This article first appeared as 'Balancing act' in The Press on 17 August 2012.
Gordon Walters (1919-1995) was a real pioneer of abstraction in New Zealand art and is most well known today for his koru motif paintings. While Christchurch Art Gallery cannot claim to have a comprehensive collection of his work, the recent purchase of an early gouache study, Untitled (1956), provides an important example of this distinguished painter's work. Purchased late in 2010, we have not yet had the opportunity to exhibit this work it, but for me it will be one of the highlights in the upstairs collection galleries when we finally re-open .
Although he lived and worked for many years in Christchurch, Walters has a greater reputation in the North Island, where Te Papa and the Auckland Art Gallery hold extensive collections of his work. Untitled was painted in 1956 when Walters was first developing his koru motifs – the vertical black and white bands in this study point to the similar horizontal bands that the artist employed in his koru series. At this time Walters was moving away from his surrealist-influenced compositions towards more formal abstraction. Untitled is a perfectly-balanced work with sweeping curved lines protruding from either side of the top and bottom of a central vertical bar of white and black. It is a simplified human figure, its spine and outstretched arms and legs reduced to a curvilinear geometry .
Walter's inspiration for this work came from a visit he made to Pleasant Point, South Canterbury in the winter of 1946 when he stayed with Theo Schoon who was then recording Māori rock art in the region. He visited the Opihi river, returning for a second visit in early 1947 to view Māori rock art sites at Raincliff. Christchurch Art Gallery's gouache study is one of several completed by Walters in 1956, highlighting the artist's developing interests in abstraction and economy of form and colour, limited here to ochre, black and white. These interests ultimately led to the refined minimalism of his koru series.
Untitled was purchased with the assistance of the W.A. Sutton Trust and, although small, its importance lies in that it represents an early, but remarkably resolved example of abstract painting in New Zealand by one of New Zealand's most respected painters. It is an important addition to gallery's collection, one that will assist us to tell the history of New Zealand art. I can't wait to see it on display.
Related reading: Op + Pop
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Julian Dashper's Untitled 1996
Sound artist Paul Sutherland chooses his favourite work from the Gallery’s collection.
Gordon Walters is best-known for work that fused the influence of European modernist art and Māori and Pacific art forms, particularly the koru motif of painted kōwhaiwhai rafter designs. Walters’ influences from European modernism included the hard-edged geometric abstractions of Victor Vasarely and Auguste Herbin, seen while in Europe in 1950–51. Walters made his first optically charged ‘koru paintings’ in 1956, but didn’t show them until 1966 when he first exhibited this painting in Auckland.
Walters’ adaptation of the koru has been both admired and criticised by cultural commentators. Walters himself, when discussing the motif, increasingly focused on the fine mechanics of abstraction:
'What I’ve done to the form is push it more in the direction of geometry. So that I can have in my painting not only a positive/negative effect of black and white, but I can also have a working of vertical and horizontal, which is equally important.' (Op + Pop, 6 February – 19 June 2016)
The pleasure of making: objects taking centre stage in the space of the art gallery
Was it serendipity that the opening of Christchurch Art Gallery's Burster Flipper Wobbler Dripper Spinner Stacker Shaker Maker coincided with that of Slip Cast, a group exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum that also focused on the pleasure that artists take in manipulating materials in the process of making art?
One of the highlights for staff over the eight or so years that the Christchurch Art Gallery was open prior to the shakes was the opportunity to work alongside Julian Dashper on his exhibition To The Unknown New Zealander.
When it comes to posting comprehensive pictures of your new exhibitions online, opinion is divided.
New Zealand in the Biennale of Sydney and the Biennale of Sydney in New Zealand
and the Biennale of Sydney in New Zealand
The New Plymouth-based Don Driver worked from the mid-1970s until the 1990s on sculptural assemblages made from found materials. Echoing the work of American pop artist Robert Rauschenberg, whose work Driver had experienced while visiting New York in 1965, Energy Triad makes assertive use of familiar, locally sourced items, placing pioneering farming tools alongside advertising and road signage, all with a meticulous eye to formal balance and arrangement.
The repurposed drumskin became a signature motif for Auckland-based Julian Dashper, whose conceptual art practice saw him develop an international exhibiting profile in the United States, Australia and Europe, before his untimely death in 2009.
Resonating with the American pop artist Jasper Johns’ 1950s target paintings, Dashper’s drumskin canvases were also made to honour a band of New Zealand’s pioneering modernists. In 1992 The Big Bang Theory saw him assembling full drumkits emblazoned with his heroes’ names: The Anguses, The Hoteres, The Colin McCahons, The Woollastons and The Drivers.
