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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 32, No. 18. July 30, 1969

Jan Walker introduces — A Dialogue on New Zealand Art

page 10

Jan Walker introduces

A Dialogue on New Zealand Art

There is a limit to how useful art criticism of individual exhibitions is, if it is not put within a wider framework To evaluate the position of New Zealand art in regional and international terms and to draw some over-all conclusions from the development of New Zealand art and from the work of individual artists can be of utmost importance. No aspect of culture, such as visual arts,

should be considered in isolation, since culture is an inevitable process of human living and man as such the product of his culture. Nonetheless expertise in specialist fields should throw more light on selected aspects. The following are a series of questions I put to three educationalists/artists of the main centres in an attempt to evaluate the present and make a prediction as to the future, of New Zealand art.


Do you see signs of a distinctive New Zealand quality in the work of contemporary pointers?

Hamish Keith: In some contemporary New Zealand painters, such as Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon, Patrick Hanly, Don Binney, Rita Angus, Michael Smither, M. T. Woolaslon, and in some of the younger realist painters, there are characteristics which do relate specifically to the New-Zealand environment. Whether this adds up to a "distinctive New Zealand quality" it is not really possible to say. It indicates, I think, nothing more than the fact that some contemporary painters work fairly consistently from a direct experience of their particular environment, while others do not.

However, I think it would be possible to mount an exhibition of New Zealand painting from say 1827 to 1969, in which one would be aware of the fact that all the painters involved were concerned with a particular range of experience, and that there were some reasonably consistent ways of approaching painting obvious in their work. I would not care in a simple answer like this, to attempt to isolate exactly what those elements were.

I am happy, however, to state that I personally believe that New Zealand painting does exist, and that there are some stylistic elements which seem to be characteristic of it. To generalise, they are:

(a) a concern with light, not in any Impressionist sense, but with the hard quality of New Zealand light (a fact remarked on by painters and critics of their work from as early as 1776). P. A. Tomory believed, and I would agree, that New Zealand light is responsible for the hard, "black and white images" that come through in the work of some painters.

(b) a reasonably consistent interest in a clearly deliniated imagery. This seems to apply equally well to abstract or figurative painters.

(c) related to (b) is a lack of concern for painterly directions. It is true, I think, that New Zealand has produced few if any painters who are involved with their medium for its own sake; paint is used here to make images and not often as an element in the aesthetic machinery of the work.

(d) while on the basis of (b) this might seem something of a stylistic paradox, the general flavour of New Zealand painting is a sort of romantic-expressionism. It is not conceived, however, in the style of painting usually associated with this kind of orientation.

Obviously, there are very good painters who do not fit into this general picture, and others to whom only part would apply. These are the general lines, it seems to me, along which painting here has developed. What is equally significant is the fact that influence of European painting and, lately, American painting, has been accepted in a selective way along the same general pattern. For instance Leger has had a more positive influence than Picasso, and the cubists more than the impressionists, and the American hard-edge and minimal painters more than abstract-expressionism. The reverse is true of Australian painting.

David Graham: The separation of figure and ground rather than the fusing of figure and ground strikes me as the most pervasive visual feature in contemporary New Zealand painting. Perhaps this is so because our perception of our environment is characterised strongly by an awareness of figure—ground relationships. Mountains, trees, buildings, and people stand out against each other.

A second important characteristic is the use of subject matter for which we have acute perceptual sensitization, such as landscapes.

A third but different type of characteristic is an aversion for adventurousness evidenced by a fear of taking risks. Where is our avant-garde? Paintings seems to be presented as a fait accompli. After seeing them one is not left in a state of ambiguity and confusion that forces the suspension of judgment as to whether they are works of art or not until subsequent viewing. The feeling is that all judgments were made before exhibition by a second or third party and one is merely expected to confirm them as being right.

Generally artists seem urged to apply premature closure to their development as soon as the first financial success comforts them. This phenomenon has been apparent also in both Britain and America in postwar years. That is the painter or sculptor transmutes himself, per the philosopher's stone of recognition, from an artist into a craftsman.

