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.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Painting and Leadership

The Power of Portraiture
Curated by Erin Griffey
Gus Fisher
28 November – 24 January 2008

I hope 'The Power of Portraiture' will give international and local visitors a rare and valuable opportunity to examine their assumptions about what constitutes leadership, who should create it and how they should do this. The one thing that you will find that all of the leaders featured in this exhibition hold in common is that they had a cause. They all had something they stood for, something they worked diligently and persistently towards.
(An excerpt from the opening essay in the catalogue, by Professor Brad Jackson, Chair in Leadership, Fletcher Building Education Trust, University of Auckland Business School.)

Professor Jackson is admirably clear. This is a show is about leadership, one that advocates more stepping forward from those gifted in guiding or inspiring others. It also encourages its viewers to think about any personal narratives they may be aware of linked to each sitter, each portrait being a sort of code or cipher for their achievements. There is also an implication that these individuals are above reproach and as such, visionaries.

Whatever the social benefits of his advocacy (and I agree with him that there are many – for Kiwis do tend to dislike drawing attention to themselves and to cut down ‘tall poppies’) Jackson, in my view (like this exhibition) is terribly naïve. I say this because some of these sitters will be loathed for the causes they represented, and their ethical behaviour debated. For example Jenny Shipley is hated for what she did to the Public Health sector in 1993, and perhaps (and I am only guessing) Tamati Waaka Nene (a Nga Puhi chief painted here by Goldie) is despised by some Maaori communities for his support of the Treaty of Waitangi, the issue still remaining contentious.

For Jackson’s purposes paintings are in fact inadequate because as static objects they don’t elaborate on the qualities of the sitters. They don’t bear narratives like films or comics and are not biographies, despite being heavily symbolic. They are about public appearances not truth, and – as most portraits do - tell us more about the artists than the sitters.

The thirty-nine works on display are commissioned portraits made usually of successful business people or those elected to office. It is a deeply bourgeois exhibition. No critiquing Hans Haacke–style portraits here, no caricature, no ridicule, no deconstructing of the formal devices that signal ownership of power in the body language of sitters. It is all very respectful. And this is understandable because after all, these artists are trying to earn a living. They can hardly turn on their employers and risk getting sacked.

It is not a show about portraiture or commissioned portraiture. There are no Heather Straka, Alan Pearson, Gavin Hurley or Peter Stichbury contributions – all experts in those fields. The perceived power (what Jackson calls ‘leadership’) of the sitters is the essential component. And although there are some appalling works (the image of Elizabeth II is particularly laughable), much of the show is plain dull. Just bad art that deserves to be tossed into an incinerator.

Yet if you sift through the dross there are at least five gems that make a trip to the Gus Fisher seriously worthwhile.

Richard McWhannell’s Portrait of Hugh Fletcher and Lynsey Burley (1996) is the highlight of the exhibition and totally different from anything else in the show. It shows Fletcher gazing out the window of his office, deep in thought in side profile – while his secretary fusses about in the background. The image is blurred and the paint scrubbed, as if it were a quick impression that has stuck in the artist’s mind. Fletcher, not a tall man (his legs here seem slightly stunted), looks as if he is about to stoop. There is a sense of apprehension in the air, a tension in that frozen moment that is vaguely spooky, for Fletcher is steadying himself on a nearby table as if all hell is about to suddenly break loose.

Like McWhannell’s Fletcher painting, John Irvine’s Portrait of Captain William Cargill (a settler from Otago) raises questions about the proportions of the sitter. His head is too big and his arms and hands too small, probably because the artist worked off a photograph – yet the accidental abnormalities make the image compelling, as if he were one of Velasques’ court dwarves. The subject was known for being forthright and vocal, yet here his facial expression has an affable, rosy glow. He was probably cantankerous but here he seems likable.

Charles Goldie’s 1935 Portrait of Tamati Waka Nene is also based on a photograph. I prefer Goldie’s portraits to Lindauer’s (they are often discussed together) because the latter’s images always seem so squeaky clean, smooth skinned, formal and tidy. Goldie’s subject here is in contrast quite dishevelled. He doesn’t appear prissy with his untidy hair and wrinkled skin. He is less idealised and more human.

H. Linley Richardson’s Portrait of Sir James Carroll (Timi Kara) shows the gifted parliamentary orator standing in front of a towering cabbage tree, one that is obviously symbolic in terms of the subject’s mana. Carroll is only a fraction of the tree’s height and well wrapped up in a thick coat and turquoise scarf. We don’t see much of him. The tree as a simile does all the talking within this particularly striking painting.

Martin Ball’s 2000 Portrait of John Hood, who was the University of Auckland’s Vice Chancellor at the time, shows brilliant cropping of Hood’s head in the frame, and a carefully restrained palette. The white frame, white shirt, background white wall, and grey hair make Hood’s skin and face unusually intense and warm. It indicates a man of action, one who from his glasses, is clearly coded as ‘intellectual’: a thinker.

To find only five interesting works out of thirty-nine is not particularly inspiring. Check it out for yourself and challenge my maths.

(Illustrated above are the McWhannell and Goldie works I discuss, the first in the Fletcher Collection, the second in Auckland Art Gallery’s.)

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