Tuesday 29 April 2014

Recent acquisition – Theo Schoon

Do you know anyone who saw Theo Schoon dancing at Auckland's Town Hall? I would really like to speak to someone who witnessed his dance performance there. I have never associated Theo with being a performer in public but these images show he was. The public are not present, they have either come and gone, or they are soon to arrive.

I recently purchased these two small photographs of Theo for the Gallery's collection.  The images have been taken specially for the artist - he is performing for the photograph's occasion. They show more of the location than his other dance self-portraits. Those examples are studio-based self-portraits where the lighting was controlled.

These previously unknown portraits show that technical issues of working in a hall not made for photo-sessions influenced the resultant pictures. Theo preferred studio light in interiors - he'd spent much time with Wellington society photographer Spencer Digby (as had Brian Brake). Spence was a lighting expert and his wonderful portraits attest to his skill. Theo had exacting standards so the haphazard lighting may well not have pleased him.

It is not generally known that Theo Schoon was an accomplished practitioner of traditional Javanese dance. He collected the appropriate costumes and appropriate head wear. He possessed numerous recordings of Javanese music. When I visited him in Australia he danced for me while seated cross-legged on his bed. For me it was a personal experience of Asian dance the like of which I was then unfamiliar with.

During the 1940s and 1950s Theo Schoon demonstrated Javanese dance to appreciative audiences in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. There was affirmative and interested newspaper coverage of  his performances. Theo also gave personal tuition of traditional Javanese dance and he was the first person to do this in New Zealand.

I have met some people who witnessed Theo dancing privately at Auckland. These performances occurred at parties, mostly during the 1950s. Colin McCahon told me that he was charmed and surprised by Theo's skill at dancing. Ross Fraser said Theo's dancing was mesmerising. I saw for myself how he used hand gestures to tell stories.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The hardest words to say…

Tony Albert, Sorry 2008, Found kitsch objects applied to vinyl letters,
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Image courtesy: QAGOMA 
My Country includes artworks that directly comment on Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Apology to members of the Stolen Generations and their families. Tony Albert’s Sorry, 2008, spells out the climax of Rudd’s speech in large black type, but reverses the word to read YRROS and in doing so calls into question the effect of the Apology. For Albert, ‘Sorry is just a word which means nothing if it is not backed up by real outcomes.’ The objects that decorate this text – ashtrays, plates and other pieces of Aboriginalia – were picked up by the artist in second-hand stores. They show a persistent representation of Aboriginal bodies in items of Australian home décor and tourist souvenirs. Male figures dominate – a figure holding boomerang and spear faces off against a kangaroo on a cork beer mat in one of many examples of that ethnographic stereotype, the ‘noble warrior’. Stereotypes such as this, authored by someone else, erase individuality. They do not reflect the realities for the Stolen Generations, or those before them. Covering arguably the most important word of Rudd’s Apology in the material which helped build a generalised and damaging perception of Aboriginal people offers uncomfortable visual evidence of why the Apology was necessary.

A group of works in the exhibition bring the realities of those generations and families affected by racist laws and practices to light, bridging the gap between collective and individual histories and emphasising the personal with artworks which embody specific familial stories and practices. Some of these works relate to the body, recalling objects that were worn or carried, and convey a sense of everyday realities – their physicality evokes the spirit of the individual and their daily struggles.

Dale Harding, Unnamed 2009, lead and steel wire
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Image courtesy: QAGOMA 
Dale Harding’s Unnamed, 2012, a lead breast plate inscribed with his grandmother’s new name – ‘W38’ – connotes the harsh treatments and the specific use of ‘king plates’ as a method of identification. The rust and weight of the object with its alphanumeric code symbolises the dehumanising process of classification and control; its decayed surface suggests a forgotten or buried history. Looking at the breastplate gives us a sense of connection with Harding’s grandmother, and we empathise with the indignity she would have felt being forced to hang the large, heavy plate around her neck and having her name replaced by a code.

