Thursday 30 July 2009

Julian Dashper (1960-2009). Rest in Peace.

More than 15 minutes in New Zealand… As New Zealand’s folk icon Rita Angus is about to launch at the gallery tomorrow tonight there is a palpable echo of a much younger artist whose life has ended today. It’s hard to think of a New Zealand artist whose often lacerating and wicked humour understood better the constraints and strengths of working within this culture if not the landscape as Rita may have addressed it.

A collector of art’s history in all its popular, glorious, mythical force, Julian understood how an artist today stands in conversation with the past, for better or worse. In his case, these reference points were often courageous and solicitous of humour and an energetic spirit. His often quoted collection of over 60 books on Donald Judd and asides to Jackson Pollock’s bravado and stardom belied a healthy boy like desire to get to know the Greats from their attitudes to form. Of course this easy intervention with the world’s heroes, sat alongside his regular slapstick attack and eulogy of New Zealand’s own stars – in perhaps the most memorable rendition The Big Bang Theory, he imagines the atomic force of Rita Angus, Ralph Hotere, Colin McCahon, Don Driver, Toss Woollaston.

On a personal note, for a younger student of art history I readily admit being confused when first greeted by his gutsy abstract expressions of the 1980s, with their easy wit in dealing with the recent past – transgressive and at once joyous. It was a relief to have an artist like Julian demonstrate a confident tongue-in-cheek reference point to our own often anxious history, while at the same time adopting a language and mobility which enabled him to converse with like-minded artists, gallerists and curators internationally. I don’t know if there’s a student of Auckland University of Technology who wasn’t affected by Julian’s spirit – and the admiration which a talented generation of younger artists have for him is really unique.

Last but not least, Julian was not at ease with the institutions of art, and rightly so, maintaining a distance which was energising. Distance becomes us, and, in 1992 he inserted an exhibition-as-advertisement in Artforum magazine. Artfrom New Zealand comically defied the politics and constraints of the one-way conversation, and marked out the possibilities of the self made guy. JD: “The trick is to stay ‘in the zone’ when you get the idea and run with it.”

I think his early painting Young Nick’s Head from 1987 is one of my favourite Julian Dashper’s these days. It’s a disruptive painting with assembled pieces of fabric and photo. It’s a construction of sorts, which takes pieces of history and interrupts them with fabric and photo – so you never quite get it sorted. Art repeats and undoes itself pleasantly, and yet as Francis Pound wrote poignantly ‘The museum wants the artist timeless’. Julian knew how to work around conventions. And so, with hope, he demonstrated that life is not a convention or a closed bracket.

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