Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Eadweard Muybridge in motion

Was Eadweard Muybridge the first artist to predict cinema with his work?

If you are in London before 16 January, one show that you should not miss is the Eadweard Muybridge exhibition currently getting rave numbers at Tate Britain. While he was certainly a 19th century artist, the implications of his discoveries remain every bit as gripping and influential as they were a century ago.

Muybridge’s art is a visual template for how photography may combine research and with scientific discovery. His work is utterly innovative.

Background to the exhibit can be found at:

Michael Wilson writes very well about the many inventions of the artist.

Was Muybridge a scientist, a photographer or an artist? Or was he all three at once?

David Campany has also written a fascinating essay about the on-going influence of Muybridge’s photo-sequences. You can access this text online:

If you want to find out a whole lot of information on Muybridge from one source, I recommend you go straight to:

To understand the process of step frame photography check out:

The Muybridgizer is an astonishing user-based network of how the artist’s way of seeing can be applied to the world today. Utilise your iPhone; here is their blurb: “The Muybridgizer allows iPhone photographers to take pictures inspired by the iconic works of early photographer Eadweard Muybridge.”

Here is a link to the Apple itunes application:

Monday, 29 November 2010

Auckland Art Gallery 100 years ago

Here are two images of the Auckland Art Gallery 100 years ago. The first is a real photograph, the second is a chromolithograph. Interesting to note that the photographer has made a number of shots at the same time. The cart in the real photo has been moved from the corner entrance, to the Auckland Library, further down the street in the other card. The man in front of the window must have been asked to stand there for quite some time.

This third card shows you how the photo has been included as part of a collage. Apparently, from the writing on the back of the postcard, images of Auckland's buildings were a very common subjects for postcards in this city. But why is there a telephone pole in this shot? Has this been removed from the other images?

Friday, 26 November 2010

Free talk from filmmaker Vincent Ward

We have a truly talented New Zealander speaking at the Gallery tomorrow.
Acclaimed Kiwi filmmaker Vincent Ward will be giving an illustrated talk about his new book, The Past Awaits: People, Images, Film.

He's best known for films like the recent Rain of the Children, as well as Vigil, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, Map of the Human Heart and River Queen.

A trained artist, his films are noted for their powerful visual style, and his work has been recognised by many awards - including an Oscar for visual effects in 1999 for his film What Dreams May Come.

The Past Awaits explores the imagery in Ward's films to date as well as functioning as a "part-memoir", discussing the background behind each project and his thematic interests.

Ward says his book is "about the search to stay whole through making films... being inspired by the people I have worked with and made films about, and how by seeing these lives it is perhaps easier to see more clearly into my own".

It's already receiving rave reviews. Here's Sir Peter Jackson's opinion:

"To read The Past Awaits is to take a journey, not just into the wonderfully gifted imagination of Vincent Ward, but into his heart and soul. These images have a power and strength that goes way beyond the context of the film they belong to. They present the spirit of New Zealand - and this remarkable New Zealander."

Vincent Ward will be speaking at 12pm tomorrow in the Art Lounge - full details here. You can also hear interviews he's conducted with Radio NZ film critic Simon Morris and RadioLive.

And after Vincent Ward's talk, stick around as curator Alexa Johnston gives a free tour of our new exhibition Call Waiting: A Celebration of the NEW Gallery 1995-2011.

A brilliant essay by Charles Brasch

In 1958, the Gallery’s then Director, Peter Tomory, prepared the important exhibition – A Private Collection of New Zealand Paintings - which sampled the collection of artworks that Charles Brasch and Rodney Kennedy had gathered over many years at Dunedin.

Here is a link to the exhibition’s catalogue held in the E.H.McCormick Research Library. This is one of the earliest catalogues to document a private art collection in New Zealand:

I thought that it is now time to profile Peter Tomory’s introductory remarks and re-present the excellent essay that the Gallery commissioned from Charles Brasch. He raises issues about contemporary art that are still being discussed.

Professor Paul Millar is currently preparing the official biography of Charles Brasch and Dr Peter Simpson has recently published a terrific account of the association that this esteemed poet, editor and collector had with Colin McCahon.

M T Woollaston, Charles Brasch from memory
1938, charcoal

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Mr Colin McCahon, 1961
I am very grateful to Alan Roddick and to the Estate of Charles Brasch for permission to re-publish Brasch’s essay. They generously agreed with me in recognising that Charles’ essay needed to be more accessible.

Charles Brasch and Rodney Kennedy have been acquiring pictures for many years so that now their collection is certainly the most extensive and carefully chosen in the Dominion. Like all private collections it exhibits the collectors' taste, but apart from this it is a matter of some gratification both to the artists and all those interested in the furtherance of serious art in New Zealand to find at least one collection which demonstrates both the judgement of its owners and the confidence they have in the painters of their own land. We are most grateful to Mr Brasch and Mr Kennedy for selecting the pictures and very generously lending them for this exhibition.

