The Razzmatazz of Image
Who we choose to paint up large, says much. Who we’ve chosen to portray in public has been an assertion of power for centuries. Even in these pluralistic times, only rarely does art champion community leaders, or question the champions handed down to us by others.
Portraiture remains powerful because of the way it values people in places of power – witness the controversy over the exhibition of Jono Rotman’s ongoing series of Mongrel Mob portraits in recent years.
It’s the grand assertion of people and relationships previously not valued in the official public story that also makes Nathan Pohio’s photographic re-presentation of Ngai Tahu ancestors at the prestigious documenta 14 in Athens in 2017 powerful (see video here). Or indeed Lisa Reihana’s re-depiction of colonial contact In Pursuit of Venus (infected) at the Venice Biennale. Art is playing a more critical role in public storytelling.
This leaves institutions like New Zealand Portrait Gallery in an interesting position. Established in 1990 following the British model, it began its life housed close to parliament. It has had its own permanent home however on the Wellington waterfront since 2010 and continues to host the popular biennial Adam Portraiture Award, open to all artists.
The gallery has provided an interesting programme, balancing contemporary and historical portraiture, work selected on its artistic merits and work selected for who it portrays, and exhibitions that promote the accepted hierarchies, and those a little critical of them. Reihana, for example, showed portraits extended from In Pursuit of Venus at the National Portrait Gallery in 2015 - a quiet commentary on the political role of the portrait. A strength of the gallery has been its reach out to outside curators for different perspectives. More tangata whenua perspectives would be welcomed, nay more diverse cultural viewpoints.
Welcome is new large exhibition Strangely Familiar from Wayne Youle, with 34 headshot portraits of New Zealand artists and arts workers, the majority deceased, from across almost every creative discipline.
As an artist Youle is ever prolific, employing wit, colour and lightness in skipping between new ideas and experimenting with different visual strategies. Sourced images are flattened and stripped back to basic graphic elements as icons for Youle to then tease and play with the symbolic meaning of their edges. Youle is a strong choice for the creation of one big playful body of portraiture work, as irreverent as it is reverent, as shrill as it is elegant.
As ever with the Portrait Gallery of interest is both who Youle portrays, and how he portrays them.
Our Cultural Icons
Included is a roll call of well-known cultural icons –Tuwhare, Frame, Baxter, Mahy, Lye, Angus and McCahon. The weighting is towards literature and the visual arts, with only old hat nods to theatre (Ngaio Marsh), dance (Poul Gnatt), comedy (Billy T), music (Inaia Te Waiata and Dalvanius Prime), cinema (Bruno Lawrence) and architecture (Ian Athfield). Few are with us today to argue with their representation – they have become postage stamps.
It’s a little unclear who has contributed to the roll call and what the selection criteria has been, if any. In her catalogue essay curator Helen Kedgley states that these are all art-world personalities Youle admires. No doubt, but in making a list of 34 more than personal admiration is surely at play.
One criteria could be the market. Exhibitions like this have to be funded, and they are funded by the sale of the work. Naturally. Completed over the last four years, half of these works are already in collections, the other half bar one were completed last year and are available through Youle’s gallery Suite. Even if you’re not commissioned to paint a portrait it figures that you’re thinking about the people it might end up with. The great strength of portraiture to the artist remains the ready pool of potential purchasers: family, friends and networks. And the network here are those of the National Portrait Gallery. With a nod to the gallery, included is a portrait of former gallery director Avenal McKinnon.
Yet there’s also plenty of evidence of the personal. It’s there in the selection of artists who share Youle’s colourist and design-led concerns – Don Driver, Pat Hanly, Ralph Hotere and Gordon Walters – and of fellow Maori artists, including the lesser known to this audience (church and meeting house carver Hone Taiapa) and even those not considered artists (Rua Kenana). It’s there in the championing of larger than life individual mavericks, of which Youle can consider himself one: Lye, Mahy and Lawrence, for example.
Peppered throughout is Youle’s trademark cheek. The appearance of Youle himself in self-portrait seals it. This work’s playful title ‘My rock collection’ certainly suggests full personal ownership of the choices.
The lack of clarity around the selection criteria however does get you thinking. So too how the portraits are labelled. In the gallery there is a handout noting who each portrait is of, with a short biography. But those names aren’t present on the exhibition labels, and are only found in the back of the accompanying catalogue. Instead Youle has given each portrait often charming, playful titles which can be poetic portraits in themselves: Rita Angus – ‘Tea and scones at 3 at the cottage, just bring yourself and a flesh-coloured crayon’, or Ans Westra - ‘She walks like a pukeko walks, dressed in common people camouflage’.
The intention seems to be for a game of ‘Guess Who’ from silhouette and title. A comment on how recognisable the graphic identity of some artists has become perhaps, and that the artist has abstracted them to the point where they are no longer themselves. As the exhibition title says they are rendered ’strangely familiar’. And in some cases Youle gives us the unfamiliar headshot to mix it up - like a very young Ans Westra, strangely familiar because we see her in her youth as we are not used to. In the context of a portrait gallery the absence of names is more frustrating than rewarding, and the gallery has delivered to us the information most visitors will look for straight off the bat.
Then there is the treatment of these subjects. Youle takes that of many dimensions and flattens it to its shadows. In this age of selfies and reality television, he pushes the other way to what we might read into line and colour. With each work he pushes in new ways how he might reduce and play with the elements he sets himself for a head shot.
A key inspiration for this trademark approach for Youle are artists who pushed design: Gordon Walters, Ralph Hotere, Don Driver and Ian Athfield for example. In his portrait Athfield’s head is literally in the clouds, his skin merged with the sky behind him (Dalvanius Prime meanwhile has become one with the stars). The Walters’ portrait is titled: ‘I will make for you perfection if perfect is what you desire’. Reduced to flat fields of colour and line Walters resembles some idealised alien with two-dimensional wrinkle free human skin – nostrils but no nose, eye slits but no eyes.
Always witty, Strangely Familiar asks you not to take any singular work too seriously but instead enjoy the multiplicity of the experience. While there are many works that hold a strong sadness, the exhibition is ultimately one great, joyful rainbow parade.
Many works I find unappealing and unresolved, but others imaginative and stylish. I sense him whipping some of them out quickly – testing the clashes. Garish and art brutish, as a larger collection they provide a satisfying play within the restrictions Youle has placed on himself. He’s like the stand-up comedian, peeling off the one-liners from cue cards, seeing which stick the most. He pulls at the fabric between taste and tastelessness. This I suspect is both what endears people to Youle, and drives them crazy.
The queasy pop colour palette here is anything but traditional. Indeed, it removes the works from familiar cultural frameworks. This is art as a form of clowning. Characters removed from the usual rules of representation, their power made stronger by their power to speak restricted. I thought several times of mime artist Marcel Marceau, who Poul Gnatt resembles.
Portraits are reduced to a few key bright elements and playful titles. Cultural icons have been tipped out onto a surreal stage where less emotionally is more. Peter McLeavey, is showman Eric Morecambe and Inia Te Wiata (in a clever upturning of cultural stereotypes) looks like he’s stepped out of a Black and White minstrel show. Boldly Margaret Mahy is reduced to lips, teeth and eye slits on a background of horizontal stripes – primitive at a puppetry at a carnival.
Strangely Familiar may be more about the razzmatazz showmanship of projecting the image of being an artist than it is about the artists themselves.
Strangely Familiar: Portraits by Wayne Youle. New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington, until 18 June 2017