Wilma Walker, Kakan (Baskets) 2002 (installation view) 
Individual stories are powerfully communicated in works which convey a sense of the physical presence of the body. Wilma Walker’s Kakan (Baskets), 2002 recalls the baskets made by her mother. As a baby, Walker was hidden in baskets like these to avoid being forcibly removed from her family – to avoid becoming one of the Stolen Generations. Looking at the baskets’ bulbous forms we can easily imagine her tiny body curled up inside and covered by leaves.

Foreground Wilma Walker, Kakan (Baskets) 2002,
background Tony Albert, Sorry 2008 (installation view) 
One of the most striking moments in the exhibition is the presentation of these baskets in front of Tony Albert’s Sorry. Here, the life of someone personally affected by a state policy in practise confronts Rudd’s Apology, as interpreted by Albert. Walker’s handmade baskets, infused with the memories of her early life and with the making traditions of her people, evoke a sense of intimacy and human frailty and contrast the brittleness of the mass-produced Aboriginalia in Sorry. Both works remind us of trauma suffered and together create a confronting reminder about the need to honestly face historical facts.

Bindi Cole, I forgive you 2012, Emu feathers on MDF board
Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Image courtesy: QAGOMA
In the exhibition’s final room Bindi Cole’s response to the 2008 Apology is writ large in emu feathers attached to letters. The sensual and protective qualities of I forgive you, 2012 – its layers of soft plumage – look capable of absorbing shock, which in forgiving one must do. Like Wilma Walker’s baskets, I forgive you was made by hand, each feather stuck down individually to create each word of the powerful sentence. In contrast to the critical position of Albert’s Sorry, and its seeming rejection of the Apology, Cole’s feathered forgiveness is empowering – reconciling differences and opening the door for future relations. According to Cole, ‘forgiveness is about taking your power back . . . no longer allowing that thing that hurt to live inside you.’

– Julia Waite, Assistant Curator, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki 

Image credits:

Tony Albert
Girramay people
QLD b.1981
Sorry 2008
Found kitsch objects applied to vinyl letters
99 objects: 200 x 510 x 10cm (installed)
The James C Sourris, AM, Collection
Purchased 2008 with funds from James C Sourris through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation

Dale Harding
Bidjara and Ghungalu peoples
QLD  b.1982
Unnamed 2009
Lead and steel wire
35 x 26 x 3cm
Gift of Julie Ewington through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation 2013

Wilma Walker
Kuku Yalanji people
QLD  b.1929 d.2008
Kakan (Baskets)  2002
Twined black palm (Normanbya normanbyi) fibre (basket), with lawyer cane (Calamus sp.) fibre (handle)
Three baskets:  93 x 37 x 36cm;  77 x 29 x 26cm;  68 x 32 x 31cm
Commissioned 2002 with funds from the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant

Bindi Cole 
Wathaurung people 
VIC b.1975 
I forgive you 2012 
Emu feathers on MDF board 11 pieces: 100 x 800cm (installed, approx.)
Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Anyone with interested in contemporary art must have read books by uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. I asked our librarian Tom Irwin to research holdings of his books in New Zealand libraries. He found 137 entries. All can be inter-loaned via your local library.
Click here for New Zealand library holdings of Obrist's books.
One of my favourite Obrist books is do it – the compendium. This is a publication that affirms connections between life and art. It is humorous and engaging. For instance, Ben Kinmont suggests that we “invite a stranger into [our] home for breakfast.” 

"In 1993 I was at Café Select in Paris with Bertrand Lavier and Christian Boltanski discussing instruction works and how-to manuals and then we had this idea: what would happen if we started an exhibition that wouldn’t ever stop?" -  Hans Ulrich Obrist

Obrist’s book marks the 20th anniversary of his collaborative art project.  Artists prepare texts which become instructions for others to make artworks. Over 50 do it projects have happened in many locations.

Dwell has prepared a slide show about the publication.

Another profiles the book and quotes Louise Bourgeois.

hereelsewhere reiterates the life/art reality of the do it project

Brainpickings has a terrific response to Obrist’s book noting that Nairy Baghramian recommends “Following Gertrude Stein, every now and then sit with your back on nature.”