August 1958

The first foreshadowings of what we may now venture to call the New Zealand imagination, although as yet we can only perceive it dimly, began to appear some thirty years ago. A century of European settlement had laid at least a foundation of history and experience in our small contained world; more than one generation had grown up accepting this foundation as their own, and thinking of life on these islands, poor though it might be in the amenities of civilization, as in no way unusual, but simply as life itself. On that foundation of the ordinary and everyday, New Zealanders at last began to build themselves a shelter for their as yet homeless imagination.

A country or a people does not properly exist until it has created its own imaginative world. Men need that world if they are to live fully and well in
the everyday world, for the everyday alone never satisfies them. They are impelled to seek, in the imagery of words, forms, colours, rhythms, a perfected
life more shapely and profound and intense than their outward daily lives, one in which they may discover recollections and prophecies, visions and fulfilments, of all that they think and feel and imagine, all that they hear and see, in those moments when their sense of life is at its deepest and keenest.

In the best New Zealand painting of today we may recognize some of the first works of imagination conceived in terms of the experience of life in New Zealand. They are not what we might have expected; but then works of imagination do not answer expectation — that is not their function; on the contrary, they habitually confound expectation; they are born to surprise and delight, to remake the common world instead of merely rehearsing it over and over again, to show us all we thought we knew in a wholly fresh light and with strange and moving significances; in short, to create, not to repeat.

The best contemporary painting (and literature, and music) is in fact creating New Zealand as a world of the imagination. This is a new development among us, which makes the present a particularly exciting and hopeful time to live in, because in these first stirrings of the native imagination an undiscovered world seems to be waking and opening before our eyes. In that world we may look for an expression of our spiritual identity as a people.

Earlier painting in New Zealand shows the country through the eyes of painters who saw the world as Europeans; their work forms what might be called our imaginative pre-history. Then come the painters who grew up in New Zealand yet painted like Europeans because they had been taught to approach painting as a European activity. It is only within the last thirty years or so that painters have taken for granted that painting is a New Zealand activity too, so that they interpret the world, literally everything they see, in New Zealand terms.

The pictures in this show include work of all three phases, but most of them belong to the last. They were not got together on a particular plan, with the idea of forming a collection; we bought such work as happened to come our way, and that interested us because it seemed to possess a certain imaginative quality; much of it was the work of our friends, which we were best able to follow. The show is thus in no way a representative one, and it includes no drawings; several of the best New Zealand painters of today (not to mention the past) are not represented in it, because we have not been lucky enough to come across good examples of their work.

Charles Brasch

It is useful to keep in mind what Charles Brasch wrote nearly eight years earlier about Colin McCahon’s landscapes of the immediate postwar years:

Their harshness, their frequent crudity, may seem shocking at first; but if we are honest with ourselves we have to admit that these qualities reflect with painful accuracy a rawness and harshness in New Zealand life which are too easily passed by or glossed over; a parallel may be found here with some of Frank Sargeson’s stories – and not his alone. There is a bitter and unpalatable truth in these paintings: they tell us something about ourselves which had not been made plain before.(Charles Brasch, ‘A note on the Work of Colin McCahon’, Landfall, volume 4, number 4, December 1950, page 338.)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Tangi – a poem by J. C. Sturm

With the terrible news of the tragedy at the West Coast, I wondered what words could be of comfort.

I telephoned John Baxter to ask if I could place here the poem Tangi written by his mother Jacquie Sturm. John kindly agreed and I am most grateful to him. Jacquie’s literary executor, Professor Paul Millar, generously allowed me to print this powerful poem in its entirety.


Think of the many dead, you
Who would lie with your dead
In the whare nui
Beneath the kowhaiwhai
Before the tukutuku
Below the tupuna
Who watch over
All who lie here,
The living and the dead.

Think of him who lies
Beside you, separate now.
Mihi to him
He is lonely,
Tangi for him
He does not want to go.
Tangi for those
Who tangi for him.
Tangi with those
Who tangi for you.
Mihi and tangi
Will bind you,
Bind you together.

Remember your dead.
The very young
Taken so soon,
The strong axed down
In their pride,
The very old
Who simply slipped away.
Mihi to them
Tangi for them
Be bound with them.

Imagine those before
The ones before
The ones you knew.
Think and imagine:
How it was for them,
So it will be
The same for you.
Tangi for them
Tangi for you
Lie there, lie there
Bound with the living
And your dead.


Wednesday, 24 November 2010

digital.nz – 3

Thanks to everyone who responded so helpfully to my postings about data on digital.nz. Trailing through their responses, I wondered why there is so little material brought up about Toss Woollaston while there is a great deal more about other artists like Colin McCahon? It appears that not all of Toss's artwork in our public collections is being delivered yet to digital.nz portal.

