A cabinet of curiosities, Stella Ramage

A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy
Gregory O’Brien
Auckland University Press, $59.99,
ISBN 9781869404703

The exhibition staged in Wellington City Gallery to accompany the publication of this book contains a striking homage to the late Graham Percy by his video-artist son, Martin. It consists of a 10-minute loop of video stills which leads us inexorably through the rooms and passageways of Percy’s modest Wimbledon townhouse, his home from 1981 until his death in early 2008. Using a hypnotic technique of framing a selected subset of the scene, we repeatedly zoom in, closer then closer still, on some detail of the artist’s densely populated walls and shelves – a decorated lampshade, an old toy Hornby train, quirkily carved pebbles on a window ledge, an orderly work desk, an art-covered wall. There are no people in the video, no words other than terse texts superimposed on the images. “Look in here,” we are directed. “Look closer”, and so we do. It is an almost disturbingly intimate examination – we are voyeurs tiptoeing through the mind of a man.

This remarkable identification of the man with his local habitation is echoed in Gregory O’Brien’s biography. Often during this lavishly illustrated romp through the professional and personal artistic imagination of Graham Percy, we are brought back repeatedly to photographs of the well-thumbed bookshelves and gloriously lived-in interiors of the house at Tibbets Close, SW19. Here is an architecture of memory. The artist’s inspiration has its material roots in its layered accumulation. Percy’s home is the physical equivalent of the imaginary treasure palaces promoted by the ancient Greeks as mnemonic devices. O’Brien justly invokes Sir John Soane’s famous house-museum, a favourite haunt of Percy’s. Most of the photographs used in the book are by photographer Mari Mahr, Percy’s second wife and sharer of these domestic spaces. Her unspoken presence is palpable.

There is a venerable history of artists who have also worked as illustrators – Manet, Beardsley, Blake – but Percy’s positioning in this litany is slightly anomalous. Unapologetically trained in graphic design, not fine arts, the bulk of his professional career was spent producing illustrations for commercial patrons and children’s books, his own and others’. Delightful though these are – and many are very delightful indeed – were it not for the extraordinary efflorescence of his self-initiated artwork that began as his commercial career began to wind down in the 1990s, I doubt we would be experiencing this resurgence of interest. The ebullient inventiveness and dark-edged whimsy of Percy’s later work is needed to add depth to the earlier career. Hence O’Brien avoids an aridly chronological approach to the art: Percy’s Taranaki childhood of the 1940s is illustrated by drawings from 2006, two years before the artist’s death; his career shift during the 1980s and 90s away from advertising and towards illustrating children’s books is introduced by a 2004 drawing of “The Young Modigliani” outside the iconic Paul Vulin bookshop in Paris. In contrast to the colourfully confident pigs and elephants of Percy’s books for children, the artist’s more personal protagonists of the later monochrome drawings are often rather uncertain-looking young boys. For better or worse, we all carry our childhoods with us, strapped on like the enormous kiwi to the back of Percy’s “New Zealand artist abroad” (2004).

Percy’s expatriate status defines and informs his later, personal art work. But in his hands cross-cultural collisions are good-humouredly explored as a two-way street: while 18th-century Austrian archduchesses play in the black sand of a Taranaki beach (2005), a cheeky kiwi subverts British high art by posing as a self-consciously theatrical Ophelia (2004). As O’Brien points out, Percy’s expatriatism is relaxed: “[h]is kiwi aren’t seriously homesick, no matter how far they wander into art history or the heartlands of European culture. They embody a warm-hearted coming to terms with displacement.”

Percy’s delight in joyous incongruity is not restricted to Kiwi-displacement: he also bounces notions of European high art against United Kingdom rural realities. In a personal favourite, “Dvořák, Dohnányi and Schumann discuss a concert of their works with local residents at Crear”(2005), the bewilderment of the black-faced sheep of Argyll is priceless.

The book itself is attractive, its glossy pages give a pleasing weight, in more ways than one, to the cavalcade of imagery which dominates the text. While O’Brien follows a very approximate division into four periods of the artist’s life – New Zealand, London and Hungary, the Wimbledon house, later work – these divisions are low-key, and in practice the author avoids the tyranny of either a sequence of dates or of ponderous chapters. Rather, he steps lightly and lyrically through a wide range of brief topics, each intriguingly titled and each just as long as it needs to be. For instance, 160 words headed “Greyness” deftly covers Percy’s and Mari Mahr’s shared appreciation of the artistic and sartorial potential of monochrome. Two paragraphs called “The Hungarian Navy Sails Through The Cities of Europe” discuss the artist’s love of home-made toys. One 200-word passage – “The Artist as Micronaut and the Pencil as Means of Travel” – gives us a poignant posthumous glimpse of Percy’s working life transposed to an eternal present tense.

These brief, accumulated impressions of the artist form a textual parallel to the eclectic paraphernalia of Percy’s home; they form a cabinet of curiosities, any aspect of which could be focussed on and mined for further discovery if one chose. Yet like the haunted, full-but-empty rooms of Martin’s video, O’Brien’s impressionistic brushstrokes tantalisingly hint at rather than delineate the occupier: despite the build-up of detail – his grandfather’s shed, his graduation thesis, his red-green colour blindness – one never feels that Graham Percy himself quite comes into focus.

Perhaps that is as it should be (since the notion of identity is a slippery fish and biographies that offer themselves as definitive are inevitably kidding themselves), but nevertheless there is something tentative and perhaps overly polite in O’Brien’s approach. Other than childhood influences, he doesn’t probe the personal. The transition from one wife to the next, for instance, which presumably occurred under the amiable aegis of Hugo the Hungarian Hippo, passes without comment.

One wonders whether the relative recency of Graham Percy’s death, combined with O’Brien’s being a personal friend of and artistic collaborator with his widow, and moreover actually living and writing this book within the very house which is effectively the embodied memory of his subject, might have led to the author being a tad too close, physically, emotionally, temporally, to allow for a more uninhibited appraisal. Perhaps more eulogy than biography, this book nevertheless serves as a memory house for the extravagant and eclectic imagination of a talented artist. If one sometimes feels that Graham Percy is somehow concealed rather than revealed in this kaleidoscope of fragments, then check out the delightful surprise hidden beneath the dust-jacket.


Stella Ramage is a Wellington reviewer.

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Posted in Art, Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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