Paul Olds: I would say there are signs that New Zealand painting is developing some distinctive non-representational qualities but this may be simply because I am living among what is happening.

Art everywhere is taking on an "International Flavour" and in this, New Zealand has not been left out, so one sees some art forms which are happening here have also happened elsewhere. We are only an airmail copy away from the latest Art International.

Auckland and Christ church are commonly regarded as centres of art activity in New Zealand probably because of the Arts Schools, Do you see signs of real development in any other centres, say Wellington?

Hamish Keith: The art schools may have made some contribution to developments in Christchurch and Auckland, but not. I think, a great deal (at least in the period 1945 to 1960). In Auckland, for instance, up until the 60s at least, the art school was more a centre of reaction than anything positive and the same would be true of Christ church to a smaller extent. It is really only in the last few years that art school products have played much of a part in the mainstream of New Zealand contemporary painting. Few of the more important painters of the 50s had any connection with the schools at all.

By far the most important stimulus to the Auckland scene from 1952 to 1980 was the work of the Auckland City Art Gallery, the first in the country to take New Zealand painting seriously and to undertake any research into the development of European painting in New Zealand from the 19th century on. From the early 60s the dealer gallery began to play an increasingly central role in the developments in Auckland. Add to this the establishment of an art history department at Auckland University (initially in the art school and later as a separate department), the growth of articulate and professional criticism and critical writing, and the massive increase in the number of painters active in Auckland and you have the basis of what goes on here. For a growth indicator the comparison between the number of one-man exhibitions in the whole of Auckland in 1958, 7, and the 30 shows in the dealer galleries alone in 1985, is revealing. In 1967, the turnover from sales of works of art in two of the most active galleries was in excess of $90,000, $57,000 of which went buck to the artists.

I know very little about the Christchurch scene apart from the painters who are active there, but with the exception of architecture, a field in which Christchurch indisputably is ahead of the rest of the country, I would not be inclined to describe it as a "centre". Certainly there are more active contemporary painters there than anywhere else outside Auckland, but this can be accounted for in terms of population. In fact Auckland's concentrated population is a most important factor. One wouldn't, for instance, expect to find the most active art scene in England centred in Birmingham. It is significant that by far the majority of painters and critics on the Auckland scene have come here from elsewhere in the country, (Only one member of the professional staff at the Auckland gallery comes from Auckland). At least a quarter of exhibitions at the dealer galleries are by out of town painters.

The developments in Auckland over the past decade nave been on a number of levels; while the artists themselves arc, obviously, the most essential element in any art "scene", the market, art criticism, and its longer term manifestation, art history, are also essential. These have not developed to any extent elsewhere in the country. I doubt very much that they will, since the size of New Zealand in population terms docs not suggest that it would be likely to support more than one "centre". This is not to say, however, that activity in the visual arts is not likely to be vigorous or worthwhile, outside the centre.

As a matter of historical fact, the centre of the visual arts in this country has moved about a great deal; Dunedin in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Wellington in the 20s and 30s, Christchurch in the late 30s, the 40s, and the early 50s, and Auckland during the last decade. During these particular periods the centre concerned has been the focus for activity over the whole country, but in the years up to the late 50s this activity has largely centred around particular groups of painters. The fact that the Auckland scene has developed in other ways as well, suggests to me something of an adolescence, if not the beginnings of maturity, in the visual arts in New Zealand.

Add to this the fact that the Auckland scene is now showing signs of the same of hang-up that hit painters in London and New York some 3 or 4 years ago, and you have the whole bit.

Christchurch members of 20/20 Vision. Left to right, at top: painters Michael Eaton (with beard). David Graham, Don Peebles, Carl Sydow, printmaker Derek Mitchell (glasses and beard), designer Michael Kitson. Next row from extreme left: painters Trevor Moffit, Gavin Bishop, Ted Francis, Alan Olliver (with glasses), Quentin MacFarlane, sculptor Tom Taylor (white sweater), Clockwise from painter Vician Bishop (only woman in this group); painters John Coley, Bill Sutton, designers Maurice Askew, Clive Luscombe.

