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

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