Fresh and Dated

John Weeks, 'Industry', 1936
Installation shot, Freedom and Structure, Pataka Museum Porirua
Colin McCahon, 'French Bay', 1956
Charles Tole, 'Quarry Buildings', 1967
Mark Amery finds much that still resonates in a touring exhibition of New Zealand cubism

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Art has a funny, powerful way of both capturing and eluding time. Perhaps it expresses the elusiveness of time itself. The artworks we love, I think, speak strongly of the time in which they were created, yet stay with us, never dating. Then there is other work – that can date quickly or, worse still, can seem dated even when they’re first hung.  

This is why the museum curator is important: working to ensure the work that holds the most enduring power for the many retains in public view. Such art is no easy nostalgia. It remains challenging, if visibly of a different age. It provides a framework, an enduring constructed space for us to think, and meditate on the track of our and our ancestors’ lives. It lifts us out of any given moment.

I’m thinking of this while looking at the Auckland Art Gallery touring exhibition Freedom and Structure at Pātaka in Porirua, an impressive display of six 20th century New Zealand cubist painters, that establishes the grounding of cubism in New Zealand. Fracturing the picture into a myriad of planes and volumes, providing multiple viewpoints, cubism provided the early guided journey into abstraction. Many will think back to art history class and the work of Braque and Picasso, as early as 1907. But in New Zealand, as curator Julia Waite tracks beautifully, its beginnings are much later, far less radical, but do start to take some impressive distinctive new turns.

The vast majority of the works in this show are from the 1950s, but these are framed by staid but interesting works by John Weeks from the 1930s, after studying under French cubist painter André Lhote, and into the 1970s the remarkably fresh and underappreciated work of Charles Tole – who, to complete the circle, had learnt the fundamentals of cubism under Weeks at Elam in Auckland.

I’m also thinking, visiting Pātaka, of the play of time and how we don’t escape it, looking at the touring show of last year’s 25th Annual Wallace Art Awards that runs alongside this exhibition. There are fine works here that bring new energy to familiar styles of painting and sculpture (for example of Andre Hemer, Simon Morris, Ed Batts and Josephine Cachemaille), but there’s also plenty to my eye that make a lumpen mess of familiar plays with the abstract in paint. Freedom and Structure feels fresh in comparison.   

At least in the North Island it feels like 2017 has started with a rash of looks back. When Auckland Art Gallery announced its 2017 programme back in January, it was light on the contemporary, heavier on the historical, including the current show of masterpieces from the UK Tate collection. Alongside contemporary exhibitions, City Gallery Wellington has a survey of Colin McCahon works from the 1960s and 70s and the Govett Brewster an exhibition and accompanying publication of a fascinating essay from Len Lye, Robert Graves and Laura Riding in 1930. You could put this convergence down to conservative times, or more pointedly a need to be reminded of a history that seems right now sometimes in risk of repeating.

What is refreshing about the Auckland Art Gallery show is that it is touring regionally over 2017 and 2018: to viewers that don’t have the same access to permanent collections as in the bigger cities. Porirua, Napier, Hamilton and then finally to Dunedin, which pays fine attention to its strong collection.

In Auckland in the 1980s and early ‘90s I feel like I grew up with the work of Louise Henderson. It was here her first solo exhibition had been held at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1952, and again she was shown with Colin McCahon, also included here, in 1954’s ‘Object and Image’ and ‘Three Painters’ in 1959. Paris-born Henderson emigrated to New Zealand in the 1920s, but it was after visiting John Weeks studio in 1948, and then returning to Paris to study that her painting career took off.

While hard to follow chronologically in the way it is hung, the exhibition strongly shows the evolution of Henderson’s work from the Weeks-influenced, more conventional but delicate veils of ‘Still Life with Glass’ (1951) through to late 1950s bright, bold abstract compositions that only hint in their pared back sliding planes of colour of their source in the interplay of architectural forms of the houses of the French village of Dieppe. In their colour range and design daring, these now seem remarkable works for their time in New Zealand. They leave you longing to see these works even more in the context of other work from their time.

It is McCahon’s work that most visitors will come to see and the selection doesn’t disappoint. If Henderson by the late 1950s was finding new ground, a handful of McCahon’s works from the mid 1950s demonstrate how he was daringly turning cubism to an expression of the landscape and light of New Zealand. In ‘I and Thou’ landscape has been reduced to an abstract field of environmental tensions, shifting plates of rock, earth, sea and sky with the text of the title springing out in front. ‘French Bay’ is also an extraordinary work seen in its present company, the picture plane broken into jigsaw interlocking shapes depicting earth and sky. Like a new kind of visual alphabet is being created, it encourages the work to be read, its code cracked. Then there is ‘Kauri’, with its beautiful shades of the forest. Trees become a musical cluster of elegant notes and buds reminiscent of kowhaiwhai, yet collapsed into an oval pool of energy, more reminiscent of Braque decades earlier.

At the core of the exhibition feels the relationship between McCahon and Henderson, with Weeks and Tole bookending the story. The show might have been stronger for this keener focus.

The early work of Weeks (who tragically lost is best work in a fire in 1949) is interesting context. An early painting of a group of muscular nudes, very effectively with a fleshy palette reduces the figures to a mechanistic interlocking pattern. The reach being made between painting and the machine age is also pictorially made in ‘Industry’ where a foundry has become a shaded patchwork of geometric shapes cradling around the warm glare of molten metal being poured by two workers. Like a symbol of the painter’s evolving process, the future for abstraction looks bright.

I was struck by some of the works of Rotorua’s Wilfred Stanley Wallis, notably ‘Road at Rotoiti’, an interesting pairing with McCahon’s landscape studies of the time. Yet with Wallis and the work of Melvyn Day I found myself questioning the number of works included versus either a more compact show, or one that brings other artists into the fold.

Nonetheless, this is a fascinating exhibition which will reward repeat visits. It is well designed at Pātaka, enabling long contemplation. This work that often can simultaneously feel of a different time yet as fresh as new works in the galleries next door.  

Freedom and Structure:

24 February – 21 May 2017, Pataka Art and Museum, Porirua

24 June – 12 November 2017, MTG Hawke’s Bay, Napier

16 December – 2 April 2018, Waikato Museum, Hamilton

28 April – 29 July 2018, Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

 

 

Written by

Mark Amery

3 May 2017

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.

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