Christchurch members of 20/20 Vision. Left to right, at top: painters Michael Eaton (with beard). David Graham, Don Peebles, Carl Sydow, printmaker Derek Mitchell (glasses and beard), designer Michael Kitson. Next row from extreme left: painters Trevor Moffit, Gavin Bishop, Ted Francis, Alan Olliver (with glasses), Quentin MacFarlane, sculptor Tom Taylor (white sweater), Clockwise from painter Vician Bishop (only woman in this group); painters John Coley, Bill Sutton, designers Maurice Askew, Clive Luscombe.

No, I do not see any signs of development in Wellington, although more is happening there at the moment than it has for many years. The cultural climate of Wellington can best be described as constipated, for some quite obvious reasons, and I don't see any signs of this changing. However, Wellington could develop better means of communicating just what is really going on in the visual arts in this country and that could have a considerable effect on the general climate. It certainly needs to happen, since owing to the insane political geography that operates in New Zealand, some major cultural planning is done in Wellington, and because of the state of the cultural environment there it is inevitably misdirected.

David Graham: Because art is a creative activity it is impossible to predict what next will happen or where it will happen. Like all creative activities art is the unique relationship of many complex variables.

At present the School of Fine Arts in Christchurch has practically no influence on local artists because it is largely staffed by imported Englishmen, towards whom resentment is felt because they were preferred as appointees to New Zealanders, Allied to this is the Englishman's un-familiarity with the subtleties of the New Zealander's cultural heritage in the form of his education system, his egalitarian society, his country-town childhood, and his feeling of inferiority, all of which separate the visitor even further.

Paul Olds: Let's look at Wellington. Wellington may well be regarded as a developing centre for art in New Zealand although it is too early to say that this has happened. On the one hand the direction Wellington might take is towards a grouping of highly individual artists rather than a School of Painters. Gordon Walters, Rita Angus, and Wong Sing Tai would fall under this heading, each working very much on their own.

On the other hand the hesitant and unkind dulating capital of Wellington sits among a host of separate centralised activities such as the National Film Unit, a new TV headquarters, Wellington Polytechnic School of Design, a future School of Architecture, Downstage, a National Art Gallery, and no University Art School—the facilities of all page 11 these make possible a very different kind of visual art development in this area.

Hamish Keith

Curator of the Auckland Art Gallery

David Graham

Lecturer in Art, Christchurch Teachers' Training College

Paul Olds

University Extension Department, Victoria University, Wellington

Do you think art in New Zealand lacks a philosophy?

Hamish Keith: Only to the extent that I believe that the visual arts everywhere at his time lack a relevant "philosophy".

David Graham: There is Little doubt in my mind that we lack a philosophy of art Not only are many of the painters I know reluctant and unable to talk about the philosophy of art, but also they seem diffident about learning about the creative process or the psychology of perception. It is odd to ignore that which can give us greater understanding of human activities in preference for a purely intuitive or heuristic approach. These latter approaches are either old-fashioned or immature. We appear to have no philosophy that tan be considered characteristic of man approaching the final quarter of the 20th century. Perhaps we are too afraid to sever our romantic and nostalgic associations with an imaginary and past Europe except at those times when we express a naive, adolescent self-love for Our Country .

Paul Olds: I do not think there is a collective philosophy to cover New Zealand art, but clearly those artists working most effectively are able to point to some guiding principles. One need not ask Colin McCahon but simply look at his paintings executed during a period of thirty years to see a philosophy in operation.

What moves do you consider should be made to increase aesthetic awareness in New Zealand?

Hamish Keith: I don't think aesthetic awareness is the problem. The real problem that exists here and exists everywhere in developed countries at this time—how to feed creativity, individual experience, and sensibility back into the social framework? The trick is not managed merely by paying for more sculpture, outside more buildings or more productions of Italian opera. Cultural problems don't have economic solutions in the same way that an injection of low-cost capital into a particular industry might establish it as an economic entity. Frankly, I don't believe that society can be enriched and re-directed through the traditional framework of the arts. If you accept that one of the principal functions of the arts has been to make human life more meaningful and to change our usual relationship with the world, then quite obviously within our social structure the arts fail or, at best, emphasise the existence of an alienated sub-culture.