Thinking about it further I realised that the data accuracy issue is always connected with what is visual versus with what is textual. Visual material always seems to bring up issues related to an image that are more associational. Consequently, more haphazard. For instance, Tilly Frankl is not associated with Toss Woollaston other than he had lessons with Robert Field at Dunedin, who was the sculptor of Tilly’s head in stone.

I undertook another search on digital.nz about Brian Brake (do not miss Athol McCredie's Brian Brake show!) and this brought up 3608 images, many of which are now in the care of Te Papa. Three of my favourite results from this search directed me again to some of the terrific films that Brian made for the New Zealand Film Unit. His personality and interests come through strongly in these short samples and I recommend them. You can see how Brian looks at people very clearly here:




Incidentally, thanks to Art + Object, last weekend I joined a group tour of the house that Ron Sang designed for Brian Brake in Titirangi . Ron gave a moving account of how he came to design this home, which has to be one of the finest houses in New Zealand.

I was lucky enough to visit this miracle of a home many years ago while it still retained Brian's original furnishings and art. I have never forgotten that experience.

Ron commented on how he had to include a consideration of all of Brian’s furniture in his blueprint designs.

For two of Becky Nune’s images of the house’s later interior see this posting from Home New Zealand’s blog. It is not the original furniture, but you will see why this is one great example of Ron Sang’s astounding ability to relate interior to exterior.


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Family fun at the Big Day Art

The Gallery's annual Big Day Art was held at the weekend - and it was a roaring success! A total of 738 people poured into the NEW Gallery for a whole day of art-making, workshops, performances and family fun, making it our biggest Big Day Art event ever.

People took part in weaving workshops:
Drum lessons:
And made their own stick towers...
... after a workshop with artist Peter Madden (pictured with his work Necropolous from our current exhibition, Call Waiting)
They watched dance performances....
... listened to music by the Sri Chinmoy choir...
... and hung out with the presenters of Sticky TV, who were a big hit!
Our director Chris Saines says it was fantastic for the Gallery to be so "comprehensively family friendly" - and it sounds like the public agreed! We received so much positive feedback from visitors who enjoyed the atmosphere and the way the whole family could experience everything on offer.

Check out this pair - part of a group of four young adults who decided it'd been way too long since they'd had their faces painted. They even encouraged this guy to get made up as a girl panda, complete with bow!
Did you attend the Big Day Art? Let me know what you thought! And for anyone who missed out, remember we have KidsClub activities every weekend at the Gallery - more info here.

- Amy Williams

digitalnz - 2

Here is the link to a copyright photograph taken by Mel Hodgkinson on March 10 2007 at Government House in Wellington that has been loaded onto flickr.com


The photograph is credited at digitalnz as being an image related to Toss Woollaston, one of whose paintings is displayed on the rooms of this reception room.

It could just as easily be indexed as an image of numerous British royal family portraits displayed on the grand piano at Government House. In fact, the photographs are more recognisable as an image. To discover which Woollaston painting was on display at this official residence in 2007 would require cross-referencing with the Te Papa collection.

How one catalogues source data connected to documents and images always determines how they are electronically indexed. This was the point of my posting the inaccurate Auckland Museum documentation related to my father’s experience as a soldier in Italy. When wrong information is associated with images then it is not always simple to correct it.

Another search result from seeking “Toss Woollaston” at digitalnz brings up Robert Field’s Head of Tilly Frankl in this Gallery’s collection. It gives no reason for the association with Woollaston and only those in the know would realise that he had met her. Yet, how did this sculpture get placed within a “Toss Woollaston” search?


A surprising result is this - if you search digitalnz for Toss Woollaston you only get 98 results. This means that the majority of Woollaston artworks held in New Zealand’s museums are not yet appear to be indexed by digital.nz.

Correcting incorrect data means going back to the source institution and informing them of their error and requesting that the information be updated.

Monday, 22 November 2010

digitalnz and my Dad!

digitalnz is a portal to many museum collections that are online in New Zealand. I never expected to be not only informed but shocked when I consulted it recently and found a bit of information that is not only incorrect, it is also inaccurate. So, now I have to get the on-line information altered. That may not be easy so I will give a report back.

Here is what I looked at. I give both the Auckland Museum collection portal:
and the digitalnz portal:

This is the entry:
Ronald Charles Brownson
Ronald Charles

World War II, 1939-1945




Mrs E. Brownson (mother), 13 Mamie Street, Remuera, Auckland, New Zealand

Infantry Reinforcements
Cartoon/painting of Joe Glenn in Rome in September 1945. Shown lying under a wine cask drinking from the tap.
Cartoon/painting of Jo Glenn and Ronald Brownson. Both men shows holding onto posts, carrying wine and gin bottles, with red noses, saying to one another "Are you Joe", "Are you Ron'. These drawings may be with work of Ronald Brownson - to be confirmed.

