Art, Northern Advocate Column

For Baby’s Room

25 March 2017

For Baby's Room

I had heard whispers. I had seen pictures on Facebook, but not in its entirety. It was a painting, a very large one. It was controversial, in your face, offensive to many people. It looked great though. I wanted to see it. So I arranged with the artists Richard Darbyshire and Rosie Parsonson for a private viewing.

In the hills over the Otaika Valley there it was, hanging on the back wall of a normal Kiwi garage, partly concealed by a stack of cardboard boxes. Like any painting this size you can’t take it in all at once, it just flows over you at first, overwhelming. But then, as if your eyes are becoming accustomed to the light, you begin to make out the details. And what details they are! Amidst the seductive and tempestuous swirl of colour and line there are swans and skulls, dinosaurs and toy soldiers, bunnies and naked women, fighter bombers and butterflies. My Little Pony smokes a pipe. The Pope clutches a throbbing, bloody heart. Two skeletons copulate. It’s a nightmare of kitsch. It’s an inventory of vices. It’s fun and it’s terrible. It’s the modern world. It’s titled For Baby’s Room.

Which parent would dare put this on the wall next to the cot? None I’m sure, but it’s a wonderful thought. I still have dreams about the safari animals on the curtains of my room when I was a kid. What nightmares might this painting induce? What creativities and ways of knowing might it encourage?

Viewing this work I’m not shocked. How could I be in the Internet Age? There’s nothing here that compares with what we can see every day online if we choose (and even if we don’t). This is cartoon titillation. The war games, the cuddly toys, the bimbos and big guns, the religious icons and uniforms, the glint in the eye of cartoon animals ― aren’t we too easily seduced by idolatry in its various forms?

This might not be the artists’ exact intentions but this painting, for me, is a very moral work. I view it and feel somewhat cleansed. It’s a visual reminder of the superficiality we consume and which consumes us. But you can turn away, you can look within to the person you would at least like to be. It’s your life to live.   

In the top right hand corner of the painting the hand of God appears through the cloud holding a golden staff, which he appears to be using to stir a circular medieval town. In the bottom left hand corner, a figure with a yellow Pac-Man head, mouth agape, sits at a keyboard with joystick in hand. It’s like he’s manipulating the chaos of the entire painting. Between these two manipulators, God and the gamer, we are still free to consider what is good and what is evil, virtue or vice. This painting says to the viewer: “On your conscience be it.”

I have no problem saying that this painting is a local masterpiece. It deserves to be seen by more people, which is why I suggest the Whangarei Art Museum gets on to buying it straight away.

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Art, Northern Advocate Column

Jo Hardy, an original in life and art

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An artwork is a gift the artist gives to the world. If not always one that’s gratefully received. Few artists, musicians, writers, create for the money, though they won’t say no if it comes along (the artist has to live like everyone else). Most do it to achieve personal satisfaction at something well done, which they hope will be appreciated by other people. 

Often, however, there’s a time lag between the giving of the gift and the receiving of it. Vincent van Gogh is most emblematic of this delay. He so desired people to see God and glorious, wondrous life in his paintings. He hoped his art would literally save people. In his lifetime his works were appreciated by few, yet today his paintings are hugely popular and profoundly moving, particularly when seen in the flesh. His work is a gift to humanity, one that will keep giving for centuries.

Recently a respected local painter, Jo Hardy, died. She was a serious artist, very intelligent, and she worked hard. Though she could grumble and strongly desired that her work should be recognised with some monetary reward, she was, I think, playing a longer game. It’s very probable that her body of work will continue to grow in stature as time passes.

One of her best works is already part of the Whangarei Art Museum’s permanent collection. It’s the portrait of an old woman in a doctor’s waiting room. The woman stares directly at us over her red rimmed glasses, with a pointed finger lifting one eyebrow over a bloodshot eye. Is she mad? Possessed? There’s certainly something defiant about her. She dominates the picture frame, even pushing another female figure off the side of the canvas. The woman is obviously at the ragged end of life, but there’s something heroic about her still. In her light blue quilted night gown, with a tartan blanket held over her am, she recalls a marble statue of a Roman statesman dressed in a toga.

The painting is an eccentric, life affirming representation of old age. In a contemporary culture saturated with images of youth, this wrinkled character speaks to us of mortality and what it means to savour life, no matter how challenging and despairing it can be. I can’t help but think that this woman is a cypher for the artist herself. Jo Hardy was a strong, opinionated and passionate woman, not afraid to confront injustice and idiocy.

A few years ago I asked her what advice she would give to a young person wanting to be a painter today. Her reply: “Painting is not a recommended career strategy; it’s an isolated lifetime vocation. It’s a totally unfeasible feast and famine lifestyle; not for the faint hearted… The painter must be the first (sometimes the only) person to stand up for their work. It takes nerve, independent originality is required. You’re lucky if it resonates with the zeitgeist.” 

Jo Hardy was an original in life and in her paintings, which will keep giving for years to come.

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Art, Northern Advocate Column

Two figures by Anneke Muijlwijk

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Two figures, one female, the other, given the shape of the shoulders and arms, must be male. The woman is drawn in outline with charcoal and pencil. The masculine figure is composed of blocks of five colours, painted in thin washes of watercolour paint. It’s like he’s wearing the costume of a circus acrobat, like Picasso once painted.

The woman is seated on a blue couch, her legs tucked up close to her, one hand on the armrest and the other on her thigh just above the knee. She’s is posed, as women have posed naked in art for centuries, as objects of desire and beauty for a masculine gaze. Except, her head leans back slightly, unnaturally, which undermines the attempt at holding a relaxed position on the couch. There’s a tension in the pointed shoulders. It’s awkward. Made more so by the looming figure of the featureless male that overlays the woman.

Is it a loving embrace he’s trying to give? Or something else? The blue arm with a clenched fist passes through the woman’s face like a comic-strip punch. The dull green head bends over from the torso in what looks like despair or regret. Yet as we’re focusing on the male figure, the green head highlights the features of the woman’s own face, the blue arm highlights her eyes. The artist cleverly brings our attention back to the woman, who always remains at the centre of the picture, seemingly in control. 

What is the relationship between these two figures? Their overlaying suggests a disjunction of time; they’re not in the same place together. Has the women removed herself from the relationship? It’s the male figure that is active, encroaching into her body space, but he’s getting no reciprocal response. She leans back calmly, possessed of an inner integrity, her hands remain in place. Even though the male figure is blocked-in with colour, the lines of the woman can still be seen, rendering him transparent. He’s a ghost, a shadow, his position on the couch impossible in real life. He invades the picture, but he doesn’t dominate it.

This painting by local artist Anneke Muijlwijk has a sad beauty that speaks to me of the transience of human relationships, which very rarely exist in a perfect now. The novelist Leo Tolstoy once said that what was interesting about a man and women getting together was not the romance and entanglement leading to marriage, or that kiss that concludes today’s romantic comedies, but rather what happened afterwards. That, he thought, was the source of drama which made for a good story.

It’s not easy to suggest a story in one image composed on a piece of paper. Muijlwijk has achieved this and left me speculating at the possible drama. It holds my attention like few artworks do. Its success comes from a balance between mystery and a concrete grounding in real human emotions. I can identify with both figures. We’ve all been each of them. That universality cuts to the core.

More of Anneke Muijlwijk’s paintings and drawings can be viewed on her website: http://www.annekem.co.nz  Or look out for showings of her works in Whangarei’s local galleries.

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Art, Northern Advocate Column

Art, it’s a tough gig

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Art is an opinionated business. If you’re an artist it’s advisable to develop a thick skin. Sometimes difficult for sensitive souls, which artists usually are. I’ll always remember a conversation at a gallery opening in Auckland with a young art critic who politely told me my work was shit (in art speak, but that was the gist of it). Can you do that to someone’s face I was thinking? Is this what it’s like in the big city art scene? It was hard to continue with any chit-chat after that and he wandered off to talk to someone else. I staggered towards the table with the free wine. 

After a less than appreciative comment about my work in a long gone arts publication read by hardly anyone — or only the people that mattered, depending on how you look at it — I took to my bed and imagined my revenge on the insensitive and obviously braindead reviewer. 

And so here I am considering what to say about an art exhibition by two local artists at the Whangarei Art Museum, Dave Beazley and Murray Gibbs. Should I try to explain the work? What tone shall I use? If I write something negative will I get a rude email or be ignored at a gallery opening?

Actually, what I most want to say is simply how great it was to step into the museum and see a body of work by artists who are “local and alive”. Under new director Ruth Green-Cole and a team of other female staff the museum looks like taking a new direction, one that I’m sure Whangarei artists and many arts supporters will be welcoming. 

As for the work of Beazley and Gibbs, it’s just my opinion, but I think it stacks up well against art being produced anywhere else in New Zealand. Both artists are engaged with our contemporary world and its problems. Both are craftsmen; Gibbs with the humble graphite pencil, sculptured clay and metal. Beazley renders in detail highly imaginative mutant cartoon characters using oil paint. 

Beazley’s work should hit the spot with Nickelodeon fans. There’s a vibrancy and irreverence to the work, but always laced with darker tones and the sadness of lost innocence. It would be a good exhibition for high school art teachers to take their classes along to. 

The curatorial team has produced a small booklet full of colour reproductions of Beazley’s work, along with an interview with the artist. If you purchase a copy for $5 you get a free original ink drawing. A nice touch. In the booklet there’s a quote by Beazley that I like, he says: “My own art practice is not a place where I relax or release my soul; the beach is my place for that. I take my art relatively seriously as my job.” 

Creating art that speaks to people is not an easy thing; it requires an enormous amount of work and dedicated professionalism. And it must, I believe, seek a relationship with an audience. As tough as it is to show work in public and invite criticism, it’s essential to achieving art that has any relevance to people’s lives. 