In my opinion the basic measure required by the present cultural patterns in New Zealand is nothing less than a massive restructuring and reorientation of the educational system. Not to produce more aesthetically aware human beings, but to prepare the individual to live his life as an end in itself. On a narrow level the most potent area for cultural change is the broadcasting system, but so far there are few signs that the present system could or even wants to, accept the responsibility.

David Graham: Aesthetic awareness implies a critical frame of mind. Criticism is often taken awkwardly by New Zealanders Instead of it being seen as a way to greater understanding it is interpreted as a destructive threat to what we already have Societies tend to restrict their creative members in self-defence. Learning to give, accept, and evaluate criticism is a responsibility of our education system, and I fail to see how aesthetic awareness can be developed until this responsibility is recognised

Paul Olds: Restructure a standard of values appropriate to the living needs of those in this community.

In New Zealand we have an insidious standard underlying so much of our behaviour—we lack real guts as New Zealanders (yet we fancy we are full of it). We take great pride in our weakness and negate what might be our strengths (we stress the fighting qualities of the Maori and not his freer communal ones).

Rather than an emphasis on teaching we should stress education and this really means going back to school. The National Development Conference has brought to tight some of the cultural and environmental needs that must be met.

If you think there is a lack of taste in man's contribution to New Zealand's environmental development, what do you think are its worst manifestations? Hamish Keith: Public and corporate architecture and city planning.

David Graham: The worst manifestations of man's contribution to New Zealand's environmental development are the buildings being erected in the centres of our largest cities. Of these, Wellington is the worst. It is empirically true for example that in the complex ordering of variables for the successful construction of a jet aeroplane, the particular relationships of one part to another must be carefully considered so that the whole will function at maximum efficiency. Yet the complex ordering of the variables for the construction of the heart of a city is left to occur almost at random, despite empirical evidence that the results lead to a very low degree of efficiency of function. One of the variables is the aesthetics of architecture. Paul Olds: I am not quite sure but I believe it to be the '"monument"—statues, war memorials, museums, railway stations cathedrals, and banks. Perhaps these are merely symptoms but it's probably more true to say these are at the heart of the disease. Architects fail where so often engineers succeed. The city motorway is vastly more impressive and aesthetically expressive than the city cathedral. Do you think New Zealand artists are too closely tied to overseas trends?

Hamish Keith: No. They are responsive to what is happening elsewhere in a selective way and it would be a sign of cultural immaturity if they ignored developments elsewhere, or if they accepted them in toto. The main point to be concerned with is that the influence, or reflection, of overseas trends happens on more than just a stylistic level. To quote Jackson Pollock ". . . the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any country."

David Graham: New Zealand artists are too closely tied to the forms of overseas trends, but I feel they miss the spirit of them. The result is frequently a personalised interpretation of an illustration in a periodical. Even realism, as the portrayal that gives us pleasure, is an overseas trend that has been with us since the Greeks, When we begin to ask ourselves "What is art about? , and we are prepared to take risks to find out by our own creative endeavour then we may cease to rush for the next issue of Studio International.

Paul Olds: It is inevitable that the New Zealand artist is aware of overseas trends and that some follow these too closely. By following too closely I take it that one means without due regard to the meaning and appropriateness to the New Zealand environment. One must not forget that art feeds upon art (both local and overseas) —today it breeds on the too frequent glossy illustrations in art books and is influenced strongly by advertising.

What aspect of the visual and plastic arts do you consider the most neglected?

Hamish Keith: The whole cultural climate of New Zealand is one of neglect. I don't think it would mean a great deal to single out any particular area of the visual arts as being more neglected than any other.

Auckland: Left to right back row: printers Ted Smythe Milan Mrkusich., dealer Barry Lett, printmaker Kees Hos, 2nd row, Patrick Hanley and Ross Richie (behind only woman). Next row painters Michael Illingworth, Pauline Thompson John Perry and dealer Rodney Kirk Smith, Critics Gordon H. Brown and Terry McNamara. Seated on stool: sculptor Paul Beadle. Kneeling left: painter Colin McCahon. Sitting foreground: painter Robert Ellis.