“do it is a kind of Catcher in the Rye for the curatorial world; it is a transformative mandatory read that connects a blur of dots into a cohesive and inviting image of both the art universe and the universe of ideas.”  - Douglas Coupland

Thursday 3 April 2014

Recent acquisition – Petrus Van Der Velden

Stanley Andrew
Petrus Van Der Velden
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
purchased 2013
Not many people know Petrus Van Der Velden and Vincent Van Gogh were friends. They were intimate enough for Van Gogh to write about Van Der Velden in three letters to his brother Theo. I had their friendship in mind when, recently, I acquired for the Gallery's collection the final photo-portrait of  Van Der Velden made by Stanley Andrew at Wellington during 1909.

Andrew was Wellington's most active official portraitist prior to World War I and 95 of his negatives are held at Wellington's Alexander Turnbull Library. Artists like Eileen Duggan, Anna Pavlova and Dorothy Kate Richmond were recorded by Andrew. Yet, it appears that Petrus Van Der Velden was the earliest artist to commission a portrait while Andrew was a photographer. He began his career using a quasi-pictorialist, almost moody style. Later he refined this expressionist approach into one with a deeper focus and less gradation in overall lighting. This results in a more flattering response to your subjects and they often don't look their age.

I was attracted to the portrait of Van Der Velden not only for its physical quality but because it reveals the difficulties and strain that living in New Zealand as a full time artist had been for him. He had a tetchy temperament and did not like the fact that the art scene here was nowhere as modern as what he knew in the Holland which he had departed from.

Modern art reached New Zealand with the arrival of James Nairn and Van Der Velden in 1890. Both were full-time artists and they wanted to maintain a serious and professional career. Van Der Velden was determined and opinionated but we simply do not know, as Rodney Wilson has noted, why the painter immigrated to New Zealand.

The Canterbury College School of Art in Christchurch refused to give him employment, not a surprising decision due to its insular suspicion of outsiders. Consequently, Van Der Velden became an itinerant immigrant – living 8 years in Christchurch, 6 years in Sydney and 9 years in Wellington.

The first image here is the vintage print that Auckland Art Gallery has recently purchased, with the original photographers' tinted paper and strawcard mounting mattes. It is signed at left by the photographer and has the Stanley Andrew blind-stamp at the lower right hand side of the print.

Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand
S.P. Andrew collection (PAColl -3739) reference 1/1-014987;G
Here is a cropped contact print of the variant Stanley Andrew portrait made at the same time. It is taken from the negative held in the Alexander Turnbull Library in the National Library of New Zealand. He appears more animated than the  portrait which we acquired, but his head appears to large for the body and is distorted in scale.

Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand
S.P. Andrew collection (PAColl -3739) reference 1/1-014988;G
This is an entire uncropped scan of the negative of the portrait that the Gallery has acquired. Note how the hands have been cropped out to give provide more prominence to the artist's face. It is almost heroic in its final cropped version. I believe that he made this version for his family's own use and not for any form of self-promotion.

Am I correct in noting that Petrus Van Der Velden was a friend of Vincent Van Gogh? Or was he simply one of his acquaintances? I keep coming back to the conclusion that he was a friend; especially judging from tone of Vincent's comments about Petrus included in three letters that he wrote to his brother Leo.

On Wednesday 1 November 1882 Vincent comments on seeing two drawings by Pieter (Petrus) in the magazine De Zwaluw.

On, or about, Saturday 21 April 1883, Vincent notes: "I met Van der V. once, and he made a good impression on me at the time. I was reminded of the character of Felix Holt the radical by Eliot. There’s something broad and rough in him that pleases me greatly — something like the roughness of torchon. A man who evidently doesn’t seek civilization in outward things but is much further inwardly, much much much further than most people. In short, he’s a true artist, and I’d like to get to know him for I would trust him and I’m sure I would learn from him."

On, or about, Wednesday 11 July 1883, Vincent writes "I saw Van der Velden once last year — at De Bock’s one evening when we looked at etchings. I’ve already written to you that he made a very favorable impression on me at the time,although he said little and wasn’t much company that evening. But the impression he immediately made on me was that he was a solid, genuine painter."

All of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters have been translated into English and are available to read online.

