A Constant Gardener
Mark Amery on when a painting of a garden is no longer just a painting of garden.
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Let’s hear it for dedication, for steadfastness. For singular, dogged focus on something, impervious to changing fashion. Here’s to not giving up on exploring the potentials of a chosen field of vision.
In 1987 painter Karl Maughan graduated with a Master of Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts. He showed a series of large paintings of gardens. They explored the luminosity of light and colour, the crackling animation of plants and their ability to create stories together as characters, and the tension between wild intensity and grand structural order. They were informed by both the history of painting and his parents’ work as landscape designers and gardeners.
Twenty-seven years later, Maughan is still at it. Such consistency is rare. Particularly in a time in art when there’s been increasingly movement towards concept-driven multiplicity – freer adoption by artists of different media and subjects, accompanied until recently by endless musings on whether painting is dead. Even Bill Hammond hasn’t been painting birds this long.
It’s easy to be cynical. What could be more sellable? Carefully cultivated exteriors brought into the grand dining or boardroom. Well, yes. After quite a few solo shows, I can confess to only being able to stand so many of these canvases at once. Maughan’s most recent exhibition at Wellington’s Page Blackie, for example had a few too many showy high-key, brightly coloured bushes of painterly confectionery. Not enough diversity and wandering paths, little edge of darkness - too much cream cake at the garden party.
Yet, pick out the great ones and Maughan proves more than just journeyman. Take a selective sweep across Maughan’s career, as a current Pataka exhibition does with a mere six works, and be reminded of his ability to surprise. Maughan continues to explore the rich expressive potential of paint with the use of a structure with which we are all familiar. The point is the paint not the subject. Arguably, if he’d chopped and changed like his contemporaries he’d have had half the sustained focus. After 27 years this makes his best work its own kind of remarkable.
Case in point is a major new work at the Dowse. Part of the Dowse’s Solo summer suite of artist’s projects, neatly its being exhibited over the same time period as the Pataka look back.
Hydrangeas, Botanic Gardens is a joyous, edgy riot. Five giant panels present a mosaic of tumbling hydrangea bushes, spread widescreen over nine metres. It is given its own sizeable white gallery space to radiate within. There is no foreground and the sky is barely seen through the forest beyond, yet it is full of shifting light. So fresh and luscious, so giving, you may want to dance before it.
The eye swims in an undulating sea of intricate pattern, stretching far up the field of vision to a glow below the tree canopy beyond. You feel the throb of an ecstatic crowd, the hydrangea heads nodding, plants moshing together as if this were a music festival. For all the light and colour there’s nothing soft about it – step close and there’s knife-edge brilliance to the sharp cut of light on leaves. A breathlessness as well as jubilance to the crowd - perhaps there’s trouble in the darker patches on the edge of the forest beyond. When its humming Maughan’s work builds stories for the viewer like this.
Like a festival, every garden is interplay between order and confusion. A multitude of beings reach for the light. They jostle for space, pushing up and out, opening and unfurling. Yet a plant’s placing remains in our hands, we continue to crop back.
This is a dynamic field for the painter. Karl Maughan takes the garden and recomposes all over again. Working from photographic collage, editing, and heightening, a new life can be given, full of visual tensions in the filling and ordering of space.
My favourite Maughans often present dense, mixed plantings at every available level. There’s incredibly varied texture and tone jockeying for space, challenging your eye’s preconceptions - an active complexity. This is well represented at Pataka. 1997’s celebrated Plume is a great example. These are more cottage garden than the rigorously maintained, spare and formal designs of the large clipped estate. I miss this Maughan a bit.
In this painter’s work there’s always tension between our initial reading of the image - leaves, stalks and flowers, the garden path that leads us in - and what our eye then luxuriates in examining – slashes, dabs and dashes of paint. What we see from a distance appears quite different close up. The shade below the lit leaves proves not to be undergrowth but blackness. Magic.
You work across the surface enjoying uncovering a sophisticated vocabulary of gestural marks. You continue to adjust your eyes. Set against what we are accustomed to outdoors, the colour palettes and lighting are deliciously awry, delicately heightened and theatrical. It is a surreal place in which to let the eye wander.
The large works that stretch our vision also encourage movement. We must move in and out, across, and up and down. Stretching our bodies in the space before them. They empower a freedom in us to explore, find our own paths.
A magnificent example of all this from the Te Papa collection, and the centrepiece of the Pataka exhibition (a Te Manawa Palmerston North touring exhibition) is the six-paneled panorama A Clear Day from 1999. At this time Maughan was living in London, achieving some significant success. As with Hydrangeas, Maughan gives himself scope and presents us with a rich, startling abundance. Diverse elements that you might think would be in conflict in the undergrowth find their own strength collectively.
The Pataka selection illustrates both the changes and the returns in Maughan’s style over such a long period. There are works representing the later bolder strokes, and Plume and A Clear Day represent the hyper-reality of his London years. I was also wowed by two works from way back in 1987. In 72 Guilford Street, Ashhurst there’s a more expressive calligraphic animation in the plants, a submarine dreaminess in colour and texture. With a Rorschach test like garden path arrangement over double panels, it resembles a garden of the mind. It is quite different to a clear precursor to Plume years later: the astonishing Plume Poppies with its electric colour skirmishes amongst the foliage.
Maughan’s paintings best works as seen at Pataka and the Dowse are large and full of life, welcoming. They provide abundance. Yet with that come the twists and strains of living together. There is nothing simply pretty about these paintings. They are an expression of living as communities. They represent life at all levels, full of characters, from the straggly to the clipped, forms struggling together with light and shade. It’s good to see them in public gallery spaces like these, whatever the fashion.
- A Clear Day, Karl Maughan, Pataka, Porirua, until 8 February 2015
- Solo, Dowse Art Museum, until 1 March 2015