What is wrong is this: Dad was not a butcher and he never drank gin!

Friday, 19 November 2010

An introduction and Call Waiting

I'm very excited to be making my first post here as the Auckland Art Gallery's online communications coordinator. I've spent my first week on the job making the rounds of all the AAG staff (so many faces and names to remember!), getting trained up and and covering screeds of paper with lists and plans and brainstorming.

I'll be looking after the Gallery's official website, the Whakamīharo Lindauer online site, this blog and our Facebook and Twitter accounts along with all sorts of other web-based projects - stay tuned for updates, and drop me a line if you've got any feedback!

It's an exciting time to be joining the Gallery, with the building redevelopment coming along in leaps and bounds and planning for the grand reopening exhibitions in full swing. Right now staff are putting the finishing touches on our next exhibition, titled Call Waiting: A celebration of the NEW Gallery 1995-2011. It's opening tomorrow and runs until May next year - make sure you get along to see it!

This is my favourite kind of exhibition: an eclectic, quirky collection of well-loved pieces with a couple of surprises thrown in. Curated by Alexa Johnston, Call Waiting takes us on a journey through the history of the NEW Gallery building and the exhibitions it's held to date.

Here are a couple of behind-the-scenes shots of the works being installed yesterday:

Works by Judy Darragh and Gretchen Albrecht are already up

The preparators and designers at work

Colourful tivaevae artworks

So much colour and texture!
Will you be coming along to see Call Waiting? Or do you have any requests for what kind of content you'd like to see more of on this blog? Share your thoughts in the comments - I look forward to hearing from you.

Photos by Jennifer French

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The New Zealand Room 1

I am never asked why there are so few snapshot photographs of the interior of New Zealand’s domestic rooms from the years 1900 to 1910. There are some interior views but these were made by professional photographers. Amateur ones are scarce. The technology of the time just did not permit candid photography within interiors.

The most recent source for early photographs of New Zealand Rooms is Anna K.C.Peterson’s book New Zealanders at Home: A Cultural History of Domestic Interiors 1814-1914, University of Otago, and Dunedin 2001 [ISBN 1877276146]. In this book, Anna gives the most comprehensive overview yet produced of the ‘look’ of domestic life during this period.

During the years 1900-1910 there was an interesting practice of ‘house portraits’. You begin living in a new home, or you rent one, and then have it photographed. Sometimes the house portrait was made by a talented amateur or by a local studio photographer that offered on-site work.

If we look at 5 examples of these exterior house portraits we can see much about what it was like to live in the these houses. They were much darker inside than how we now live. The evidence is from their window treatments.

Firstly, we see from Anna’s research that New Zealanders in the years 1880-1920, preferred to keep the light levels in their homes very low. Windows other than lead-lights were never free of drapery. Often there could be four types of blind – rolled Holland or rattan blinds, fixed or flounced lace side-curtains, pairs of side drapes that were always 100% opaque and made with in either a plain weave or chintz pattern, the newly fashionable wooden Venetian blinds and, more rarely, folding Roman blinds.

Anna Petersen notes: “Curtains played a large part in helping to regulate the amount of light allowed into a room by day. Lace inner curtains over Venetian blinds gave…a dappled look, with the heavy outer curtains probably used at night to help retain the heat of an open fire.” (page 96).

Not everyone could afford a medley of curtain types over their windows and would mostly cope with two window treatments for their main windows, particularly for the parlour and bedroom.

Here are sample of five house portraits from 1900 to 1910.

The first has the ubiquitous brown rolling Holland blind surrounded by side curtains. The brown Holland blinds are drawn to the middle of the double-hung window frame, probably as a fashion, as all windows have their blinds positioned exactly at half-mast.

This worker’s cottage has the most modest blinds possible – furled lace curtains draped tightly across a wire only in the bottom half of the window.

With a more substantial family home, lace window treatments were preferred as they represented a greater sophistication than Holland blinds could provide. Here, they cover the entire window frame.

Country homes would sometimes be more elaborate as the inhabitants were often more wealthy than townspeople. This imposing villa has half-mast Holland blinds, lace side curtains and half curtains covering the Holland blinds drawn to the centre of the window frame. The Holland blind not only reduces daylight into the room by 50%, it presents much more privacy for evenings. They never had any thermal purpose.

Perhaps the most modest of all these houses is this one with its unpainted weatherboards. With the half-drawn Holland blinds on windows and exceptionally thick lace, this house would have been the darkest of all five examples here.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Edward Weston

Unfortunately, this Gallery does not have an extensive, or even, representative collection of international photography. This results from the fact that until some decades ago international photography was not part of the gallery's acquisition policy. Prior to 1979, international photography was rarely ever shown.