Packed with an energetic sense of movement, Simon Morris’s painting gives the effect of a boldly rhythmic musical score. Its pattern, appearing at first to be random or chaotic, is found to be sequenced and repeating, and with diagonals regularly breaking up the picture plane.
Morris builds on the legacy of pioneering New Zealand geometric abstractionists such as Carl Sydow and Gordon Walters. This optical sequence was generated by a mathematical formula, which he says “creates images that I wouldn’t come up with myself. It’s like the system partly makes the work.”
As a young boy, Reuben Paterson used to play with the sparkling black sand on Piha beach; now as an artist he often uses glitter in his works. In this one, he took inspiration from Māori mythology connected with water, cleansing, transformation and stars. Pūtahitanga can mean constellation. Rehua was a son of Rangi-nui (the sky father) and Papa-tū-ā-nuku (the earth mother), and is associated in Tūhoe legend with the star Antares. To make this dazzling kaleidoscopic landscape, Paterson digitally layered and rearranged his own drawings. He likens the shifting black and white patterns to the restless energies and histories that have unfolded on the whenua (land) of Aotearoa New Zealand. Their optical push-and-pull highlights that what can be seen depends on who is doing the looking. What catches your eye?
(Wheriko - Brilliant! 17 May 2019 – 16 February 2020)
British artist Bridget Riley is a leading name in the op art movement. Her work came to international attention in 1965 when included in an exhibition called The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, alongside artists including Victor Vasarely and Josef Albers.
Riley’s earliest op art paintings in black and white had a major impact on 1960s fashion, advertising and design. She increasingly used colour in her work from 1967 onwards, when she also began using simplified forms, often vertical straight or wavy lines, and colour variation and contrast that produced a sense of movement.
Revelling in a kind of contemporary baroque, Miranda Parkes’ Slumper began as a three by nine metre piece of flat canvas, but – being too large for the studio floor – had to be folded into thirds before being painted and scrunched into this form. Having grappled with the problem of creating more objects in a world already filled with objects, Parkes negotiated a kind of truce with this dilemma, flipping it around and using spectacular excess as a potentially useful ingredient. While retaining an honest, at times iconoclastic stance, she is nevertheless drawn to the sensory aspects of canvas, colour and paint; elaborate costume, circus tents and over-the-top, opulent interiors are occasionally grist to her painter’s mill.
(As Time Unfolds, 5 December 2020 – 7 March 2021)
Carl Sydow has used these 20 cubes, each tilted onto one edge, to explore form, surface texture and the presence of objects within space. Taken individually, each object is distinct, as the 'light' falls in a different way on every surface, but together they form an engaging abstract pattern. Sydow created the work with a combination of precise ink drawing and the use of letrafilm, a system of ready-made transfers. The effect creates the illusion that the work is three-dimensional. Sydow's formal investigation of abstract properties such as colour, line, tone, volume and movement reflect the influence of Constructivism on his work. Born in Takapau, in the central Hawkes Bay, Sydow studied at the Schools of Fine Arts at both the University of Canterbury and Auckland University. After graduating, he went to the Royal College of Art, London, on an Arts Council grant from 1964 to 1966. Sydow regularly exhibited with The Group in Christchurch and was a founding member of the Sculptors’ Group, formed in 1970.
For the exhibition Untitled #1050 (25 November 2017 – 14 October 2018) this work was displayed with the following label:
“I like the rigorous quality of geometric abstract painting. I like the clarity of idea. I like the means used. I like the severity and the rigour of it. I don’t think this is a limitation. I think this is something which frees you to all kinds of investigation. It opens up all kinds of possibilities.”
—Gordon Walters, 1975
Bill Culbert’s high school art teacher asked his students to stand in a dark room, then went outside. The sunlight streamed through the keyhole, projecting a tiny image of him – upside down and waving – on the room’s far wall. From that moment, Culbert was excited by light’s power to transform how we see the world. These sculptures were some of the first he made exploring the possibilities of electric light. In Celeste, he placed a lightbulb into a dark box full of tiny holes, then put that inside a bigger Perspex box so that it generates multiple ‘ghost’ bulbs on the outside. Reflection 1 tests the line between reality and illusion, as another bulb repeats itself into infinity. Culbert liked ordinary, everyday materials best, believing they left more room for the imagination.
