit surprisingly well beside the early modernism of Hodgkins, the expressionist fury of Clairmont, or the social comment of Morrison. In fact, art and its social contexts is a Stead forte, as in his reading of Marti Friedlander’s photo Ruapekapeka, where “the unlikely icon of a cow and a canon … struck Friedlander as a reminder of New Zealand’s own historical struggles over sovereignty in the land wars of the nineteenth century.” Stead likes to dig up concise histories of the images which he contextualises – in the case of Ruapekapeka, the history of the canon, and the bombardment in 1846 of which it was a part – which justify his art icons as cultural and historic ones also.
Indeed, his readings throughout often achieve multiple significance. Equally adept at managing close readings of artworks and articulating their immediate contexts, he also avows and proves their ongoing relevance as riffs on the overarching theme of the interchange between cultural influences which make New Zealand.
Hamish Clayton is a masters student at Victoria University of Wellington.