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

Monday 28 November 2011

Art on the walls, art in the walls

I recently wrote about a 1979 work by Billy Apple titled Revealed/Concealed. This was one of several artworks made by Apple at Auckland Art Gallery in the 1970s when he toured New Zealand’s art galleries, making site-specific works that turned a critical eye on the gallery spaces themselves.
Not long after he made Revealed/Concealed, Apple had the opportunity to effect a more lasting change in the fabric of the Gallery’s building.

In 1975, he had made an untitled piece which drew attention to a strange discrepancy in the sizes of what were then Auckland Art Gallery’s two main exhibition spaces on level 1. The Centre and West Galleries were almost identical, except that the West Gallery, for unknown reasons, was slightly longer. This offended Apple’s sense of spatial order and balance. He censured the extra area of floor by painting it the same white as the walls, visually ‘subtracting’ it so that when viewed from a distance it seemed to disappear – in Apple’s words – ‘so there’s no distraction.’

In 1982 this temporary re-proportioning of the West Gallery was made permanent. I recently talked to Richard Harris, who is now Principal architect at Jasmax, about how he helped Apple to realise Addendum to ‘Subtraction’.

Billy Apple, Addendum to 'Subtraction': The Given as an Art-Political Statement 1998

AP: Addendum to 'Subtraction' followed an earlier 1975 piece, where a section of the Gallery's floor was painted white. How did it come about that this work was revisited in 1982, and what was your involvement?

RH: The original Art Gallery was actually both the City Art Gallery and the City Library. In the early 1970s the Edmiston Wing was added to the Art Gallery end of the building and this addition/renovation included the Centre Gallery and the West Gallery. In the seventies the Auckland City Council opened a new City Library in Lorne St and this enabled the Art Gallery to annex the newly vacated library space.
At that time I was working for the Architectural Division of Auckland City Council and was appointed as the project architect for the City Art Gallery refurbishment and reconstruction which included a number of separate but related building projects occurring concurrently between 1979 and 1984.

Richard Harris, Sketch plan, Auckland Art Gallery first floor, 1981
[West Gallery new wall and stair shown in red]

One of these projects involved connecting the West Gallery into the old library and a small element of this was the need for a short stair to accommodate the height difference between the new and the old. To integrate the stair into the design, I chose to shorten the existing West Gallery and it was at this conceptual planning stage that I met Billy and he acquainted me with his Addendum to ‘Subtraction’ work. I needed little encouragement to position the new wall exactly where he had painted the floor to create an apparent wall seven years earlier.

AP: Billy tells me that you were very particular about the new wall being 'right', to the extent that the bricklayer had to lay the wall three times over. Why was it so important to get it exact?

RH: The existing gallery walls were bagged brick with the individual bricks ‘kicked’ slightly and randomly to give a textured finish to the wall. The consistent texture over the whole wall was achieved through a degree of uniformity to this randomness. It was really important to us that the new wall exactly matched the texture of the existing ones so that they created a coherent space.

The problem for us was that West Gallery continued to show exhibitions during construction and the new wall was being constructed behind a screen which prevented the bricklayer being able to see the finish that he was charged with replicating. To get a good view of the existing wall, he had to leave the construction site at the corner of Wellesley St, walk up Kitchener St and walk back in through the main entry of the gallery. The other issue was that he was a very good bricklayer and ‘kicking’ bricks went against all his instincts. So it took three goes but the final effort was a great match.

AP: The space that became the Centre Gallery was originally built as an extension to the Art Gallery in 1893, and for some reason was made slightly smaller than the existing (West) Gallery. It was the first in a series of patchwork additions and renovations over the years which caused some odd angles and discrepancies in the building. Billy's project was an attempt to 'correct' at least one of these. Do you feel that architecture should display its history, discrepancies and all?