Nevertheless, some interesting photographers work is held in the collection. I have written previously on artists like Florence Henri and Cecil Beaton. I thought you should see images of the four Edward Weston photographs we hold here. They are not vintage prints made by the artist but are posthumous prints made by his son, Cole Weston. Cole was as careful a photographic printer as his father, but these photographs do not have the same stature as prints created on vintage photographic paper by the artist himself.

Weston's print San Francisco has always intrigued me, it actually like it might have been a strangely cropped picture from the 19th century. Yet, this cropping which reveals that it could never have been from that period. The cropping further makes this picture fascinating to me. The combination of a 19th century barque, with its striking figurehead and the electric power poles is typical of Weston's surreal juxtapositions.

Hill and Telephone Poles has always been a favourite. It feels like a Grant Wood landscape made in the mid-West. Set amongst rolling hills, it has aged and rickety fences next to a bitumen road. It is hot and dry; a lonely place somewhere in middle America. Weston was one of America's most committed independent photographers between the World Wars. He was obsessed with telling stories about places by revealing a location's unique reality.

Weston believed that his approach to image-making was 100% objective. His large format camera and negative supported his own notion that he was securing evidence of the way things 'looked'. The fact is, Weston was not so neutral about his subjects. His photo-eye is filled with metaphorical parallels, vegetables represent sensual experience and simple landscapes propose complex Zen-like responses to nature's energy.

Iceberg Lake has all the ambiguity that I expect from a great Weston photograph. Almost prosaic, with no real centre to the image, this photograph breaks from its edges in the ways that an Arshile Gorky drawing does.

Cypress, Point Lobos comes from Weston's last period in an isolated area of California. The wind, sea, rocks and trees of that battered coastline become symbols of the war years. Chaos is everywhere and the landscape is shown to be suffering. Wilderness and wartime become disturbing parallels.

When art student Paul Armstrong first showed me reproductions of Edward Weston's photographs I had a priggish reaction. I thought they were so bland that they were almost inert. I 'saw' nothing evocative in them. How much my regard for Edward Weston has changed. He will never be angsty like Robert Frank or despairing like Diane Arbus, but he had one of America's searing eyes. His tendency to mix his life with his art makes him, for me, a somewhat romantic artist. Like a John Wayne with camera.

San Francisco 1925 (printed later)
black and white photograph

Hill and Telephone Poles 1937 (printed later)
black and white photograph

Iceberg Lake 1937
black and white photograph

Cypress, Point Lobos 1944 (printed later)
black and white photograph

Friday, 12 November 2010

Taryn Simon’s Forensics of America

Taryn Simon is a camera artist that I admire with trepidation. Her work is challenging and it is brave. It is also disturbing for how it sees America. This is very serious photography at a high level of public ambition. One that is as much to be wary of, as it is to be admired. In a word: significant.

I am intrigued with the echoes operating out of Taryn Simon’s photo-essay An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Not through any explicit dialect but via her Ultra-American twang. I enjoy Taryn’s visual affirmation of America’s ‘homeliness’. Her images share America’s story with images that we have never encountered before. Their carefully chosen titles determine how we react. Without the titles, we can overlook this artist’s intent.

Most of her photograph’s titles are seemingly banal. They infect us with an unknown America – Live HIV, Playboy – Braille Edition, Death Row Outdoor Recreational Facility, "The Cage". Taryn’s project is additive and it is also sequential. Any photograph from the series, American Index, comes across as evidence at some trial caused by the location. When juxtaposed with other images, they mix a lethal cocktail.

Here is an artist who disrupts how we comprehend America by revealing places we not only have never visited; we have never even imagined existed. She couples her forensic research with the allure of America. Her images render that nation as if it is seen through a perverse public mirror.

Taryn utilises extensive research for both the identification and background of her subjects. She works much like a Pinkerton detective, selecting subjects never encountered by the public. None of her images exist in a ‘to be expected’ category. Rather, they scare us with their take on ugliness. Does America actually look good here? No, but does a country’s ‘good looks’ really matter?

OK - I said this already but I must emphasise it again. Taryn’s project shows us what we have never seen. She does not want us to react to her images with a wimpy response but through our gut. The Index reports on the uncanny. There is a hook to these images, the titles capture one and force you into becoming an involuntary voyeur.

Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) remains the greatest modern photo-essay about what being ‘American’ means. In this remarkable book, Roberts includes the essay which he commissioned from Jack Kerouac. Jack who later sent the photographer a card stating, “That photo you sent me of a guy looking over his cow on the Platte River is to me a photo of a man recognising his own mind’s existence, no matter what.”

