Friday, 23 December 2011

Eric Resetar

Rod MacLeod asked me to post his tribute to Eric Resetar:

"I would just like to let people know that Eric Resetar, one of the original pioneers of comics in New Zealand, has died at the age of 83. He was well known by much of the front of house staff for his visits to the art gallery over the last few years, usually to visit me and exchange DVDs of old movies that we shared. Eric was one of the main stars of the Cartoon Show in 2001-2 where his original comics were shown in the NZ comic art section. He was also honoured with a huge blow up of his early drawings in the specially built and decorated room alongside the work of Barry Linton, Cornelius Stone and the late Marty Emond.

I met him while researching the show and we got on like a house on fire. He was living in a tiny clutter filled pensioner flat in Onehunga and was quite bemused by being the centre of attention for a few weeks. He famously made comics while still a teenager during the war, with help from his brother Ian who saw his younger brothers talent and passion. Inspired by Buck Rogers he created Crash Carson, and most famously, Crash O’Kane, an All Black on Mars, selling up to 10,000 copies of his titles, many to American GI’s. Eric never married and ran a number of second-hand bookshops throughout Auckland. Held in high respect by comic makers in New Zealand, the annual comic awards, the Erics, are named after him."
Rod MacLeod

Emily Dickinson

Throughout Emily Dickinson’s poetry, she mentions God and Heaven.
I always find it fascinating to link her work with portraits from the time of the American Civil War. If ever there was a time when photography recorded emotion in the faces of people, it is in the ambrotypes made of soldiers taken in New York’s photographic studios. Here is such a pairing. An Emily Dickinson poem and a double portrait of unknown soldiers.

His musket on his breast;
Grant, God, he charge the bravest
Of all the martial blest.

Please God, might I behold him
In epauletted white,
I should not fear the foe then,
I should not fear the fight.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Harvey Benge

I am often asked which camera artist has published the most photography books in New Zealand. Twenty years ago, the answer would have been either Brian Brake or Robin Morrison. Not now.

At last count, Harvey Benge has published 35 books. That is a phenomenal achievement. Harvey is a natural maker of books.

His two latest books are Truth and Various Deceptions and Paris Diary, November 2011. He thinks carefully about how his photographs are sequenced. Frequently, there is an undercurrent of narrative in his editorial choices. I have long been a fan of how he sees people – it is both intimate and revelatory. He likes young people and understands their world with notable empathy.

Where once there was a humour, now there is a deeper underpinning of an emotional bandwith, Instead of taking a superficial smarty-pants approach to street photography he applies a forensic eye on what he is discovering.

His Paris Diary is tantamount to being an artist’s book that exists as a visual travelogue. Nothing is left to chance. I sense how he created his book as he walked about Paris, as if the book is a sequence of cinematic stills that he intuits will result in stimulating pairings and groupings. Recommended highly!

Harvey Benge
Paris Diary, November 2011 (four top images)
Truth and Various Deceptions (four lower images)
Photographs courtesy of Harvey Benge

Friday, 16 December 2011

Rest in Peace – Carmen Rupe

New Zealand has lost one of its most colourful and brave expatriates with the passing of Carmen Rupe in Sydney on 15 December after months of poor health. I only met her on three occasions but we became instant friends. Once, Carmen rescued me in Sydney from a nasty situation in the early morning and she has been a special person in my heart ever since. Visiting her International Coffee Lounge or Balcony Nightclub was to enter a realm of mystery and international style created by her own unique interpretation of antipodean glamour.

Born as Trevor Rupe at Taumaranui in 1935 and coming from a family of 13, she moved to Sydney and worked in Kings Cross during the late 1950s, performing in the renowned Les Girls revue as their first Maori drag performer.

Carmen campaigned over decades for the legalisation of prostitution, greater civil and abortion rights and for the legalisation of gay partnerships. Very many of the issues that she spent a lifetime advocating for are now legalised in our society.

Living as a drag queen for sixty years, she was a fierce opponent of discrimination based on either gender or sexuality. I regarded her an incarnation of humour, dignity, sincerity and warriorhood. She could range from being a hilarious companion to a terrifying protector within a nano-second. Her contribution to the GLBT communities of Australia and New Zealand has been immense.

Moe mai i to moenga roa.

Ron Brownson and Ngahiraka Mason

Unknown photographer
Carmen Rupe and Noel McKay at the Peter Pan Cabaret, Auckland 1975
Courtesy: Noel McKay

Unknown photographer
Carmen Rupe aged 74 2010
Courtesy: Passport Blogs

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The ‘near documentary’ vision of Jeff Wall

Throughout the 1970s, a camera artist like Walker Evans was lauded as a ‘documentary’ photographer. It was easy, then, to regard his work so simply. Such a skewed perspective was fashionable and a stance driven by the recognition that the Farm Security Administration’s photographic project resulted in some of the best portraits ever of America’s identity. As a plain record maker, Walker’s achievement was pigeonholed as that of a photographer who merely discovered his subjects rather than transformed our understanding of them.

Today, the term ‘documentary’ is used much more hesitantly. Post-modernism caused this shift because new approaches to camera work appeared that validated the trope of ‘fabricated to be photographed’ imagery. Two of the most notable practioners of this mode of image construction are Jeff Wall and Cindy Sherman.