RH: Self imposed constraints of maximising gallery space while working within the existing walls of the building were probably what drove the different length galleries in the first place.  Billy’s work allows us to look at space through clearer eyes provoking questions such as what were the intentions, why was it resolved that way and could it have been done differently. That a conceptual artwork was later able to be permanently realised added a richness to the project.
I do believe that architecture which displays its history allows for a deeper understanding of our built environment.

Gretchen Albrecht, Illuminations installation, Centre Gallery showing view into West Gallery, 2002

The Centre and West Galleries were changed again as part of the recent development project. Apple’s wall was moved slightly to make way for a new stairwell and the two spaces – now perfectly aligned – have been combined to form one large sequence of rooms on level 1.
Farmer Galleries [formerly Centre and West Galleries] 2011

Francis Bacon and David Sylvester

One of the best art books of the 1970s was Interviews with Francis Bacon by David Sylvester published by Thames and Hudson. After the initial publication in 1975, Sylvester expanded it further in 1980 and 1987.

If you have not read this remarkable book yet, please seek it out. Bacon is a ruthless speaker about himself, self-mythologizing and searingly honest at the same time. Sylvester was one of the finest British curators and art writers to emerge after World War II. He was the first critic to receive the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale (1993).

Bacon and Sylvester talked for decades beginning in 1963, and continuing in 1966 and 1979. During 1967, the Marlborough Gallery showed some of Bacon’s recent paintings. Here is a quote from the conversation published in the accompanying catalogue:

David Sylvester: When somebody you’ve already painted many times from memory does actually sit for you, what happens?
Francis Bacon: They inhibit me. They inhibit me because if I like them, I don’t want to practice the injury that I do to them in my work before them. I would rather practice the injury in private by which I think I can record the facts of them more clearly.
DS: In what sense do you conceive of it as an injury?
FB: Because people believe – simple people at least – that the distortions of them are an injury to them no matter how much they feel for or like you.

I have been lucky to see a number of Francis Bacon shows including a large survey. I was stunned to see that he paints women so much more sympathetically than he does men.

Bacon said during his conversations with Sylvester, “I hate my face. I only made self-portraits because I had no one else to paint.”

For an amazing verbal sparring between these two men see

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Revealed, concealed

New Gallery [now Mackelvie Gallery], c1916

One of the highlights of the developed Gallery building is the Mackelvie Gallery, which has been painstakingly returned to its former glory as a Victorian neo-classical picture gallery. The interior of this 1916 room was removed in successive renovations in the 1950s and the 1980s. The last time its decorative columns saw the light of day was in 1979 when Billy Apple temporarily exposed them as part of an artwork titled Revealed/Concealed.

Apple is best known for his self-branding, for his witty and conceptual Pop works and for his sly investigations into the workings of the art market. In 1975, and again in 1979 he turned a critical eye on New Zealand’s art galleries, touring around the country creating works which explored the ideology and politics of art exhibition spaces – the behind-the-scenes mechanics of an art gallery. (See Wystan Curnow's account of this tour from page 10 of the Gallery Quarterly here).

Mezzanine Gallery [now Mackelvie Gallery] 1956

At Auckland Art Gallery in 1979, Revealed/Concealed literally exposed the architectural history of the gallery, as Apple cut away the walls of the room to show the 1916 columns which were hidden inside. During the ‘modernisation’ of the Mackelvie Gallery under director Eric Westbrook in 1952, the columns had been walled over to create a sleeker, cleaner and more modern look. By 1979, no-one remembered what they looked like – as Wystan Curnow has recorded, when Apple’s project was being discussed, wild speculation about beautiful orange marble columns began to circulate around the Gallery. When the walls were cut away and the columns were finally revealed, they turned out to be rather less spectacular concrete.

