Nau mai, haere mai, welcome to eyeCONTACT, a forum built to encourage art reviews and critical discussion about the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. I'm John Hurrell its editor, a New Zealand writer, artist and curator. While Creative New Zealand and other supporters are generously paying me and other contributors to review exhibitions over the following year, all expressed opinions are entirely our own.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Interpreting de Lautour

B-Sides & Demos: Tony de Lautour
Softcover catalogue published by The Physics Room
Essay by Mark Williams
50 pp and colour images
Choice of two hand stencilled covers by the artist
April 2009

Earlier this year in late February The Physics Room presented an exhibition of Tony de Lautour’s works on paper, with a few small canvases mixed in. What is interesting is that though he has made many much larger works in recent years (like the Logo and ‘mountain’ hangings and the recent more geometric paintings) that are tidier in style, more fastidiously tighter in finish, this exhibition concentrates on the looser, wilder, brusherly works, many of which are preparatory studies - drawings in paint and pencil.

The important thing about this publication is the superb essay by Mark Williams (an Associate Professor of English at Victoria University) that attempts to analyse de Lautour’s imagery. And whilst I think Williams’ account of the artist’s motifs is a bit reductive - de Lautour works by intuition and not with a consistently maintained sociological or historical logic – he is very clear, with lots of compelling evidence. I just think it is a little simplistic, that’s all.

Williams starts off thinking about Simon During’s discussion of Tony Fomison in the 1994 What shall we Tell Them catalogue that points out Fomison’s recording in the seventies of “the end of a social consensus fashioned in the struggle of the white working class and the progressive middle class to produce a controlled, communitarian society (p.5).” De Lautour, he points out, elaborates further on the white working class’s disillusionment with the counterculture, and its diminishing employment, its anger at its loss of economic security and its growing hostility in the eighties to Asian immigration. As Williams makes clear, in reflecting this de Lautour is a caricaturist who uses ‘slapstick humour’. He is not a Gothic Fomison.

Near the end of his text Williams opines that De Lautour’s “body of work is more honest than that of other Pakeha painters of an era which is now coming to an end as economics supplant culture and creativity.” He praises the “bafflement and anger of his cartoon kiwis and blank but active heads – the white world of those without education, taste, or expectations of financial improvement (p.11).”

I wonder if Williams is correct in seeing de Lautour as making indignant critiques of behalf of the white working class. Bob Dylan once called himself ‘a Song and Dance Man’, referring even to his songs of social protest, and whilst joking he was also serious and correct. He is primarily an entertainer.

The title of de Lautour’s exhibition here alludes to Nick Cave’s triple album box set B-Sides and Rarities, for like Dylan and Cave, de Lautour likes to entertain. His painting practice is often about being mischievous or provocative, works where he is ridiculing sentimental and overused symbols of national identity rather than expressing righteous anger. Of course as with most artists, a range of moods and interests becomes apparent in his images, and often preoccupations contradict.

For example, whilst he has made many paintings that refer to historical images of Maori, within his contemporary referenced works where all the personages are apparently white, Maori are naturally absent. Should that be obvious and assumed, something to be expected? He has often stated the ‘white’ content of his narratives in his titles but his images do not necessarily confirm that. It is possible he is being coy and that he is nervous about ridiculing both Maori and Pakeha.

Looking at his use of heraldic emblems - de Lautour’s Kiwis seem to represent the tangata whenua and Lions the colonial powers - or is that only a pre–Treaty scenario, with everybody becoming a Kiwi and a Lion (subject of the Crown) after 1840? How do we interpret images of Kiwis fighting with Lions, Lions scrapping amongst themselves and Kiwis likewise. Often both Kiwis and Lions indulge in identical behaviour, smashing bottles, shooting up, smoking and drinking, being vandals. Often both wear skull masks or Mickey Mouse ears.

And let’s say ethnicity is an issue. Looking at the other images of male heads in profile, are they always white, these bank tellers, mechanics and others? Can we really tell their genetic heritage by their profile, or lack of moko? Is it safe to assume that they are white, that ‘white’ is truly white, and that such a binary distinction is biologically believable anyway? Perhaps de Lautour is far closer in his attitudes to his ‘Maori’ friend Peter Robinson with his Blood Percentage paintings than we give him credit for?

Terms like ‘White’ or ‘Maori’ in de Lautour’s hands are ciphers or codes that seem to be open. They are like his Revisionist images of New Zealand painted on found landscapes - where maps of the two islands become lakes or chasms that can be filled like vessels. Unexpected meanings slide in. His use of images is not programmatic, despite his occasionally provocative titles.

If one was really determined to come up with another template – as opposed to Williams and maybe even de Lautour himself - if one did in fact insist on an alternative program, one possibility could be that of the criminal classes versus the police. The interest in weapons, prison tattoos, violence and vandalism, the thuggish nature of the thick-necked portraits: all allude to a New Zealand dominated by lawlessness (albeit comical in de Lautour’s hands), with both police and crims being indistinguishable apart from their heraldic components. Yet it is possible I myself am being what I have accused Wiliams of – overly reductive.

These are great issues to think about and this is a useful little book. With it, using Williams’ discussion and the accompanying coloured images, or alternatively perhaps this review with its links to many online gallery pages – you can mull over this artist’s rich array of distinctive paintings.

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