Painting the Cost
As New Zealand enters another global conflict Mark Amery questions the role of the artist and introduces the work of John Foster.
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Commemorative events marking the centenary of the first world war are now in full swing. Among them are a slew of arts projects co-commissioned with Creative New Zealand, including Lemi Ponifasio and Mau Company’s I AM, which is being performed at the Auckland Arts Festival in March. On premiere at Edinburgh Festival last year it was described in a strong Guardian review as being a “nightmare” in it’s dark reflection on “the unconscionable cost of conflict”
I mention this work because, more often in honouring the fallen and remembering victims, we implicitly still honour the nobility of going to war. This, despite a deep split today in the public’s willingness for New Zealand to engage in global conflicts. 100 years on from Archibald Baxter’s conscientious objection, next to the commemoration there is still an absence of public discussion of the wisdom of going to war in the first place; or an open consideration of the real lasting costs for all involved. And as we consider involvement (again) in Iraq I am also struck by the paucity of contribution by our artists to the debate.
Late February and Council Christmas lights are still hanging in the Waikanae shopping centre. Yet inside the Mahara Gallery things are decidedly more progressive. The Kapiti Coast’s regional gallery is currently hosting a series of discussions entitled Speaking Truth to Power. From Alister Barry to Nicky Hager, Giovanni Tiso to Dr Mike Joy the familiar names on the speakers list underline this as fora for brave voices in the media space. Is it telling that such a series is happening so far from the actual seats of power?
The series accompanies Requiem an exhibition of the work of the late painter John Foster. Amongst the work is ‘A requiem for the victims of war’ a mural of just under 10 metres in length painted in 1992 and 93. It has never been seen before.
A farmer based near Wellsford, Foster passed away from cancer in 2003 leaving behind a rather unusual legacy: 14 large murals and thousands of lithographic prints. The murals were completed over decades on the farm and, whilst Foster had some 50 exhibitions, he received little recognition from the professional art world. In a Holmes segment (screening in the exhibition) you meet a artist struggling with what to do with a shearing shed lined with murals on a soon to be sold farm.
Since John and wife sculptor Pat Foster’s death their daughters have been ensuring the safe archiving of this large collection, developed website www.johnfoster.co.nz to showcase the work and have started finding exhibition opportunities. Mural ‘Four Seasons on the Farm’ (1980-84) is on view at Whangarei Art Museum from 2 March. A celebration of farming structured as a calendar of 365 images as seen though through the gaps in a fence, it is being shown alongside prints on the subject from a 1985 School Journal that Foster wrote and illustrated.
It was Colin McCahon, the artist who gives Lemi Ponifasio his work’s title, who suggested on summer schools at Elam in Auckland that Foster “go big”. He sure ran with that suggestion. Prolific, Foster worked for two years or more on each mural, also producing many prints based on the patchwork of imagery he built up. It was as if he were finding a way to match the activity of the farm and landscapes around him. Another inspiration from summer school and a good friend, fellow rural dweller Toss Woollaston features in the exhibition with a landscape and two of a number of portraits he made of Foster.
Foster’s talent was to look outwards but close: to survey the big picture of the world but, in the age of the personal camera, also pick out the strong lines in the details, cropping and framing images before stitching them into a grand scheme. From shearing to the birth of his first daughter, his subjects are grounded in common experience rather than mystery. He goes big to revel in the complexity of the ordinary world. The way we view things over time. He rubs back strongly to the line and form of the world, our memory of it.
It is ironic and, of course the way of our world that it was perhaps Foster’s attention to popular rural imagery that made him an unfashionable outsider in the wider professional art scene. Yet his subjects, naïve pictorial painting style and the debt of his work to many modernist painters before him belies the sophistication of his grand visual music, and the sublime spirit he can sometimes tap into.
