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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 29, No. 2. 1966.

Galloping ahrt

Galloping ahrt

Art criticism and discussion today seem to be a rather hopeless affair, particularly with the present vogue of the "international style," which seems to deny the use or need of any objective criteria.

In Fact Herbert Read "-isms" such as "Art and Anarchy" or indeed Op or Pop fashions suggest to one immediately that the art world is insane or chaotic or both.

To prove this one need only read any reputable critic and find a tangled skein of slick undefinable adjectives which could mean anything.

Any argument about art is tedious since it usually ends in the old school versus new school idea —(e.g. "look at the disagreeable hearing the first French impressionists received"). The New Zealand case is clear enough with the Auckland area of influence/Kelliher posturings.

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The new-old school argument, however, is not the worst side of criticism. Many of those of influence in the art world have become so keen not to repeat the experience of the French academies in their rejection of Impressionism that there is a large movement afoot to buy or "let be" whatever is new, whatever seems to be more modern, or extreme, than the last bloke.

This attitude is dangerous since it inevitably leads not only to thriving poor art but also to an over-emphasis on certain trends or areas to the exclusion of others.

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The fashion for the Woolasten, McCahon, Mrkusich group of painters for instance, has led to the exclusion of, say, Eric Lee Johnson or Louise Henderson in the more important New Zealand exhibitions.

Or, in the lack of interest in water colours, and these are not necessarily synonymous with Kelliher. The sacred cow of International Expressionism has, what is more, led to the blindness of modern criticism.

As soon as someone starts to object to present trends and their disdain for objective methods, a finger is pointed with the call of "Tom Pearce" or "Ignorance!" and it seems obvious that neither extreme need be valid.

It is too easy to say that value judgments are inevitable and that art is completely personal. To do so is to say therefore that there is no difference in aesthetic qualities between, for example, a tugboat whistle, and a Beethoven sonata.

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Applied to painting, it is to deny that there are such simple standards as those of form, line, colour, texture, etc. What is more. I would suggest that there is a large difference between the blot and the diagram.

The blot is the anarchic—the flickings, the smudges, the cakings; the diagram is a work of craft, in that it respects harmonies and subtleties in colour and tone, etc., and recognises that tones, rather than outrageous extremes, exist.

Thus we come to Edgar Mansfield's work at the Centre Gallery and its relevance to New Zealand. Mansfield was one of the first to be taught art at a training college (Dunedin).

He was then a teacher for a period and went to London before the war. Thus, stylistically, at any rate in his book-binding designs, he is completely free of the McCahon influence.

He has not been dominated by the new "art-for-art's sake" rationalisation of the latter group.

But paradoxically in the Auckland logic he is far more of an experimenter and a free ranger: he demonstrates aptly the invalidity of most modern New Zealand abstract painting when it applies its own "break new grounds" rationale to itself.

He is free of Auckland's preconception of and preoccupation with "the International style" — he shows his own forwardness and their sterility. Significantly, this show is not going to Auckland.

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Mansfield's book-binding designs mean much more than his sculptures. For the latter, he claims in his programme that he is concerned with animism—"the attribution of a soul, or life-force, to an inanimate object."

The Napier beaches have been his raw material and the 70-or-so bronzes and wood-carvings ranging in price from seven to 90 guineas, show that he knows and studies his flotsam and jetsam.

Stylistically, he is extremely versatile and is obviously stilt experimenting in different shapes and colours. However his work is perhaps too unsettled and he seems too concerned with detail as in "Ono Tekau" where the work has no symmetry or flow of concentration.

Where, however, Mansfield elongates his work he finds more reassurance and continuity in his lines as in, for instance, "Tahi" or "Rua Tekau Ma Toru." I also found the polishing and the few touches of paint on a lot of the work very disturbing.

Perhaps in all. Mansfield's sculptures are too much like driftwood. I felt that he could have displayed the source of inspiration with an equal effect.

Consequently one would wish that Mansfield would allow his surfaces a freer range; still, a freer or larger surface necessitates space and space is expense in bronze.

Our attention must be concentrated on the book-binding designs.

His motifs, as an illustrative comparison, are slightly reminiscent of Paul Klee.

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I found his work very satisfying since he does concern himself with the so-called worldliness of the Auckland art atmosphere. Instead of following in the footsteps of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, de Kooing et al crowd, Mansfield has worked out his own fresh style which predates McCahon or Woolasten in their claims for novelty and daring.

What is more Mansfield knows how to use colour. So well does he consider craftsmanship, his technique of placing the oil crayon angles and curves which flow into cubes, softly rounded polygons (interspaced with moons) produces a marked lithographic effect.

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Oil crayon on an oil surface is a very difficult media with which to produce subtle ranges of colour. He also manages to keep his designs nicely centered in the paintings—a difficult feat considering the explosive nature of geometric motifs.

Very generally speaking, where he is more concerned with strictly linear patterns, his oil colour background is brightened, thus tensing the linear movements. Where on the other hand, the lines become more finite polygons Mansfield softens his oils to give prominence to the colour formation within the designs themselves.

This is not doing justice to Mansfield, however, as all the book-bindings are complex in their interlocking of colour and form. Seeing the great scope for geometric variation with its harmony of colour potential, one tends to be disgusted not only with the Auckland art influence but also with New Zealand's neglect in curtain or carpet design.

Mansfield as an artist and a craftsman suggests that at last a gap is being closed. A picture has a far wider application than being just a pretty thing for the living room wall or the plaything of fashion dictated by such as modern critics.