Billy Apple, Revealed/Concealed 1979
Courtesy of the Billy Apple Archive

Revealed/Concealed was a two-part work: Apple counterbalanced the revelation of the historic columns by concealing a strange wall niche. This shallow alcove had been built into the wall above the Mackelvie Gallery’s famous curved staircase during the 1952 renovations – for what purpose was unclear exactly, but it spent more time covered by a wall hanging than performing any useful function for the display of art. Apple filled it in, erasing this odd eccentricity from the otherwise undisturbed smoothness of the gallery wall.

Billy Apple, Revealed/Concealed 1979
Courtesy of the Billy Apple Archive

As Wystan Curnow wrote in a 1980 article on the project, “For the artist the art gallery space is a given. For any artist. The gallery wants to give the artist a show, he wants to make something of it. What space does it give him, this show? Which space is it, exactly? What is it? I mean, what does it amount to? These are questions REVEALED-CONCEALED brings to mind. Because it makes changes to and shows changes in the gallery space, the work brings particularly to mind the instability of that given over time. History as a given, then. The record of change; itself subject constantly to revelations and concealments.”

Billy Apple, Revealed/Concealed 1979
Courtesy of the Billy Apple Archive

By displaying the spaces that were themselves designed for the display of art, what Apple ultimately revealed was how these containers for art are flexible and unstable – they are subject to change both physically and ideologically.

Mackelvie Gallery 2011

The recent reinstatement of the Mackelvie Gallery’s 1916 design was a triumph of heritage restoration. The interior of the room was almost entirely stripped out in the 1980s, and the original intricate plasterwork has been carefully rebuilt using only two surviving historic photographs. Revived again 95 years after it was first opened, the current (and original) design of the Mackelvie Gallery forms an appropriate period context for the Gallery’s Victorian painting collection. The resurrection of the Mackelvie Gallery acknowledges an important period in our building’s history, and also shows how in art galleries, as in art, history can be accommodated, referenced, revealed and concealed.

Clement Greenberg

A few days ago an artist told me how he admired Clement Greenberg’s writings. I was not able to respond sufficiently as it is some years since I read Greenberg’s essays. Also, he has a reputation of being a formalist that despised the social and cultural significance of visual art. A sort of proto post-modernist without the European theoretical underpinnings.

Today, Greenberg is considered a fusty and opinionated critic. Upon re-reading a few volumes I find that he is more impressive a writer than I recalled. His humour is delicious and is totally yiddish in its genesis.

Greenberg’s important essay on art criticism was published posthumously in Partisan Review 1981 Volume XLVII Number 1, the issue dedicated to The State of Criticism. It is also published in Clement Greenberg - the Collected Essays and Criticism, volume 4, edited by John O'Brian. You can access this fantastic essay here.

Here is a selection of Clement Greenberg’s statements:
All profoundly original work looks ugly at first.

The making of superior art is arduous, usually. But under Modernism the appreciation, even more than the making, of it has become more taxing, the satisfaction and exhilaration to be gotten from the best new art more hard-won.

The essence of Modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.

You do most of your talking about the works and try to say why you think every artist is a law to himself. There's no method.

The trouble with Michelangelo's sculpture is that it's too slick. He was damned good, but he was too arty.

You like it, that's all, whether it's a landscape or abstract. You like it. It hits you. You don't have to read it. The work of art-sculpture or painting-forces your eye.

When you're young and you maybe can't see art, you're interested in the story.

We have differences but we're not made different. If you don't agree with me, you're wrong.

If you want to change your art, change your habits.

When photography's good, let me put it that way, it's as good as painting.
If you really want to get a taste of how incisive Clement Greenberg was about art, watch him speaking about Marcel Duchamp:

Russell Bingham conducted a fascinating interview with Clement Greenberg, which is published in the Edmonton Contemporary Artists’ society newsletter volume 3, issue 2 and volume 4 issue 1:

Russell Bingham: Do you think photography is art.

Clement Greenberg: Of course it is. You're making me rehearse things I've already written. Anything can be experienced aesthetically and the line between art and non-art is so indefinite

RB: Major art, would you say? Have you seen any photography that is major art?