Taryn Simon mirrors Robert Frank’s approach to the eerie, while she waits for America to reveal itself to us as filled with strange places. Her Index is an anatomy of America’s contemporary melancholy. It reports on the underknown. Oddity is as present in her images as it is in Poe’s tales of the mysteriously woebegone. With Index, an abject eye ponders what is disconsolate. Reality’s truths become plain creepy. Alienation walks away from the beautiful and cherishes the wretched.

Taryn’s art reminds me how pervasive our need is for cultural signposts. How to get to where we inhabit via signs pointing to the unseen, the unvisited, to places where we know nothing. We need signs to see where we are going in America. Yet, understanding signs is a separate matter. Secrecy is always close by in Taryn’s Index.

Taryn has an exceptional website:

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Andy Leleisi’uao and the McCahon House Trust

Andy Leleisi'uao has just completed his term as the 12th McCahon House Trust Artist in Residence. This residency has now established itself as one of the most significant artist mentoring programmes in New Zealand. It may well be our most important residency for visual artists.

As recent McCahon House artists Ava Seymour and Lisa Reihana have also proved, this residency has a record of bringing a group of supporters, based around the McCahon Trust, together to assist a contemporary artist to focus upon a new body of work.

In a report to the McCahon House Trust, Andy wrote, “I have always felt the profile of the McCahon House and selected artists challenges audience perspective and participation on multiple fronts. I hope I touched on some of these elements during my tenure... My interim at McCahon House was a wonderful experience punctuated with joy, purpose, satisfaction and duty.”

I attended the opening event at Whitespace where Deborah White had invited Terry Faleono, latterly of MAU, to perform in relation to the 18-part painting that Andy was showing a large segment from. All present new that they were experiencing an integration of Samoan art and dance.

Photograph of Terry Faleono: Courtesy of Whitespace

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Ben Cauchi

I have already secured two Ben Cauchi photographs for the Gallery’s collection. The Chartwell Trust have acquired three examples of his beguiling art. Looking at these images again, I realised I should invite Ben to comment on his work. Ben sensibly noted that artist’s statements have a “habit of becoming definitive.” So, these are not final words on his images, just some recent words to mix with mine.

Certain photographs remain within you long after they are seen before your eyes. Peter Ireland has alluded to this fact on a number of occasions in his telling writings about the image-driven impact that results from photography's presence.

For me, Ben’s images have an hypnagogic intensity – once seen, never forgotten. The quality I call wall power! They are gifts to place in one’s imaginative picture library. I look at Ben Cauchi’s Loaded Palm in this way. The photograph has a palpable and votive presence; it resonates just like sentences written by Samuel Beckett:

“Memories are killing. So you must not think of certain things, of those that are dear to you, or rather you must think of them, for if you don’t there is the danger of finding them, in your mind, little by little.”
Samuel Beckett, The Expelled, 1946

One is offered the man’s palm not in a gesture of greeting but as visual evidence of a branding with text. Ethnic branding. Instead of pain, here is a tender declaration of the well-known word that carries so much meaning here in Aotearoa New Zealand – it is our word - PAKEHA.

I recall the first recorded written usage of Pakeha occurred in a letter written by William Hall to the Church Missionary Society on the 15 June 1814 -“They…expressed their joy by saying ‘Nuee nuee rangateeda pakeha – a very great Gentleman white man’.”

The sepia tone of Loaded Palm lets the work feel antique, like a visual relic from the 19th century. The photograph is imbued with another period by the hand being silhouetted against its seamless background. The hand’s action puts this hand's action in active conversation with the past.

Loaded Palm was one of a suite of 10 photographs I made shortly after deciding to leave tertiary study and attempt an existence doing what I wanted to do. I called the suite, none too subtlety, Building the Empire. It wasn’t just an exuberant attempt at positive visualisation; I was referring more specifically to various histories, both real and constructed, and trying to draw links between them. With this one, I was particularly interested in branded identity - both in terms of local historical traditions and also thinking of the well known Southworth and Hawes daguerreotype of a branded hand (something I revisited a few years later with a tintype called The Photographer's Hand). The left hand is significant as it afforded the right to print neatly.”
Ben Cauchi

Loaded Palm is doubly 'loaded' because of its dialogue with Southworth and Hawes sixth-plate daguerreotype of Captain Jonathan Walker’s branded hand of August 1845 (the hand is branded with SS, for ‘slave saviour’ or ‘slave steeler’ as Walker had helped 7 African American men to gain their ‘Life, Liberty and Happiness’). Ben's aspect of referencing a backstory, a parallel narrative, is what singles his work out for visual exchange. Loaded Palm is both a potent indictment and an affirmation, evidence and recognition. A palimpsest expressed by the action of an open hand.

Loose Canvas has an exquisite ambiguity. Are we looking at a miniature textile radiant with light? Or is it a larger weaving that is acting like a lamp, a veil of illumination. The canvas looks back lit, is this canvas hung against a window within a room shadowed by its own darkness? The canvas needs the surrounding murkiness to be what it is, a draped bright sentinel. Always the question remains, what is behind this light?

Light, as a subject and an effect, are always put to terrific use in Ben’s photographs. Never more eloquently than in Loose Canvas. Like the veil of Saint Veronica, this textile acts like a rectangular oriole and sacred nimbus. It reminds me of the meteorological effect known as the ‘occluded front’, where you are physically close to something but cannot ascertain the nature of its reality.

Loose Canvas is not about any one thing in particular – and more specifically, isn’t really about what it says it is. The object in the photograph has it’s own qualities, which is fine. Generally, though, what I am more interested in is how something works symbolically. With this one in particular, the main focus for me was Light as a subject in it’s own right. That and the lack of anything else.”
Ben Cauchi

It took me some years to find Ben’s Self-portrait. Not any self-portrait, as I have seen quite a few of them, but the one that had to be 'captured' for Auckland Art Gallery. The perfectly suited public instance of visual memory living on as a self-encounter. The Gallery has not collected many self-portraits and very few by artists who are living now.
I wanted one of Ben’s self-portrait’s that had the equivocation and enigma that I so admire in his images of himself. They appear to echo the compositional rules of a mug shot – close-up, somewhat confrontational, and physiognomic in their remit to record appearance before personality. Yet, there is plenty of personality in this self-portrait, because it is near to a meeting with the artist’s own doppelganger. Knowing the Self-portrait before I met the artist I surprised myself by not recognising Ben in real life. I thought "you are not your self portrait."
“In terms of the Self-portrait, it was one of two plates I made that day. I was in the middle of an 8-month residency in Whanganui. It was going well, although I think the temporary nature of that environment can play on one’s mind slightly (not that that's necessarily a bad thing). At the time, I was thinking of Salvator Rosa’s Self-portrait held in the National Gallery in London. I particularly like the inscription in the bottom corner of the painting Aut tace aut loquere meliora silentio which roughly translates as either be silent or speak better than silence, in other words, shut up or say something useful. It's a good motto. The sentiment eventually grew into this tintype Say nothing (2008), an alternative approach.”
Ben Cauchi

A Remnant, from 2009, shows, Ben tells me, "the cardboard base for a notepad." It seems old and fragmentary. A noble ruin in its most modest incarnation; here we encounter the remains of what has once been written on. As with all his photography, time pervades the image as if it is both weighted and weightless. This top-lit detritus has mysterious import. Why keep it other than to photograph it as cast-off residue? Of what?

The Way of All Things is suffused with what I call the melancholy of lost storage. My home is filled with such age, patina and sculptural presence which is always more important to me than mere function and daily practicality. Yet, these old cubbyholes have been useful to many people but have not seen any letters or messages for years. They wait like ‘saints and martyrs’, to gloss T.S. Eliot.
Ben’s point of view is always as potent as his presentation – here boxes self-repeat themselves within a box frame. It is a theatrical trope, as is much of his work, but this image is theatrical because it is not fabricated to be photographed, as some of his other photographs are. That old phrase "the dead letter" office comes to mind. Second from the left at top, one of these niches is inscribed with the number 34; none of the other units is numbered. What has have been the uses of cubbyhole 34?

I noted earlier the parallels I feel between Ben's photographs and the writings of Samuel Beckett. Sam is frequently misperceived as an absurdist but is, actually a realist infected with three interwoven creative strains, all of which are devoid of sentimentality: melancholy, nostalgia, memory.
It seems to me that Ben Cauchi’s wonderful images inhabit a parallel territory grasping life and bringing a mirror to its surface to declare imitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis. The drama within these images is a mirror of human behavior, an image of human truth.

Samuel Beckett put this visual affirmation of encounter another way, but it is equally convincing: “Enough. Sudden enough. Sudden all far. No move and sudden all far. All least. Three pins. One pinhole. In dimmost dim. Vasts apart. At bounds of boundless void. Whence no farther. Best worse no farther. Nohow less. Nohow worse. Nohow naught. Nohow on.”
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, 1983

Ben Cauchi makes photographs that I never ignore. They are already some of the key photographs made in Aotearoa.

Loaded Palm 2002-2006
gold toned printing out paper print
200 x 250mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2006

Loose Canvas 2007
240 x 200mm
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2009

Self-portrait 2005
350 x 270mm
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2006

A Remnant 2009
wet collodion on acrylic
510 x 425mm
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2010

The Way of All Things 2010
wet collodion on acrylic
274 x 360mm
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2010

Agnes Martin’s words

On the night after the Walters Prize 2010 gala dinner, I was out again for another special meal and I was fortunate enough to be able to look at a staggering suite of prints by Agnes Martin. Her works on paper are every bit as ravishing as her paintings. They are both more intimate and more sequential, as you would expect from a suite of small works.