Jeff Wall’s art has recently shifted in its nature and direction. It has become less art historical in its referencing and more connected with an expression of streetwise experience. Jeff has a fascinating show at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York until 21 January 2012. The gallery’s promotion of the show is perceptive: “In these new works the artist continues to address the neo-realist and near-documentary concerns at the core of his practice for the past decades.”

Near-documentary? Marian Goodman’s press-release further states that Wall’s art is a “hybrid integration of the documentary and the cinematographic, the ‘street’ and the monumental, two directions he has pursued simultaneously, while being partial to neither.” I would add that Jeff’s new images engage with youth culture and elegantly mess about with its chaos.

If you have seen Jeff Wall’s art then its physical scale is essential to its perception. The fact that his new photographs appear to be on the cusp of reality without ever representing reality is a key to how you can read them. Obviously, they are records of an instantaneous moment where action appears irreal. More than that, they are momentary dramas.

I am grateful to Marian for permission to reproduce Jeff’s photographs.

Jeff Wall
Boxing 2011
Colour photograph
87-3/4 x 119-1/2 x 2 in.
222.8 x 303.5 x 5.08 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris

Jeff Wall
Band and crowd 2011
Chromogenic print
92-1/2 x 168-3/4 x 2 in.
234.9 x 428.6 x 5.08 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York / Paris

Friday, 9 December 2011

Remembering Don Driver 1930–2011

It is a sad task to be asked to recall one of New Zealand’s most significant artists, Don Driver, who died in New Plymouth on Wednesday 8 December 2011.

Don, an intuitive, maverick artist, was virtually self-taught. He had an innate understanding of the power of images. This understanding, or vision, was informed and expanded by his voracious appetite for books about other cultures. The knowledge he absorbed while reading allowed Don to transcend his relative isolation in Taranaki and to make astonishingly original statements about the local condition.

His importance as an artist is reflected by the inclusion of the magnificent McKechnie Brothers Mural, 1967, in Auckland Art Gallery’s recently opened collection exhibition Toi Aotearoa. Don made this emblematic, abstract work for the New Plymouth engineering firm, using  the very products they manufactured. These industrial materials – the reflective drawn brass, copper and aluminium sheet and extruded aluminium sections – create dazzling surface patterns and relief textures.

In the 60s and 70s, he made minimalist abstract paintings and introduced both relief elements and new materials, like plastics, metals, acrylic sheets and pipes. Don was confident enough to work at large scales, both with canvas and in three dimensions. Movement between these different forms was effortless for the artist.

A pioneer of found art in New Zealand, he was always on the look out for discarded items like old tools and toys, dolls, packing tape, animal hides, chemical drums and the stained tarpaulins and sacks that are integral in his work.

There is a wonderful story that, when he needed worn doormats for a work, he ‘appropriated’ them from New Plymouth residents’ front doorsteps. Perplexed owners then discovered brand new replacements as they collected their morning papers.

I had the privilege to write on two of his works in the Gallery’s recent publication, Art Toi. These are the renowned assemblages Sugar and Spice, 1980, and Dried Blood, 1982, which, with its collected fertiliser sacks, garish coloured op-shop dresses, a scythe and pitchfork, remains a personal favourite.

Don Driver, Dried Blood, 1982
canvas, nylon, wool, hessian, and acrylic fabric, steel tube
Chartwell Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 1983

Dried Blood feels like a scene of ritual sacrifice – the agricultural implements symbolise death and the devil, and the dresses create the menacing associations we often find in Don’s art. Here, they talk about our relationship with the land and, more specifically, the grim reality of an agrarian landscape.

The flash of green in the top left of this work and orange diagonal visible under one of the dried blood sacks are sensed rather than seen, yet are nonetheless vital to the composition, demonstrating Don’s acute visual awareness.

Don imbued his works with the power of ritual objects from other cultures – he devoured books on African art and was an animated and avid collector of centuries-old Hindu deities, including Shiva, Kali and Ganesha. He would often carry these objects in his pockets like talismans, constantly caressing their worn curves as others might a rosary.

He mounted these figures on small blocks of wood that he painted in bright colours. Always these Indian colours – ochres, terracotta, acid pinks and lapis lazuli blues – connected the sculptures back to the everyday rituals of their home. Colour was important to Don – it was a life force in his art.

Writing this brings to mind a personal memory from 20 years ago. When my family would leave New Plymouth to travel north, we had a ritual of stopping at coastal Tongaporutu. From there we would look back to the mountain, Taranaki. On our return, we always did the same thing, stopping to rest and to view the landscape. I remember one trip, when the first thing we encountered as we drove into the city was something equally emblematic as Taranaki’s striking mountain: Don, struggling along on his bicycle, silhouetted against fading light, a stained tarpaulin sagging from the rear carrier of his Raleigh 20. 

Don made an extraordinary number of exceptional works in a range of media. They always possessed the power to surprise and to shock. This remained evident even in his later years. I remember him as a quiet and watchful observer who had a mischievous and ironic humour, a quality that is present in his work, and which we all may continue to enjoy.

The entire staff of the Gallery sends Joyce Driver our love and condolences. She was for Don a life-long support who understood his genius better that anyone else. We mourn the loss of one of the nation’s greatest artists.

- Roger Taberner, Learning Programmes Manager