Auckland: Left to right back row: printers Ted Smythe Milan Mrkusich., dealer Barry Lett, printmaker Kees Hos, 2nd row, Patrick Hanley and Ross Richie (behind only woman). Next row painters Michael Illingworth, Pauline Thompson John Perry and dealer Rodney Kirk Smith, Critics Gordon H. Brown and Terry McNamara. Seated on stool: sculptor Paul Beadle. Kneeling left: painter Colin McCahon. Sitting foreground: painter Robert Ellis.

For instance, sculpture is often described as a Cinderella" in the New Zealand arts but until the last ten years, sculpture has been practically non-existent. One could hardly complain about attention not being paid to something that was not there In the straight-out terms of changing the look of the urban environment, however, I would say that graphics are desperately ignored here.

The real problem, though, is not the degree of attention the arts receive, but the kind of attention. A great deal too much attention is presently being paid to quite meaningless areas in the arts. But it would not achieve a thing merely to divert the same kind of attention, even if it were possible to do so, to other areas. Like anything else, the prime question about culture is not "how much?" but "what for?" In my opinion the latter question has not been and is not likely to be, asked about cultural development in New Zealand Until it is asked and answered, real and relevant cultural development will not exist here.

David Graham: That aspect of the visual arts that is most neglected is the production of works in which a spirit of enquiry is apparent. Such works ask questions rather than attempt to give us answers or instructions as to how we should see this or that Each of the three issues of Ascent reveals the absence of the enquiring, curious, open, and creative mind. Ascent may be better titled 'Deja Vu'.

Paul Olds: It might be painting—that which we appear to interest ourselves with most i.e., art in schools. Pointing competitions merely compound the confusion

If one considers the egocentric nature of certain arts then the contrasting non-egocentric arts are most neglected, thus urban development, architecture films, and television would be amongst these. "Design" as applied to articles in everyday usuage is still a taste for those "good with their hands".

What positive way do you think promising artists can best be encouraged? Is it inevitable that any developing artist has to go overseas to become say, a New Zealand painter?

Hamish Keith: I think the whole status of artists is confused so I can't answer the first part of this question without answering some deeper and more difficult ones first.

There isn't time to do this, even if I had the answers. Once again it seems relevant to ask; encourage promising artists to do what; and to what end? The second part is easily answered; no, I don't think it's inevitable and I don't think it really happens.

David Graham: In my opinion there is only one way to encourage our artists, and that is by inviting art philosophers, critics, and aestheticians to tour, look, and speak. Both Sir Herbert Read and Mr Clement Greenberg, after their visits, left behind frustration, confusion, doubt and uncertainty but unfortunately not enough of it.

The practice of sending the "good boy", after thorough screening, on a scholarship overseas is a vote of no-confidence in any artist who reaches beyond our immediate understanding. This artist knows it may be some time before his work is understood but his courage is considered to be a good enough reason not to encourage him. I am forced to conclude that the "trip" is a reward for the craftsman about whom there is now little doubt, but not for the artist who may him out to be a failure.

A stimulating, aggressive anti-art-establishment publication, appearing frequently, could do more to aid and abet the deviant painter or sculptor whether he be in West-port, Gisborne, Kamo, or anywhere.

Paul Olds: It is not inevitable that a developing artist goes overseas (especially today when the overseas is thrown at us more and more), but it would be an avenue that he would be unwise to neglect should the opportunity arise. It is not so much a question as to whether one goes or not but rather would an overseas experience help in the artist's personal development. A contrast of two living experiences may be unsettling but it can clarify ones own position as an artist in the place of ones birth

Promising artists arise under varied conditions never exactly duplicated and so any means of promoting such artists must not be inflexible. The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council is, or should be, best geared to meet individual artists needs which are outside the usual conventional art education possibilities.

The best way we can help the artist is to understand his position in relationship to the environment in which we live, of which we are a past, no more, or no less than the artist himself.