CG: I've never been asked that question before. I don't know. The photographer I admired most in my own time was Walker Evans because in a manner of speaking he told a story. The other was Atget, in the early part of this century, who everybody admires, and they're right to. His pictures don't exactly tell a story, but what I've noticed about good photography is that a good photograph always has some evidence of humanity in it. So you can get a good photograph of a road because humans have built the road. And here's where the subject matter determines everything and not formal qualities.

You will be interested to know that Clement Greenberg visited New Zealand in July 1968. He is recorded as being impressed with the art of Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. More about this visit later!

Monday 21 November 2011

Rita and Douglas

Yesterday at the Gallery, Jennifer Ward-Lealand presented a preview of her brilliant performance piece - Rita and Douglas. Created by Dave Armstrong from the letters of Rita Angus and delivered with Michael Houston at piano, this theatrical portrait of the relationship between Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn has already gained plaudits throughout New Zealand for its insightful characterisation of these renowned artists.

Based on Rita’s feisty letters to Douglas, the production affirms the intense friendship between two of New Zealand’s key artists. It reveals the creative intensity shared between two people of entirely different nature. Lovers for a very short time, but friends for a lifetime.

The brilliance of Rita and Douglas can be experienced at the Auckland Town Hall concert chamber from 22-26 November; Tuesday-Thursday 7pm, Friday-Saturday 8pm. There is a matinee performance at 2pm on the 26th. This is a must-see event. Jennifer even moves like Rita Angus, her astonishing portrayal  is uncanny and powerful for its truthful presence.

Details of this event are available at THE EDGE.

James Wenley’s Auckland Theatre blog presents a fascinating interview with Jennifer:

Image: Chris Corson-Scott

Jennifer Ward-Lealand 2011
colour photograph
courtesy of the artist

Thursday 17 November 2011

Marina Abramović – The Artist is Present

The performance artist Marina Abramović is following on from her MoMA retrospective in New York with another iteration at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow. Curated by Klaus Biesenbach, it is on view until 8 December and features approximately 50 works that overview more than forty years of her work including sound works, video, installations, photographs, solo and collaborative performance.

Klaus has posted a video introduction to the project which can be viewed here.

Here is the English version of the Garage’s introduction to Marina’s exhibition.

I met Marina when she visited Christchurch in 1981. I photographed their Witnessing performance that she presented in collaboration with Ulay held in the Great Hall at the Arts Centre as part of ANZART. It was astonishing and traced their relationship as a couple – she stood, he was on the floor - and lit by the shifting light within the space over the period of an afternoon to a moment of darkness.

A fascinating account of their visit to Christchurch has recently been blogged by Ornery World.

Since it is three decades since Marina Abramović visited New Zealand I wondered will we ever see her here again? She is one of the world’s most enduring performance artists. All of her work is about what it means to be human.

Thursday 3 November 2011

21st century – Art in the First Decade

A friend asked me to recommend to them a good book on contemporary art. There has not been a book solely about contemporary art produced in New Zealand in the last year or so. In Australia, a good one was published by Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art during 2010.

21st century – Art in the First Decade is an up to the minute book and the art in it feels contemporary. By that, I don't mean art made since 1950 but art coming from the present generation. That is 15 years, according to statisticians.

I recommend 21st century – Art in the First Decade. Miranda Wallace edits it with assurance and the essays are free of rhetoric and cant. [ISBN 9781921503177].

This book was the catalogue to a temporary exhibition held in Brisbane from December 2010 to April 2011 that consisted of 216 items held in the GoMA collection. It is a fresh take on contemporary art. The sort of art show that is brilliant to experience. Makes one realise that Queensland is collecting contemporary international art in a major way.

New Zealand artists like Campbell Patterson, John Pule and Fiona Pardington are included. Ask your local library to obtain a copy for you to read.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Hamish Keith

Hamish Keith visited the Gallery today and spoke eloquently about Colin McCahon's 1952 painting On Building Bridges. As well as discussing the importance of the very first work by the artist to enter a public collection, Hamish noted how important this painting has always been to him.

I told Hamish that I was thrilled to be able to show this work from a 30 metre sight-line within our collection exhibition Toi Aotearoa. Sarah Hillary, principal conservator has cleaned the painting and it looks stunning.

I saw the photographer Chris Corson-Scott was present and I asked if he would mind making a portrait of Hamish together with this remarkable painting by Colin McCahon.

Chris Corson-Scott
Hamish Keith 2011
colour photograph

Friday 28 October 2011

More Hamar

I’ve had some luck in researching Raymond MacIntyre’s portrait of Haraldur Hamar c 1923, he’s the distinctive looking man with the great brows.

Hamar was born in Reykjavik in 1892. He was the son of a poet and a headmaster, Steingrimur Thorsteinsson, and later changed his name from Thorsteinsson to Hamar.

A Reference Librarian at the National Library of Iceland found two articles about Hamar, you can see them under the following links. They are of course in Icelandic, but we can see that Hamar was painted more than once.

In Osbert Sitwell’s biography: Left Hand, Right Hand!: an autobiography, London 1951 in the fifth volume he writes about Hamar, who associated with the Bloomsbury group in London, they called him Iceland.

I’d love to catch up with any Icelandic speakers, is there someone out there keen to translate this article?

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Sir Peter Siddell KCNZM, QSO

The Gallery’s staff is much saddened to learn of the passing of Sir Peter Siddell. We extend to his family and friends our heartfelt condolences.

Peter and his late wife Sylvia were close friends of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki over many years. At the launch of the impressive illustrated book dedicated to his work, I spoke to those present about how much the public admire Peter’s paintings as being about their shared memory and experience of Auckland.

In particular, I mentioned his renowned Homecoming that is a valedictory work where Peter remembers his childhood. His visits to this Gallery over many years are recalled by the inclusion within the house of his favourite New Zealand paintings in this collection. This work includes the impressive 19th century merchant’s house in Ponsonby Road that is now occupied by the ASB Trust. Siddell places the building against a volcanic landscape that is typical of Auckland but impossible to identify as being in any one particular suburb. The landscape and the house reveal memory as being inseparable from how we experience a place. Peter once noted that 'Most of the time I paint what I know . . . usually from childhood recollections'. He had delivered the New Zealand Herald newspaper in early-morning Auckland as a boy, so he knew the streets of the city very well.

Peter stated that his ambition is 'to achieve a stillness in my paintings. It's something to do with wanting to freeze a moment in time and regain a bit of the past'. His cityscapes bring together the volcanic landscape and colonial buildings from throughout Auckland. People are almost never included; instead their habitat is focused on. The dramatic late afternoon sky in Horizon 1987 is both dramatic and menacing. This painting was a special gift to the people of Auckland by the Friends of the Gallery.

Some years ago, the Hon John Banks, then Mayor of Auckland City, personally hosted a mayoral luncheon for Peter, Sylvia, their family and friends. It was a happy event where all present saw how much Peter and Sylvia had contributed to this city’s art community for decades. Their passing is mourned.

Dr E H McCormick noted in his 1957 inaugural Friend’s lecture: ‘There are, in fact, several Aucklands: there is an ecclesiastical Auckland finely expressed in the frail perfection of the Selwyn churches; there are the homes of Epsom and Mount Eden redolent of a more spacious past; there are the acres of decaying wood that stretch from Ponsonby to Parnell Road.’

Peter understood Auckland with a true valuing of its history. I once said to him that he was an artistic heir of the Reverend Dr John Kinder, arguably one of New Zealand’s finest colonial painters and photographers. With that marvellous and quizzical smile of his, Peter replied ‘Oh Ron! I am never so preachy but I much appreciate your compliment!’ He knew that ‘seeing’ Auckland is about much more than recognising its topography. We will miss this lovely and generous man.

