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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Pencilcase Painters

Here is another from APW:

The group of painters sometimes termed the “pencil case painters” that arose from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts, Christchurch in the 1990s, is interesting not only because it is probably the last great expression of Canterbury Regionalist painting, but it is also the first identifiably original school of postmodernism to be found in New Zealand art.
What is mysterious about this grouping (loosely considered to contain Tony de Lautour, Bill Hammond, Seraphine Pick, Shane Cotton, Saskia Leek, and possibly also Grant Takle) is that there seems to be no singular influence or catalyst that forged the similarities in style among these painters at this time, but rather these stylistic similarities seem to have come about through a number of lateral exchanges spread rhizomatically through their association. To describe this phenomenon, I will adapt Goethe’s expression “elective affinities”.
Elective Affinities (Die Wahlverwandtschaften in German) is an 1809 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In early Nineteenth century chemistry, the phrase "elective affinities" was used to describe compounds that only interacted with each other under select circumstances. Goethe used this as an organizing metaphor for marriage, and for the conflict between responsibility and passion.
Working closely in the same studio space after graduating, each artist seems to have brought something of themselves individually to the gestalt, before ultimately diverging into personal and often archetypal themes. Cotton’s early interest in American painter Terry Winters, for example, or Bill Hammond’s orientalised view of bird colonies on sub-Antarctic islands. This cocktail was nurtured in a matrix of a proud Canterbury regionalist tradition, and the neoexpressionist culture formed by Rudolf Gopas in the 1960s (which resulted in the brief-but-bright careers of Phillip Clairmont, Allen Maddox and Philip Trusttum), but particularly drawing strength from the animistic, anthropomorphic landscapes and caricatures of painter Tony Fomison.
Although this occurred largely innocent of contemporaries such as German Neoexpressionism or the Italian Transavangardia, the Pencil-casers must be read in a broader international context, even if they were only aware of it peripherally. Ignoring, for the moment, New York graffiti artists like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat, California was developing its own regionalist riposte to the neoexpressionist hegemony of New York that might to relate to what American writer Ralph Rugoff described as “Pathetic art” Rugoff describes this as art that “settles for an undignified ridiculousness, constructed with preterite materials, this work often seems laughably awkward; its gawkiness, both conceptually and physically, frequently gives it an adolescent appearance. … A typical characteristic of Pathetic art is its low-grade construction.”
It even becomes questionable whether Pathetic art is ironic:

Bereft of irony’s protective distance, pathetic art invites you to identify with the artists as someone [not] in control of his or her culture … Pathetic art is sad, but also funny, and the sadder it gets, the funnier it seems.

Pathetic art is usually the art of a dysfunctional or anxiously paranoid society that shows no signs of improving. In the United States this resulted in the exhibition Helter Skelter: LA Art in the ‘90s at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992. In New Zealand this impression has perhaps not been quite so catastrophic, but reflects more the cliché of uncertainty and unease surrounding notions of national identity, recession and massive economic restructuring.
American Philosopher Arthur Danto described the phenomenon in the US as “demotic art”, noting that the drawing in such work showed “zero degree of draftsmanship … the kind that finds its way into tattoo parlours, prison wall graffiti, leaflets advertising garage sales … derisive, sullen, hostile, punk … charmless, expressionless, flat, mechanical, smeared, logogrammatic.” He concluded that in fact such art was “massively mainstream” and was “antiaesthetic, palimpsestic, fragmented, chaotic, layered, hybridised … a mirror of our times.”
This seems an almost perfect description of a Tony de Lautour painting with a bricoleur’s eye for visual vocabulary from graffiti and prison tattoos (skulls, daggers, joints, bottles of booze, spiderwebs, tears, lightning bolts) in their exact Delft blue and occasionally the vomit-violet of regurgitated methylated spirits.

Certain semiotic themes have become dominant through the rhizomatic dissembling of Elective Affinity, especially two images that might be considered specifically New Zealand in character, indicating at the very least a flirtation with national identity: Islands and Birds.
Islands and other carved up divots of the landscape occur in the paintings of Hammond (floating Ukiyo-e like on arsenical malachite “perilous seas forlorn”), De Lautour (mountainous white on black and shaped as corporate logos, or resting on wooden planks and trolleys), and Cotton (enclosed in wooden compartments, as flag-bristling pincushions, and contained in urns like pot plants). Floating beds fill a similar function for Pick.
For Hammond islands provide a series of isolated mythical tableaux where his bizarre man-bird hybrids can await the missionary or the taxidermist in what are tempting to read as a kind of postcolonial fantasy of an impossible Pakeha dreamtime. For Cotton these ‘islands’ represent a memorial cri de Coeur for the land of his Maori ancestors carved up by European colonisation. Pick (born on Kawakawa Island in the Bay of Islands) the floating bed is an island of sanctuary relating to a nostalgia for childhood – like the fairytale island paradise Orplid invented by German writer Eduard Mörike (a literary precursor of Tolkien’s Middle Earth).
For De Lautour, islands seem like fragments of a decayed empire or bits or a white trash Antipodean Eden corrupted by consumerism and outside pressures – a message further borne out by his evenly matched, eternally battling heraldic lion and iconic kiwi.
Hammond’s islands and their Ovidian inhabitants came as a dramatic change from earlier frenetic scenes of rock’n’roll Surrealism.

What I would like to suggest was occurring in this process of Elective Affinity during the period when these artists were most alike in style, is parallel to the postmodern ambiguity of the construct of ethnicity in the early 21st century, particularly in postcolonial New Zealand. From a Marxist perspective:

What is involved is the splitting of the notion of ethnicity between … the dominant notion which connects it to nation and ‘race’ and … the beginning of a positive conception of the ethnicity of the margins, of the periphery … a recognition that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position as ‘ethnic artists’ … We are all, in that sense, ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are. But this is also a recognition that this is not an ethnicity which is doomed to survive, as Englishness was, only by marginalising, dispossessing, displacing and forgetting other ethnicities. This precisely is the politics of ethnicity predicated on difference and diversity.

Essentially what the ‘Pencilcasers’ seem to have been unconsciously doing, is attempting to forge a set of new mythical archetypes to provide nutritious strata for the tap roots of a new New Zealand identity. These images and landscape porn like the Lord of the Rings franchise, act as a kind of epitaph to our relationship to the land and to nature. I suspect that the huge jingoistic groundswell of LOTR obsession in this country had a lot to do with European kiwis finding in Tolkien’s mythopoeia a kind of Pakeha Dreamtime legitimising a closer connection to the landscape by non-indigenous New Zealanders.
Perhaps this is because the great South Island tradition of landscape painting is no longer legitimate and quite possibly redundant. Traditionally the South Island landscape painting derived from the tonal impressionism of Velásquez mixed with the Romantic Sublime by the Victorians. This was reinvigorated at the turn of 19th/20th centuries with an infusion from the plein air painting of the French Barbizon School via Petrus van der Velden (of Jozef Israels’ Hague School), James Nairn (onetime member of ‘the Glasgow Boys’) and Girolamo Nerli (a minor Italian noble influenced by the Macchiaioli painters and Frances Hodgkins teacher).
Now, with growing realisation, neither Pakeha nor Maori can claim to have that kind of straightforward relationship to the land – that kind of visual conquest and ownership is no longer accessible to us. For Pakeha, in the words of Robert Frost’s poem “The Gift Outright” (read at the inauguration of American President John F. Kennedy in 1961),

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours

But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Maori, on the other hand, feel understandibly dispossessed, robbed of the land and dispersed around the country (indeed, the world), their culture diluted and eroded by migration to the cities.
The marketers have commodified and pimped the very landscape we inhabit to a series of postcards; a reality TV show for the voyeurism of tourists who know nothing about our culture, nor care to; a forest of signs – that which Baudrillard termed a ‘simulacra’ of reality. “Nature red in tooth and claw” has, instead, given way to a pabulum of glossy brochure images to be parodied by these artists.
Thus the New Zealand landscape proliferates in infinite, carefully airbrushed and photoshopped reproduction into countless square kilometres of virgin bush like dark wet jade, freaked with meandering and braided skeins of river quicksilver. But interestingly, it is as if the actual New Zealanders have been erased – neutron-bombed – from the landscape. We have become irrelevant to the task of selling the country, reduced to the status of mere staffage to give a sense of scale; or if Maori, used to give a tough of exotic flavour as a point of difference.
That this all took place in the 1990s can hardly be said to be coincidence. It coincides with the breakdown of the welfare state brought on by Ruthenasia and Rogernomics in the late 1980s, and a much more vocal proactive Maori voice in civic life as a product of the so-called Maori Renaissance of the late ‘70s/80s. This matrix of crisis offered the ideal conditions for “pathetic” and “demotic” art.
The ‘Pencilcasers’ offer us a kind of response.

1. An expression coined by Lara Strongman when she was curator of the Robert McDougall Gallery’s contemporary annex, probably around the time of the Skywriters and Earthmovers exhibition in 1998 which included a number of Pencil-casers. The phrase refers to the scratchy doodle and graffiti like nature of the artists’ work, as one might find on an adolescent’s pencil case.
2. Ralph Rugoff, “Just Pathetic,” Just Pathetic, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles 1990, pp3-4.
3. Ibid p19.
4. Arthur C. Danto, “Books & The Arts. What Happened to Beauty?”, The Nation, March 30 1992, pp 418, 420-21.
5. S. Hall, “New Ethnicities” in K. Mercer (Ed.) Black Film/British Cinema, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1988, p29.

The images come (top to bottom) from de Lautour, Hammond, Takle, Pick, Cotton and Leek.


Nancy Sutherland said...

That's very interesting, APW, thanks for this ... essay?.

Nancy Sutherland said...

A central point in the article has pleased and then worried me at different times: "a recognition that we all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture". The 'we' viewpoint being spoken of – or so I took it from the context – meant at least artists (perhaps New Zealand artists specifically), or, arguably, NZers in general. Whichever, I think artists or arts practitioners and curators - and any others - who focus on this are a thought-group who are missing a whole lot. The viewpoint assumes much more separation between people of different place, history, experience and culture – and more stasis and simplicity to social and cultural existence – than could ever be warranted.
A new paradigm might or might not be at odds with this current arts-weighted paradigm, the diversity focus, but its main strength would be that it would productively take it at once with it and beyond it.
Note that the reality of some diversity focus is not disputed, just its extent.

John Hurrell said...

Yes Nancy, but Andrew is an unabashed NZ regionalist so it is natural he say that. The funny thing is he would probably agree that often when in overseas museums one comes across artworks made by persons unknown that knock one's socks off. You don't always need a historic, geographic, or cultural context to appreciate an item's worth.

Unknown said...

To an extent John is correct to call me an "unabashed regionalist" - although I am hardly a fundementalist in that regard. However, as an art historian, taking into account what I know of these artists' connections to broader trends just out of art school at the end of the world, and the striking stylistic similarities early in their work (and I should stress that much of the above rarely hold's true for the artists now) I feel it is well worth investigating as a localised penomenon. I can't think of similar examples from the late 80s/early 1990s occuring spontaneously elsewhere in NZ - though i would be delighted to be enlightened. I can only consider it as a reaction to trends in the North Island - and this was recognised by Australian curators as early as 1999 - see the Asia-Pacific Triennial catalogue. We, as always, have been a little slow to catch on.
More to the point, I don't see any shame in regionalism - the critical pendulum in the US is very much swinging back my way these days as a reaction against globalisation (see Lucy Lippard's last few books).