I wondered how many local people knew that Agnes wrote about art. She was certainly one of the great modern American artists. Agnes was not only a mystic painter, she was a writer concerned with transcendence. Few of her writings are well known.
The best source for her Agnes's texts is the impressive anthology Agnes Martin Writings/Schriften edited by Dieter Schwarz for Cantz, on the occasion of Agnes’s show Agnes Martin: Paintings and Works on Paper 1960 – 1989 held at the Kunstmuseum, Winterthur (19 January to March 15 1992).

In 1979, the University of New Mexico invited Agnes to deliver a lecture. It was a knockout presentation. She called it The Current of the River of Life Moves Us. Her text is filled with authoritative aphorisms:

“The art work in the Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum does not illustrate ideas.
The great and fateful pitfall in the art field and in life is dependence on the intellect rather than inspiration.”

Later in that lecture she added:
“Dependence on inspiration means dependence on consciousness, a growing consciousness that develops from beauty and happiness.”

Such assurance and self-confidence is quelling. There is no irony or cynicism in Agnes Martin’s words.
Another of her key texts, The Untroubled Mind, is even more effectively skewed towards her art being evidence of self-revelation. This text was first published in Flash Art 41 in June 1973.
The original is too lengthy to quote here, so here is just a sample:

“…I didn’t paint the plane
I just drew this horizontal line
Then I found out about all the other lines
But I realized what I liked was the horizontal line
Then I painted the two rectangles
Correct composition
If they’re just right
You can’t get away from what you have to do
They arrive at an interior balance
Like there shouldn’t need to be anything added.”

Some years back, while she was visiting New Zealand on research, I asked curator Lynn Cooke what she thought of Agnes Martin’s work. In a nanosecond, I saw that Lynn was a committed fan of the artist. In her important essay on Agnes, Lynn quotes the artist:

“I would like my work to be recognized as being in the classical tradition (Coptic, Egyptian, Greek, Chinese), as representing the Ideal in the mind. Classical art cannot possibly be eclectic. One must see the ideal in one's own mind. It is like a memory - an awareness -of perfection.”

You can read Lynn’s essay on courtesy of the Dia Art Center at:

In her essay’s conclusion, Lynn presents an important summation about how Agnes’s writings have altered our perception of her art:

“Martin has continued to publish statements, lectures, inspirational homilies, and journal entries, as well as granting many interviews. Widely circulated, often independently of her art, they have made her something of a guru. As her moral and spiritual pursuit of an untroubled mind has gained public attention, the reception of her art has shifted, so that it has increasingly been situated in relation to the abstract sublime and the visual epiphanies and revelations incited by that artistic sensibility.”

For a 1997 video interview with Agnes Martin, I recommend:
The portrait of Agnes Martin reproduced above, circa 1940s, is courtesy of:

Monday, 1 November 2010

Brian Brake and Peter Peryer

I was lucky enough to catch the first days of Te Papa’s impressive exhibition Brian Brake – Lens on the World. On opening day, it was very crowded with an audience fascinated to encounter so many unfamiliar photographs. There was an impressive selection of Brian’s magazine sequences, including the famous Monsoon project published in Life magazine.

It was actually a weekend of art talks and art events at Wellington and I chose to attend the floor talks given by Athol McCredie and John Turner. They could not have had a larger or more interested audience. Athol introduced Brian’s career, beginning with his black and white portraits taken in Spencer Digby’s studio. He then outlined his work with Magnum photo agency and the important images that he made for the very popular book New Zealand - Gift of the Sea (1963), which has a fine text written by Maurice Shadbolt.

John Turner further provided a parallel overview of Brian Brake’s work. He noted, in relation to the Pablo Picasso material, that this work might not be a photo-essay as such; rather it is a record of one day where he followed Picasso having lunch with family and friends and then attending a bullfight with them. Both Athol and John’s talks were complimentary and brought out the significance of this exhibition project for Te Papa, who care for Brian Brake’s photographic archive.

Large monographic exhibitions of New Zealand photographers are not common, so it was a real pleasure to be able to spend a couple of afternoons studying this carefully conceived project. The associated publication is outstanding with fine essays by Athol McCredie, Lissa Mitchell, John B Turner, Gael Newton, Peter Ireland and Damian Skinner. All the photographs have been reproduced with much care. I am certain that Brian Brake would have been impressed with this excellent book.

Attending the Te Papa talks prevented me from going along to the Hamish McKay Gallery to hear Peter Peryer talk in his current exhibition. I was pleased to see that Hamish and his staff took the initiative of video recording Peter’s talk and placing it on line. Surely, this must a first for a New Zealand dealer gallery. A great way of ensuring that an artist’s talk can be accessed after the event!

You can access Peter’s talk at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8g06ycCiqIM