On 9 July 1896, Lawrence Jones of Dunedin reproduced the following early portrait of Petrus Van Der Velden. (I am grateful to the wonderful blog Early Otago Photographers for this image). Van Der Velden was aged 59 years and about to become a New Zealand citizen, but he was not prospering as a fulltime artist and had almost halved his fee for private life classes (based on 13 sessions of 2.5 hours each). There is a vast difference between this first portrait of Van Der Velden in New Zealand and the final one which we have acquired.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Meanings We Share

Bindi Cole, I  forgive you 2012
Two exhibitions at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki give prominence to histories and ideas in which viewers can find shared commonality with the art. Numerous artworks in both My Country: Contemporary Art from Black Australia and Five Māori Painters convey deep and strong connectedness to place and people. These exhibitions from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand cross cultural boundaries, and indicate that no matter what our background is, as viewers we can connect with the ideas found in the art.

Many artists in both exhibitions make art as a way of ‘keeping culture strong’ or passing down culturally specific ideas and practices to younger generations or others in their communities. Alick Tipoti, senior artist from the Torres Strait Islands north of Queensland, is the creator of one of the first works to greet visitors to My Country. Tipoti’s print illustrates the seafaring culture that is historically part of the Torres Strait Islands people. However, his image, Kuyku Garpathamai Mabaig, 2007 also resonates with the classical warrior figures from ancient Greece, Rome and other places. Tipoti employs a marvelous technique in his linocuts, which he has developed on the basis of formal art training, and has led to his works winning accolades such as the Telstra Art Award. However, for Tipoti, the songs that he sings in the presence of such artworks are equally as important as the images for passing on cultural knowledge.

Vernon Ah Kee’s large scale portraits draw the viewer into a close and personal engagement with the life-like figures. A man and child look directly at us from Ah Kee’s canvases in My Country, beautifully rendered in charcoal and conté. Strength of character is evident in the gaze of the sitters. Ah Kee has made more than 30 such images of his relatives, based on early 20th-century photos now stored in national archives and libraries. In Neither Pride nor Courage, 2006 Ah Kee depicts his great grandfather, who was photographed by anthropologist Norman B Tindale as part of scientific studies of the genealogy of Australian Aboriginal people. Ah Kee revives the documentation of the relative he never knew with the intention of reinstating his grandfather’s humanity. The artist also adds the face of a new generation – his son – in a drawing redolent with persistence and hope for a future that will be different for Indigenous and white populations in their relations with each other.

Emily Kame Kngwarreye is one of the senior artists with works in My Country. Kngwarreye has now passed away but her work set a precedent for Australian Aboriginal women in remote locations in the creation of art that explored the application of traditional ideas and forms in conventional media that was new to Indigenous artists at the time. As with works by the artists in Five Māori Painters, in her paintings Kngwarreye has synthesised ancestral stories and historic cultural meanings with aspects of contemporary life. Kngwarreye described works such as Wild Potato Dreaming, 1990 as ‘containing the whole lot, everything’, recalling the worldview expressed by Robyn Kahukiwa. Kahukiwa’s art is imbued with the Māori belief that the past lies before us; the present day connects to the past.

A number of artworks in My Country can be thought of as political, in the ways that artists reflect on contemporary events or assume that art has a role to play in producing the world today. A final work is important to note in reflecting on the connectivity between viewer s and art in My Country and Five Māori Painters. Visitors to My Country leave the exhibition with their senses filled by Bindi Cole’s installation and video I forgive you, 2012. Cole, like several other artists in the exhibition, reflects on the apology that was made to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008. Although Indigenous Australians continue to hope for ongoing change beyond this apology, which they feel has been slow to occur, Cole’s work asks the viewer to reflect on attitudes of forgiveness toward others at a personal level. Cole’s I forgive you generously reflects on the individual rights and responsibilities of pardoning others, a moving point on which to leave the intersections of these two exhibitions.

– Zara Stanhope, Principal Curator, Head of Programmes

Image credit:
Bindi Cole
Wathaurung people
Australia VIC b.1975
I forgive you 2012
Emu feathers on MDF board 11 pieces: 100 x 800cm (installed, approx.)
Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation