Friday 30 March 2012

Jan Nigro 1920-2012

It is with wrenching sadness that I write of the recent passing of Jan Nigro. Born at Gisborne in 1920, Jan enrolled at the Elam School of Fine Arts in 1937. Her teachers were Auckland’s key art tutors of the period – Archibald Fisher, John Weeks and A. Lois White. Their inspiration and their commitment to figuration stayed with Jan for life. In fact, when I review New Zealand’s art scene she is one of the very few artists to have had a career of 75 years. We laughed about this remarkable fact – the length of her commitment to the visual arts – on almost every occasion that we met.

I much admired Jan. She asked me three times to speak at openings of her shows. Reviewing what I said on those occasions has only confirmed the deep conviction I have about her work. Here is an extract from the speech that I gave at Jan’s opening at Jane Sanders’s Gallery in March 2003. The Mayor of Auckland was present, as were two local Members of Parliament. It was a very big crowd. The show celebrated Bathers and there was much nudity and partial nudity. Some people were obviously surprised; some were trying hard not to seem startled. Jan did not set out to produce work that shocked but she did want the viewer to confront the nude reality of humanity.

I spoke loudly as it was a huge space: ‘One of the talents that I cherish about Jan Nigro is that she can really draw. In conversation with me she noted: “The figure was drummed into me by Archie Fisher, he dragged me into the life class, he trained me to look at the figure…I have had many years being frustrated in the lack of interest in the figurative.”

‘Jan’s right – we all know that figures can sometimes be scary in art, especially when they reach out to us and jolt us with what it means to look closely at the body. We have at least two ways to look at the figure. We know that there is a male gaze and a female gaze and that they are not the same way of seeing. To look at the body is to be its spectator.

‘Jan noted to me: “Naked and nude: there is no difference between the naked and the nude, but the public thinks so. Clothes give people a period in time but when you strip them, the body is quite universal…I have looked at women and men a lot. I look at male models and female models. Men and women are both people. I find men and women just as important as the other, as painterly models. I want to see from a male and from a female perspective… I look for the feminine shape in the female and the masculine shape in the male.”

‘If I were to use one adjective to describe Jan’s gaze, it would be this: scopophilic. This is the love of looking, of looking with love’s eye and with its heart. Jan does not objectify men and women into mere objects simply to be looked at. She does not make her figures wait for our eye; she makes them talk to our eye. She wants us to feel, like her, a desire to look. Looking is empowering because it accepts a human need that is rarely recognised for its own public essentiality. An eroticism where gender and sexuality come together as figural representation. I am not talking here about the voyeuristic or the festishistic. I am focusing on the nature of the gaze that Jan Nigro reveals: she invites us to question who is looking at whom, where and for why.’

In 2004, I spoke on the occasion of Jan Nigro’s exhibition Sad movies make me cry. I discovered the following statements while searching Google for references to Jan. To quote: ‘Jan Nigro is one of only a small number of successful New Zealand artists concentrating on the figure.’ ‘Jan is preoccupied with people, and thinks this is one reason why her work was initially accepted more readily in Australia than in New Zealand.’ ‘Jan Nigro’s figurative drawings are legendary for their blatant erotic realism.’

In 2010, I again spoke about Jan and I asked her, ‘How frank should I be Jan?’ She said ‘Be frank, utterly, be utterly frank.’ I realised just how difficult it had been for Jan to be a figurative artist who was known for addressing the nude with searing regard. The older she got, the braver she seemed. Here is what Jan said about this: ‘The nude has always been a no no to the general public. I need to look beyond the skin at the social, sexual, cultural or even psychological complexities although I admit that’s a tough one. Gender overlapping, looking for a different mood in male and female iconography, ambiguity: these are words I like.’

I said at the time, ‘I admire Jan for her staunch commitment. I respect her example, her bravery and her talent to never flinch away from the human figure but to celebrate it, to cherish it, to grapple with it, while never underplaying the true difficulty of dealing with gender and sexuality in New Zealand’s culture, let alone in New Zealand’s art culture.’

In 2009, Jan Nigro presented two exceptional artworks to the people of Auckland. I selected the two pieces and she generously presented them to Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Summer Encounter dates from 1972–3. It is a close-up of a woman’s face, from just above her chin to the bridge of her nose. She wears large sunglasses and part of her face, from her left nostril, is occluded behind a vertical form which could be a curtain or it could be simply a vertical form. The painting plays with a conversation between abstraction and figuration, and this dialectic between representation and evocation has been a continuous conversation in Jan’s work.

The other gift was a large exhibition drawing entitled A Man of the Seventies. Jan drew this work in 1974. I showed a print of it to a colleague and I asked him what immediately came to mind and his reply was ‘Pop star – Mr Lee Grant’. Cocky, confident, sexy, sinuous, a girly sort of mannishness. If you were to do a survey of all the other drawings made in New Zealand during 1974 and you then you added in all the paintings made in New Zealand during 1974. You would not find any artwork that was in any way as sexualised as this one is.

Jan always caught her figure’s pose, their gesture, their clothing or lack of it, their contraposto, their sexiness. Jan made males less obviously masculine and more overtly feminine. It is one of her many gifts – to render gender and sexuality as what it is - a fluid, mobile, motile humanity.

Jan Nigro

The Red Hat 1949
oil on board
purchased 1951

A Man of the Seventies 1974
gift of Jan Nigro, 2009

Summer Encounter 1972-73
oil on board
gift of Jan Nigro, 2009

Standing Woman 1968
purchased 1969
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

Thursday 29 March 2012

Sunday Studio: The Inside Story (‘What did you do in art today, honey?’)

Welcome to our first blog from the Studio at the Auckland Art Gallery! We are excited to have the platform to celebrate the ideas and techniques that the children are interpreting through discussion and making in our studio courses. Not only does it give us a chance to showcase the fantastic ideas that the children are expressing visually, but we hope to also provide interested parents with a bit more of an idea about what we’re up to (in case your children are less than forthcoming with any of the details of their time in the studio!).

We will show you the works that we have been looking at in the Gallery from the Collection, as well as the art ideas and techniques we are exploring in the studio. We will share other sites, articles and blogs that we think are interesting, and offer other ideas and questions that you can use to further your child’s interest in art.

Our next blog will be posted soon with images from our first session of the 6-8 year olds’ studio course cARTography. Here’s a sneaky peek at Amanda’s map of her journey from home to the Auckland Art Gallery.

In the meantime, remember to come in this Saturday 31 March 10am - 4pm) for the Big Day Art, a family day celebrating art. We will have free activities and events throughout the day that explore how we connect with art in many ways - from storytelling to visual art and music making.

Storyteller Tanya Batt will be telling tales this weekend

Tuesday 27 March 2012

His Majesty King Siaosi Taufa'ahau Manumataongo Tuku'aho Tupou V

On March 19, Helen Clark, Development Programme Administrator at the United Nations Headquarters sent a letter of condolences to the Honorable Siale ‘Ataongo Kaho Lord Tu'ivakano, the Prime Minister of Tonga.

Miss Clark’s letter noted "Tonga has lost an extraordinary leader, who voluntarily relinquished absolute powers to embrace the democratic aspirations of his people. His Majesty has left a lasting legacy for all Tongans. May his soul rest in peace.”

Tonga has an extensive resource available on The Late King and his family, and the State preparations for the funeral. This traditional event has been planned carefully as can be seen by the published procedures.

The Honorable Frederica Tuita, daughter of the only sister to the late King, Her Royal Highness Princess Salote Mafile’o Pilolevu Tuita and Lord Tuita prepared a moving and personal eulogy to the Late King.

I watched some of the deeply affecting funeral for the Late King. The oratory and choral singing were magnificent; respectful and filled with Tonga’s great love for their King. To witness this broadcast coverage is to see how deeply the people of Tonga feel their great loss.

I am most grateful to the Honorable Frederica Tuita for the use of this wonderful portrait of His Majesty. I only saw the Late King once, but I feel that this is one of his finest portraits. It captures his humanity and nobility in equal measure.

Moe mai i to moenga roa.

Conservation Bite! Part 2

On the Sea-Beat Shore by William Calderon is now lying on two very large tables in one of the painting conservation studios. The first step is to carry out a thorough examination. We need a very good record of its current condition because once the treatment starts, we won’t be able to remember everything in detail and it would be hard to prove that new damages haven’t occurred if we were challenged. So clear documentation is to protect the painting…and us!

When recording a painting’s condition we always start with a description of the ‘support’, which is the material that supports the paint. In this case, it is a linen canvas sealed with an off-white priming layer. The paint is oil and has been applied by brush and worked up quite thickly on the figures.

 Paint losses highlighted in raking light

Originally, the painting would have been attached to a wooden stretcher to keep it taut. A stretcher is like a frame that can be expanded when required and it might have cross-bars for strength if it is very large. However, at some stage in the past, the edges of the painting have been roughly cut, taking away much of the material required for stretching. The original stretcher was also removed and disposed of.

Reverse shot of the canvas

The painting was creased while it was rolled at some stage. It is similar to what many of us have done inadvertently to a favourite poster – rolled it up without any protection and somehow it has gotten squashed. In the case of the Calderon, this has been quite severe, resulting in regular paint losses along the length of the painting, as well as small tears. Oil paint and canvas become increasingly brittle over time and more vulnerable to damage.

Detail of damages from creasing

You can imagine that trying to handle an unstretched painting this big and fragile would be extremely difficult. The best method is to roll it onto a large diameter cardboard tube (400 mm diameter in this case) so that very little stress is put on the paint layers. In addition, it is always rolled paint side out, to prevent contraction, which could cause cracking.

 Rolling up the painting

The painting has had some past repairs including masking tape on a large horizontal tear and a heavy patch for a smaller tear. Some of the worst damages we come across are restorations carried out by people who are unqualified – these are good examples. Unfortunately, poor restoration can cause permanent damage, so we recommend that people always use full members of the professional conservation organisations such as the New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Materials, who you can locate on this website.

 An old heavy patch over a small tear in the canvas
Masking tape had been used in the past to repair a large tear

Finally the painting is dirty and covered in a discoloured varnish. Natural resin varnishes yellow over time, masking the vibrancy of the colours and making everything look flat and dull. The cleaning tests highlight the difference between cleaned and uncleaned areas.

You can read part one in this series here.

Friday 23 March 2012

New York Times special issue on Museums

Yesterday, the New York Times published its regular special issue on Museums. If you have never checked these out here’s the link
The current issue has some fascinating back-stories like how visitors use cameras to experience art, what curators do and the growth in museum based education. Recommended.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Conservation Bite! Part 1

William Frank Calderon’s 1905 painting On the Sea-Beat Shore, Where Thracians Tame Wild Horses, from Alexander Pope, Homer’s Iliad has been the subject of a Conservation Bite. Conservation Bites offer visitors the opportunity to step inside the Gallery’s painting conservation studio. They have been happening every lunchtime this week, and we thought that people might be interested to follow the treatment of Calderon’s painting as it progresses.

We are not sure if the painting has ever been displayed at the Gallery, but it has been rolled up for decades and is in a deteriorated state. I hasten to add that the deterioration occurred in the distant past and is not caused by current arrangements (but more about that later)!

William Calderon On the Sea-Beat Shore, Where Thracians Tame Wild Horses from Alexander Pope, Homer's Iliad, 1905
oil on canvas, Mackelvie Trust Collection, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki 

This year the curators decided that the treatment of the painting should be a priority as the work should go on display. We have limited resources at the Gallery, so things have to be carefully considered before we take on a major treatment such as this. The size of the painting meant that it would take up the whole of the large painting conservation studio and require the work of three painting conservators for several months. It was decided that we would treat it in stages, the first part being documentation; followed by stabilisation, cleaning and repair; then finally restoration of the damages.

It is no easy task getting the painting out – it measures approximately 1.8 x 3.8 metres so you need sufficient room and plenty of hands to assist. In order to have quality digital images of the condition, the painting was laid out on the floor of the photography studio, and there Gallery photographer John McIver crawled up into his loft to take some aerial views.

Conservation at the Gallery is responsible for the care and treatment of the collection and works on loan as well as carrying out related research. There are seven of us – three painting conservators, two works on paper specialists, one objects conservator and a conservation assistant. Four of the seven conservators are part-time. Some of us are also involved in the conservation service the Gallery provides for the public on a user-pays basis.

The Calderon conservation team are Ingrid Ford, Nel Rol and Sarah Hillary.

Francis Upritchard’s Loafers

Early in the evening of 7 March, Francis Upritchard’s Loafers was launched at the confluence of Symonds, Wellesley and St Paul Streets. It was a busy and rainy day. I felt like a witness to a true unveiling, even though I had encountered the sculptures in preceding days. The Wellesley Street over bridge has been a dead-space for years. While 1000s of people walk by daily, it has always seemed forlorn and ignored. Until now.

Trish Clark said at the event that Francis’s project has transformed this public space into a public place. She was right on mark. The bronze figures rest atop three vessel-shaped concrete plinths. They take time out to ponder people rushing by and contemplate their environment while interacting with walkers, the surrounding University buildings and the frantic roads.

The project developed from the Learning Quarter Public Art Plan; an innovative partnership between Auckland Council in conjunction with The University of Auckland, AUT University and the Committee for Auckland. Their committed aim is to enliven public places and show how public art can create places where people interrelate with each other.

Francis Upritchard is a New Zealand artist based in London. In 2006, she was the winner of the Walters Prize and represented New Zealand at the 53rd Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art with the project Save Yourself in 2009, Venice, Italy. Francis regularly returns home to New Zealand.

“The Loafers plinths reference important ceramic artist Lucie Rie, “says Francis. “Rie pioneered domestic-ware in Britain, and her small works were developed at the same time as huge outdoor bronzes and in my mind, share a sort of 1950’s aesthetic.”

I walk past Loafers almost every day. Its mix of standing and reclining figures with some attendant snakes is humorous and disquieting. Francis’s plinths feel like votive supports that honour the figures and present their miniature scale in a monumental way. They are a perfect mix for this location where you must pay attention to how you move, as the traffic’s presence is both hectic and threatening.

Congratulations Francis! It is wonderful to have your art out in public.

Photographs courtesy of David Straight.

Monday 19 March 2012

Abstracted naturalism

How do you describe how someone is posing in carte de visites made at Dunedin between 1876 and 1880? Stiff? Relaxed? Modelled? Formal? Or, articulated? Here are three portraits of an unknown person. The first was made in 1876, the remaining two during 1880. There are no handwritten inscriptions on the verso other than the years in which they were made.

I propose that the first portrait is of the young man aged about 16, while the other two show him aged about 20 years.

Notice that as he ages the point of view towards the sitter alters from being above to the lens being parallel to him. This gives more authority to the sitter and appears to increase their height.

I suggest that each pose is totally articulated by the photographer with all four limbs set so that the hands are either supporting an object, or giving support to the figure’s body. With the pose being held set for up to a minute to ‘set’ before each of the exposures was made.

The idea of the sitter first being articulated in a pose, then set in that pose and then recorded was part of the entire studio process for portrait carte de visites. Consequently, the naturalism is only ‘natural’ in that the sitter appears to be comfortable. In reality, they frequently were not comfortable. Remember people then did not have the self-consciousness of what they were looking like that we have today.

Saturday 17 March 2012

St Bede’s vs Christ College

Photography of sport is now some of the most complex action images being created. With moving cameras, operating from multiple viewpoints it is possible to experience competition from within the game. This was not always the case. In fact, even during the 1970s action shots were frequently achieved using miniature 35mm cameras and fast film stocks like Kodak TRI-X.

I came across recently one of the earliest examples of action sports photography made in New Zealand. The image is of a rugby game between pupils of St Bede’s College (striped jerseys) and Christ’s College. Made in Christchurch during the winter of 1946, it is probable that the shot was taken by a photographer for The Press using a Speed-Graphic camera.

Thursday 15 March 2012

Ross Becker

Professor Ian Lochead of the University of Canterbury informed me that one of the best websites to access photographs documenting Christchurch is maintained by Ross Becker.

Friday 9 March 2012

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

Of all the British poets of the Victorian period, only Gerard Manley Hopkins appears to write modern poetry. F.R. Leavis considered Hopkins the greatest Victorian poet. His relatively small output of poems does not diminish the stature of his achievement at all. I have read his poetry since I was 14 and it never fails to energise me. It is, I reckon, still shockingly inventive with its portmanteau words and sprung rhythms.

Heraclitus lived around 500 BCE and was a philosopher who considered that everything was created by fire and constantly in states of change and growth. Such apocalyptic thinking was visionary fuel for Hopkins, for whom the practice of the Roman Catholic faith was a commitment to spiritual transformation.

Hopkins was the closest English writer to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau’s transcendental commitment to the existential influence of nature. He called this knowledge ‘inscape’. Everything in nature was separate from all other things yet totally intertwined by a cosmological weaving together.

Looking at the Vincent van Gogh painting of the landscape currently on loan to the Gallery from the National Gallery of Scotland, I thought that there is a vein shared between van Gogh and Hopkins that cherishes nature through a vision of its own self-transformation.

Here is one of Hopkins’s last poems from 1888.

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-
Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs they throng; they glitter in marches.
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest's creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, nature's bonfire burns on.
But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selvèd spark
Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!
Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
Drowned. O pity and indig nation! Manshape, that shone
Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark
Is any of him at all so stark
But vastness blurs and time beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world's wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond