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.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sexual relief

Edward Bullmore: A Surrealist Odyssey
Curated by Penelope Jackson for Tauranga Art Gallery Toi Tauranga
Gus Fisher
30 January - 28 February 2009

Surrealism – with its interest in the theories of Freud and the role of sexual desire in the unconscious mind - is one of those art genres that has never sparked off much interest amongst New Zealand artists. This is surprising because after all, sexual passion plays just as big a role in many people’s psychic landscape as say hills and rivers play in their physical one. Our artists tend to blend surrealism with other artistic preoccupations (eg, Don Driver or Julia Morison), for rarely do its dreamlike properties come under close scrutiny. Wilhelm Ruifrok did it for a time in the early seventies. And Edward Bullmore did it much longer in the late fifties, sixties and some of the seventies.

Bullmore (1933 - 1978) is the subject of a touring exhibition organised by the Tauranga Art Gallery. Most of it consists of works gifted to that institution by his widow.

When I was a student in Christchurch in the seventies I can remember occasionally seeing his ‘stuffed’ and stitched constructions in the CSA as part of exhibitions by The Group. Rich in references to intimate body parts and made by stretching canvas tightly over sections of dismantled chairs, these works also referred to clothing, sailing and landscape. Because he spent a decade successfully creating work in England his most developed work was initially rarely seen here, even though he studied at Ilam and taught in Tauranga and Rotorua. What little was here was always talked about because of its provocative allusions or the sheer strangeness of his assemblage, but when he died prematurely at 45 he was still comparatively unknown.

The interesting thing is that today his early more conservative work – the portraits of himself and his wife Jacqueline - holds up better than his wall reliefs. Despite their references to (James) Gleeson, Dali, Raphael and Messina, they fascinate because of their connections to Canterbury artists like Bill Sutton. We see the blending of New Zealand landscape and skies with conventions taken from European Art History.

Bullmore’s fetishistic wall reliefs are brilliant because of the fact they say the unspeakable (cocks, cunts and tits) but he needed to be in London to get the empathetic environment necessary to construct them. New Zealand's art community was far too repressive a place to allow their creation and public display, even though they were sometimes subtle, even discreet.

As hybrid artworks they were often, I think, also too fiddly and decorative. Overloaded with references to seventies drapes and wallpaper, or clothing’s zips and straps, some stylised ornamental elements undermine the raw physicality of the sagging or tumescent biomorphic forms. It might be argued this very tension is their essential point, so that the straining of fabric over padded ‘flesh’ goes beyond titillation to become a societal metaphor about control. The ‘smut’ is strangely naturalised with the curved taut chair shapes, synthetic colours and frayed bandage/sail forms so it becomes decidedly unerotic - almost drearily prosaic. The references to the land and geological strata emphasise the ordinariness of sex, demystifying it.

Some of the didactic anti-nuclear paintings made in London also do not last well as images – unlike his friend Pat Hanly’s Chagall-influenced work of that time which holds up convincingly. Bullmore’s narrative paintings look corny, preachy and contrived, particularly with their mantis skull-like faces which seem like the heads of Michael Illingworth paintings. However curator Penelope Jackson has done the right thing in including them for they explain the early development of the reliefs.

This is a very unusual show about a very unusual artist. The display and its excellently researched publication say a lot about this country and its more recent history. Even the work that has dated is interesting for what it tells us. Try not to miss it, and bring the kids. Something to talk about during the car-ride home.

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