(Wheriko - Brilliant! 17 May 2019 – 16 February 2020)
New Zealand painter Gordon Walters started making his optically charged paintings in 1956, four years before the British painter Bridget Riley, op art’s principal exponent, began working with similar ideas. Walters’ explorations owed much to his study of Māori and Papua New Guinean art and their positive/ negative treatment of space, and to the abstract modernist painting he had seen while in Europe in 1950–51. Although best-known for his koru (fern bud motif ) paintings, his later, more simplified works remained equally visually challenging.
(Op + Pop, 6 February – 19 June 2016)
Roy Lichtenstein’s Flowers is art about art; a parody both of cubism and of the long-established still life genre. Lichtenstein was a leading figure in
the American pop art movement from the 1960s. He began making still lifes in 1972, riffing off artists such as Fernand Léger, Juan Gris, Henri Matisse and Piet Mondrian while applying his adaptation of graphic comic book style and commercial printing techniques.
Flowers exists in multiple versions. The screenprint (and a Christmas card) followed a much larger work in paper collage, tape and marker on card.
Mark Braunias has applied a kind of speculative genetic engineering to the work of Walt Disney, Andy Warhol and the surrealist Jean Arp, resulting in giant, amoeba-like versions of comic-book characters that appear ready to spring to life. A master of reassemblage and reinvention, Braunias makes his ‘quick draw’ from a vast cache of popular cultural and historical sources, while applying a quiet dose of wry intent. (Op + Pop, 6 February – 19 June 2016)
Like a Gordon Walters painting doing the cancan, Julia Morison’s Tootoo makes ready to kick the high-minded formalism out of abstract painting and take the viewer on a wild, exhilarating dance. Folding and reversing on itself, and playing with positive and negative space, the work's elaborate structure creates a powerful visual conundrum. (Op + Pop, 6 February – 19 June 2016)
Closely associated with notions of fame and popular culture, Andy Warhol was a leading name in American pop art, and renowned for using the aesthetics of advertising and commercial printing techniques in his work.
Warhol’s screenprint of Mao Tse-Tung was made when communist China’s founder was still alive. It adapted a portrait that was used throughout China in veneration of its leader and his ideas. The blue-faced Chairman Mao is one of a series of colour variations Warhol created, all equally startling. He made similar portraits of American icons including Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley and Mickey Mouse.
Neil Dawson’s sculptures consistently explore the slippage between appearance and reality. We think we see solid forms, but on closer inspection they turn out to be illusions.
Whiteout conveys Dawson’s fascination with these ideas and playfully challenges our perceptions of space and movement. This wall sculpture is reminiscent of the early structures of the Dadaists and Russian Constructivist sculptors Vladimir Tatlin (1885–1953) and Antoine Pevsner (1886–1962) in the early 20th century. Dawson is one of New Zealand’s leading contemporary site-specific artists. His innovative use of sculptural materials and principles of perspective are evident in this early example of his work.
Born in Christchurch, Dawson studied at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, Melbourne. He has exhibited widely and has several major public installations in New Zealand and internationally.
This work is one a series of screenprints, the name of which reflects Mervyn Williams’ love of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music and also refers to variations in colour. He has said that Chromatic Variations IX can be looked at as if it was a Tibetan mandala, rather than simply being a design. Williams’ painting and printing have always centred on formal abstraction. In the Chromatic Variations series he abstracted forms in a complex manner and experimented with different colours in each print. Williams was born in Whakatane in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. In 1956 he met artist Ted Dutch (b. 1928) who got him interested in silk-screen work. Williams studied at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland. He won First Prize in the Graphic Section of the Hay’s Art Award in 1966 and was represented in the ‘International Biennale Exhibition of Graphic Art’ in Tokyo in 1966 and 1972. Williams also won the New Zealand Print Council Samarkand Award in 1969.
In Naturist Reuben Paterson revels in geometric patterns and sharp contrasts between black and white, reminiscent of 1960s hard-edged abstraction, op-art and Maori designs. The delicate, illusory effect Naturist has on the viewer is heightened by Paterson’s use of glitter, a recurring feature in his work.
Naturist draws on an installation at Riccarton House in 2004 where the artist created a black and white optical illusion of the landscape. Tapping into invisible, undulating energies left behind by Maori, Naturist is a study of how collective energies from the past are reflected in the land.
Paterson graduated from the Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland, in 1997. In the same year he was selected as one of three recipients of the Moet & Chandon Fellowship, awarding him a six-week residency in France.