Sir Peter Siddell (1935 -2011)
Homecoming 1976
acrylic on hardboard
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 1977

Sir Peter Siddell (1935 -2011)
Horizon 1987
acrylic on hardboard
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
gift of the Friends of Auckland Art Gallery, 1988

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Grace Joel

The Gallery was recently visited by Mr Hartley Joel. Hartley is the nephew of Grace Joel (1865-1924) and it was from him that we were able to secure her painting Girl with Scarf c1896.

This informal oil portrait is one of the most important nineteenth century portraits created in New Zealand. It was Hartley’s specific wish that his aunt’s great painting, dating from her Dunedin period, remain in Auckland and be accessible to the public. Through his generosity, and with the auspices of the Lyndsey Garland Bequest, the Gallery was able to acquire this exceptionally rare portrait.

Like Rita Angus, Grace Joel has a number of residential villages named in her honour of her contribution to the arts.

Hartley Joel with Grace Joel's Girl with Scarf, 2011
photograph: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

How to Read a Rugby Photograph

One of the most interesting publications on New Zealand photography published by a local dealer gallery is Michael Graham-Stewart’s Crombie to Burton – Early New Zealand Photography. It was issued by the John Leech Gallery in Auckland during 2010 to accompany their exhibition of the same title. If your library does not hold a copy, it can be obtained via the following ISBN: 9780473165390.

John Gow, Director of the Leech’s kindly gave me access to one of the photographs that Michael discovered to include in my presentation named How to Read a Rugby Photograph at the Pecha Kucha event held at Auckland Art Gallery last week.

I told all the Pecha Kucha attendees that this was one of the earliest group photographs of an Auckland rugby team. It is also one of the rarest rugby images.

Wrigglesworth and Binns was a Wellington photography studio, so it is likely that this portrait was made on the Auckland representative team’s visit there to play against the local team in what later became known as a famously disputed match.

In terms of 'reading' a rugby photograph, look at how casual and relaxed the Auckland team looks. This was a shot taken for the team members themselves. Few better shots exist of a bonded group of players.

By the way, I have discovered the best rugby shot taken during the World Rugby Cup. More about that later....

Wrigglesorth and Binns
Auckland Touring Team 1883
Gelatin silver print, 153 x 197mm
Courtesy: John Leech Gallery, Auckland

Friday 14 October 2011

Jim Allen – Toi Aotearoa

With our current collection exhibition Toi Aotearoa, I thought it worthwhile to generate on-going research about the artworks. As Jim Allen’s sculpture Polynesia is exhibited for the first time at the Gallery, I asked Jim to respond to some questions.

RB: When did you begin work on Polynesia?
JA: Polynesia was the stone carving component of my final year at Royal College of Art in 1951-52.

RB: Was this your first large scale direct stone carving?
JA: No, I had completed at least five others. The first carved in Oamaru limestone when I was a final year student at the School of Art, Canterbury University during 1948. At the Royal College, a bird shape in Hoptonwood marble, in private ownership in Auckland; a second bird shape in Alabaster, now in possession of Santa Barbara Art Gallery, California. There was also a boy figure in Portland limestone, since destroyed: and a horizontal figure in green Hornton stone.

RB: How did you choose the Ancaster limestone?
JA: I chose it in consultation with Barry Hart, our lecturer for stone carving. Barry was anxious that we had a broad experience of working of different kinds of stone. Occasionally we chose stone from the school's stockpile. Others, Barry would order in a special block. I think my Ancaster came within that category.

RB: Were there any preliminary drawings?
JA: No. I think I made a rudimentary clay figure maquette as a means of talking through my ideas, but we were encouraged with direct carving to working out the solution within the block itself.

RB: Is it an imagined figure or did you utilise a model to assist your work?
JA: No, definitely imagined. We were expected to carefully examine the block of stone and work out the disposition of shape accordingly.

RB: Did you physically carve it at the Royal College?
JA: Yes. In the studio designated for stone carving at the School of Sculpture.

RB: What was the reaction of staff and students to Polynesia?
JA: Very little from other students, all very much concerned with their own efforts and where they might come in the ensuing assessments. I am sure Barry Hart was pleased. I valued his advice, we became good friends over the three years, and we continued to keep in touch even after I had returned to NZ.

Barry came from generations of workers in stone, and was good friends with Henry Moore. He was something of a character, always wore a dark blue suit with bow tie. Never physically helped with your work and concentrated on working on the theory of working with the material and activating your own thinking processes in dealing with problems. Professor Frank Dobson and staff must have approved as I gained First Class Honours.

Images: Jim Allen, Polynesia, 1951
Ancaster limestone, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the artist, 2007

Monday 10 October 2011

Three cheers for the preps!

The creation of an exhibition is a huge team effort, and at the end of the process it all comes down to the team of preparators and technicians who physically install the artworks in the galleries. Each exhibition comes with its own challenges - whether it's moving very large, heavy or fragile objects, installing 7,081 tiny objects in the right configuration, or abseiling down a wall to hang a work in a tricky spot. The photos below show the Gallery’s install teams in action - from 1954 to today.
1954: The Museum Microcosm: Items from the Auckland War Memorial Museum

1971: Morris Louis (In 1971, not only was it okay to handle artworks without wearing gloves – it was okay to handle artworks while smoking your pipe!)

1981: Artichoke. The legendary exhibition where every painting in the collection was put on display.

1995: Transformers. Installing the 5000 polystyrene balls of Nike Savvas’ installation Simple Division.

2001: Bambury: Works 1975-1999. The installation of this exhibition of Stephen Bambury’s work required a steady hand and a head for heights.

2001: 1st Auckland Triennial: Bright Paradise: Exotic History and Sublime Artifice; Ashley Bickerton, Them [detail], 1998

2002: Love and Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria.Before the development project, large works like Frederic Leighton’s The Syracusan Bride, 1865-6 had to enter the building via crane over the café balcony …

… and then be shuffled past the muffins and paninis in the café …

… before finally arriving in the gallery for installation. Of course, large works would also have to exit the building using the same circuitous route. Hooray for our new, spacious loading bay and goods lift!

2005: Mixed-Up Childhood. Assembling the fragile glass structure of Louise Bourgeois’ Cell 1990-3.

2005: Mixed-Up Childhood. Unpacking a fragment of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s The Return of the Repressed 1997.

2005: Framing the Past

2006: Summer Daze. Don Driver’s McKechnie Brothers Mural, 1967.

2008: The collection was packed up and moved into offsite storage before the building development project was begun.

2008: The Walters Prize. Installing the 7081 tiny canvases of John Reynold’s Cloud, 2006.

2009: The Julian and Josie Robertson Promised Gift: An Exclusive Preview. With only nine hours to install, this exhibition went up in double-quick time. (Artwork shown: Pablo Picasso, Mère aux enfants a l'orange (Mother and children with an orange), 1951, promised gift of Julian and Josie Robertson)

2010: Call Waiting: A Celebration of the New Gallery 1995-2011 (See our previous blog about the installation of this artwork here.)

2011: Toi Aotearoa: New Zealand Art 1965-1900. The first work to be hung in the developed Gallery was Colin McCahon’s 1952 painting On Building Bridges.

2011: Installing Choi Jeong Hwa’s Flower Chandelier, 2011 in the North Atrium.

2011: Whizz Bang Pop. Installing the Boyle Family’s The Gisborne Triptych, 1990 in the Parkview Gallery.

2011: Whizz Bang Pop. Installing Luc Piere’s Tower, 1973 in the Parkview Gallery.