It is our common experience of war through the media that is the Requiem mural’s subject - our subjection to a torrent of images in newspapers and television of conflict, as well as the expression of the suffering of its victims by great artists in paintings. Like Ponifasio’s, it is a work about our humanity, how we cope with the enormity of what we see and how we awaken from the numbness that has ensued.
Boldly, the mural has three very different layers. The topmost features overlapping framed interpretations in paint of hundreds of media images, or fragments, drawn from coverage of conflict and its aftermath, from Word War One to the Gulf War. For the second layer, it is as if the artist has looked to psychically rip through these layers of received imagery to find a deeper expression of truth. Enormous bullet hole-like tears in the surface reveal big poster renditions of paintings by Goya, Picasso, Bacon and Dali. These in turn appear pasted onto a black surface, which is engraved in white with rows of primitively drawn death masks.
In its ambitious public scope, representing the shared history of many, I’m reminded of the work of Mexican muralists of last century. Whilst stylistically diverse, extraordinarily it all coheres. Foster bonds and humanises through the abstraction and structure of his painting: the strident, emotive animation of line and spare tones, and the elegant weight of silhouette and dark forms.
It remains difficult to take in all at once. Yet this is its point. This is a world in which a comprehendible moral order is absent. It actively asks how we are best to live with this history. Just as you are struggling to take it all in, a vocabulary is forming out of the carnage.
Like fractured rock at the earth’s core, in the rough hieroglyphic language of the back layer we have the full gamut of emotion expressed through severe, scored line. From joy to sorrow, all human reaction is lively and playfully expressed here in strong spare cartooning. It is a public conversation bubbling up from below.
While they do galvanise the entire mural, with shades of other post-modern art historical collages of the early 1990s I’m less convinced by the effect of Foster’s renditions of famous paintings. It is only in the Goya and Picasso that it feels Foster makes the paintings his own.
The top layer meanwhile is a triumph of finding poetry in chaos. Individual images can be absorbing in their strength of composition: crumpled and torn pileups of bodies and debris, cropped action fragments of protests and military assaults, and straggling lines of people, behind barbed wire or fleeing destruction. Encouraged by the echoes of line and dark twisted forms across the surface, you are then constantly finding other images you didn’t notice before. There is also beauty in the way the work is bound by Foster’s tinted tonal gradation between black and white, whilst moving from right to left into colour.
Every human perspective seems here. The eyes of soldiers and refugees alike are reduced to shadows, or whites and pinpricks, pointedly asking us to empathise. At other times the ragged useless beauty of wreckage is left to speak for itself.
Foster seems to suggest that we might only make sense of all this damage by treating it as something together we have responsibility for. Like Pacific guardian figures, on either side of the Requiem mural are figures carved chunkily from Totara, ‘King’ and ‘Queen’. Charred sharp sides and deep-pitted eyes they have seen horror but are also clown-like - the ‘Queen’ wears a crown made from a rusty skim milk tin. Perhaps representing Foster and his wife they represent us all, and our duty of care.
Across from this mural is another, quite different - ‘Overworld Journey’ (1997-98). This is the world as seen by Foster out the airplane window, conceived of in 1986 and developed over a decade taking photographs while flying.
‘Overworld’ is not as effective in the space at Mahara. It requires far greater room to take in its abstract scope, with overlapping tiles creating a strong sweep across, sky, land and back to sky again. I admire its scope and technical bravado but, close to its rough surface, find little new strength in its translation of photography into paint, nor in the composition of individual tiles. Originally displayed at Auckland International Airport, it feels of its pre-digital time.
A blue, fluffy-clouded dreaming space in which you are airborne ‘Overworld’ does provide effective counterpoint to ‘Requiem’. ‘Requiem’ is a work of the fallen. Where, in sight of warplanes offloading their payloads birds fail to spread their wings and rise from the water.
- Requiem, John Foster, Mahara Gallery, Waikanae, until 22 March
- Four Seasons, John Foster, Whangarei Art Museum, 2 March – 7 June