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Art, Northern Advocate Column

Window cleaning with Billy Apple

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16 May 2015

With the sun getting lower in the sky I’ve noticed how dirty the windows of our house are. The dust, grime and insect droppings are showing up marvelously, backlit by sunlight. I need to clean them.

Cleaning windows is something I actually quite enjoy. And each time I’m reminded of one of my favourite artworks by the New Zealand artist Billy Apple. 

In the 1970s, Billy Apple ran a gallery in New York that was a cutting-edge space for the emerging conceptual and non-object art movements. Artists like Apple were questioning every preconception about art. They were rebelling against the idea that art was a precious, crafted commodity, bought in galleries and displayed in homes or rarified museum halls. Part of this critique was the idea that art and life might somehow be fused in the creative act of the artist. The implication was that everyone could use their imagination to perform symbolic acts to re-shape and re-present their world. At the time it was an exciting idea. 

One work by Billy Apple involved picking up broken glass from selected streets in New York and displaying the piles on the floor of his gallery. What was the art experience here? Was it in the act of picking up the broken glass, often with the help of neighbourhood kids? Was it the piles of “beautiful” shards displayed in the gallery? Was it the photos recording the action that we can still look at today? Or was it just the idea that the artist had done such a thing? 

So back to cleaning windows. This was an act Apple performed in April, 1973. Wearing a striking yellow skivvy, he was photographed polishing the inside of a window in his gallery. What the hell you might ask. But if you suspend judgement for a moment and think about the act and objects involved metaphorically, there’s something happening here. There’s light, colour and composition for starters.  

For myself, I think about the human desire to beautify and control our lived environment. In this case, to have windows which are clear and spotless. Often though our attempts to beautify or alter the world do not last. The window that Apple cleans will get dirty again. What’s more the glass surface on the other side, storeys up from the New York streets, remains dirty. As an individual we can only change so much about our world, so much is beyond our power to affect. Yet in the face of this, the individual creative act―the artist’s or our own―is still important, defiant even.  

After cleaning the windows of my house I stand back proudly and appreciate their shining clarity. I know, however, that almost immediately the car fumes, the dust and dirt, will start to build up again. There’s a tinge of sadness that comes with fragile beauty. It’s not too much of a leap to think of cleaning windows as a metaphor for our own temporal and fragile existence. It’s with a smile that I recall the mortal artist in his yellow skivvy reaching upwards to clean the very top part of the gallery window―it’s somehow life affirming. 

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Art, Northern Advocate Column

John Foster’s ‘Four Seasons on the Farm’

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4 April 2015

I actually chuckled. That was my initial reaction to running my eyes over John Foster’s large mural with many, many sheep.

How delightfully incongruous it was to see in the rarefied space of an art gallery something so seemingly mundane as life on a sheep farm. Sheep being sheared, drenched, corralled, giving birth, dying, and just milling about eating grass. 

Four Seasons on the Farm is currently installed at the Whangarei Art Museum. The artist, unsurprisingly, was also a sheep farmer on a property near Wellsford. Foster painted the work, which stretches 14.4 metres, from 1980 to 1984 in a farm shed converted into a studio.

There are 365 panels depicting events and scenes on the farm over the course of the year. Grey fence posts divide the mural into 12 months. The seasons flow from the ochre shades of late summer through to the greening grass of autumn, the greyness and mud of winter, and the rejuvenation of colour in spring and early summer.

Everything you could imagine happening on a farm is represented. It’s a narrative of life and death. In a prominently positioned panel a ram mounts an indifferent looking ewe. In the August section an extended sequence of panels shows the birth of lambs, painted a special golden yellow. 

Further on there’s a panel where lambs have bloodied ears and butts from docking and tagging. Grim, but visually dramatic, as are the pictures of sheep corpses amid scenes of idyllic rural beauty and ever changing weather.

Foster has successfully imbued life on a sheep farm with epic qualities. It’s a bit like Game of Thrones, the beauty and violence, and winter is always coming. The rain-jacketed man on the motorbike a craggy and heroic Warden of the North.

But what kept me engaged with this large work was the way it was painted.  It’s rugged and raw, as befitting its subject matter. The paint is smeared and plastered on.

The scenes are at turn cartoon-like and impressionistic. There’s no refined perspective and detailed shading. Everything is flat on the picture frame and pushing out at you. The influences of New Zealand painters Colin McCahon, Toss Wollaston and Pat Hanly is strong.

My delight in the work undoubtedly comes from the contrast it offers from the images we see on our screens. It’s got to the point that I’ve developed almost a nausea at viewing digital photographs. Such is the saturation that digital imagery has achieved over the last decade. The early 1980s seems like a distant and far simpler age.

And that’s the thing about art, sometimes it develops meaning and importance that could not have been envisaged by the artist. Times change, our experiences change and then shift the way we see things.

I recommend leaving your phones at home and taking the time to go and see Four Seasons on a Farm. Revel in a different visual experience that makes you want to touch, smell and hear the world.

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