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.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Michael Shepherd: SCORE (Upon the electronic works of Douglas Lilburn)
Jane Sanders Art Agent, cnr Shortland & Queen St.
September 22 – October 30, 2009

Douglas Lilburn (1915 -2001) is a hugely revered figure in New Zealand culture, one often called ‘the Father of New Zealand composition’ due to his search for aural qualities particular to this place. He is known not only for his pioneering work as a composer and musician in both classical and electronic genres, but also because of his close friendship with the artist Rita Angus.

It makes a lot of sense that the painter Michael Shepherd, known for his interest in social history, should while doing a residency at St. Cuthbert’s College create a series of four paintings examining this composer’s life and music. Shepherd was inspired by an original score Lilburn created for one of his electronic works, but drew on the individual qualities of five. These compositions, written between 1967 and 1977, are known for evocative aural properties linked to the New Zealand landscape, referencing distinctive natural elements like cicadas or running streams.

Some New Zealand paintings, particularly certain late sixties or early seventies works by Walters, McCahon, Hotere, Trusttum and Mrkusich, have salient musical qualities (they might induce hallucinatory synaesthesia if you have the chemical disposition) but Shepherd is not really pursuing that. This work is more akin to the painted ‘scores’ that Michael Smither for example has created; a sort of horizontal scroll of directions with annotated notes.

Separating the two approaches is not as easy as you might think, especially with a prolific painter like Smither, but in Shepherd’s case the work is graphic and uses muted, very soft colour. It emphasises the picture plane because after all it is called ‘SCORE’, and so lacks spatial depth. It is linear. It doesn’t evoke landscape as Lilburn did, nor does it evoke Lilburn’s sonic qualities. Instead it looks at the signifiers, not the signified; the notation, not the experience of hearing the notes.

Rather than trying to make music Shepherd is attempting to paint a sort of conceptual portrait – often through quoted texts, like whole poems from people like Baxter (Lilburn loved poetry), or snippets of snide family comments - taken from the Lilburn biography by Philip Norman. Sometimes drawn insects serve as codes for sound properties, like elements listed within the key of a map.

The interesting thing is that this work is just as much about Shepherd as it is Lilburn. Shepherd is a tenaciously obsessive researcher, and in his history paintings his research is often original, collected by talking to people or examining archived papers. So these paintings about a composer really consist of aligned strata of marks and written texts. They are constructed documents of collected annotations that cumulatively create a four part, two-way psychological profile.

While for my own tastes, I prefer Shepherd’s landscape painting of land and botanical forms to his other projects (I like his outdoors light), there is a sense that all his painting is a painting of documents representing something else. There is a constant flavour of intervening mediation, a love of experiential deferral, a succession of conceptual screens, an intellectual nervousness that self consciously refers to its own distancing as an ‘art’ process.

This separation seems part of Shepherd’s decision to focus on a ‘score’ as opposed to creating a visually musical experience. However aspects of the latter do discretely slip in, particularly in the underpainting where rhythmically positioned, hazy dark blocks peek through pale layers to become partially visible as an extended ‘pulse’ along the horizontal lengths.

Shepherd’s activities of writing researcher and painter craftsperson however result in an uneasy blend. His passionate enthusiasm for Lilburn’s music still ends up as detached – not of course through his considerable energy, but through the disembodied experience he ends up with. His attempt to blend musical diagrams and biographical quotations to create a new sort of painting doesn’t work.

I’m not arguing for any rigorous notion of purity in painting practice here, only saying that these particular kinds of hybrid are so self consciously documents - with none of the pleasures of a good read or a good listen – that they lack painterly or graphic excitement. Despite being wide and quite bodily in scale, due to their being schematic notation in a horizontal format, these paintings remain a head trip only.


andrew said...

I remember talking to Michael a while ago and he said he felt that he had run the gamut of painterly points of view. This was when he had completed his archeological dig paintings; with the severely attenuated sky lines.

This work, at least, shows that Michael has pushed further into his practice. The painterly space in this work is downright weird. Hooray.

As for the painting 'merely' being a head trip, perhaps they embody the frustration of trying to express any emotion in the picture plane.

Meybe best viewed with the ipod on.

John Hurrell said...

Thanks for your thoughts .....but I'd appreciate it if you could give us your name. I'm pleased to have all contributors who will keep the discussion continuing, but it is fair to all that you identify yourself.

You mention 'emotion'. I imagine all art has emotion built in somewhere, no matter how seemingly clinical it may be. Yet good art needs to hook in its audience and these paintings don't have much of a carrot to attract you to Lilburn, in a way that the Norman bio has. If they do make people think about and investigate Lilburn's music, it is because of the information, no so much Shepherd's artistry.

It is complicated because according to scientists like Antonio Damasio and Joseph LeDoux, emotion is a crucial component of the reasoning process, so we are never really without it. And M.S is obviously a passionate music, art and history lover - as shown by the subject matter.

But the work. Better to go and listen to some Lilburn Cds at home. The paintings don't tell you anything the music and bio doesn't
Very happy to hear some other views on this.

andrew said...

Pardon my ignorance here; are the symbolic notations here Shepherds' or Lilburns'? I have seen similar marks from Dadson, Lye and Eno (and Kandinsky?)

The point here though is the musical notation in relation to Shepherds paintings of other cultural artifacts; objects in a shallow pictorial space, rinsed of meaning without their cultural context.

Like a musical score without the orchestra perhaps?

John Hurrell said...

I suspect Shepherd's. The Lilburn source is a photographed image of a score in the Philip Norman bio.

I think a lot of the notation references sounds with landscape connections that Shepherd detected in various Lilburn works, especially 'Three Inscapes','Of Time and Nostalgia','Summer Voices', 'Soundscape with Lake and River' and 'Cicadas, Oscillators and Treefrogs'.

In his own (artist's) context they clearly take on new meanings as well.