John Blackburn was born in Bedfordshire in 1932 and from 1954-62 lived in New Zealand, where he both met his wife, Maude, and presented his first major solo exhibition. He returned to England in 1962, and reconnected with this part of the world as a result of the 2007 Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair in London. Jonathan Gooderham, director of Artis Gallery, saw and admired Blackburn’s paintings at that event, an encounter which led to an invitation to exhibit in Auckland in March 2009.
This is Blackburn’s sixth solo show at Artis in as many years, and evidence of the further development of his uncompromisingly abstract approach, combining loosely geometrical shapes with a lyrical colour sense. He does not believe painting should be easy, either for himself or the viewer, and his titles offer few clues for interpretation. Semicircular forms have long appeared in his work, and are seen here in 2 Grey Cups (2011), but a literal reading of such a title may be a subterfuge. No less enigmatic is the orange shape that arcs overhead in this nominal still life. Another title, Big Black & Grey (2008), also appears to state the obvious, while presenting a pair of shapes that resemble a partly dismantled capital H.
During regular sojourns back in New Zealand Blackburn has worked in studios at The Mount (Maunganui) and Muriwai, and both locations have been acknowledged in paintings. In Muriwai No. 17 (2009), a diagonal black cross is a direct reference to Colin McCahon, whose own paintings inspired by this part of Auckland’s West Coast include Jet over Muriwai and Jet out from Muriwai Beach (both 1973). At the same time Blackburn is also making another important connection; in 1959 he was included in a group exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery, and it is probable that the selection for this was made by the gallery’s then keeper, Colin McCahon.
In several of the smaller Untitled works in this selection, Blackburn’s focus is on clusters of circular forms of varying colours and sizes and displaying a diversity of painted effects. They hover, as if in suspended animation, against light coloured backgrounds enlivened with splashes and splatters of pigment.In contrast, the larger works tend to be dominated by fewer and more rectangular forms, such as the large patch of robustly applied black in another descriptive title, Three Forms Leaning Left (2008).
Blackburn’s surface treatments extend to rich impasto and occasional collaged elements. In Machine Mart (2010), a handwritten note, perhaps a personal list or memo to self, is placed above a central band of solid blue and yet another semicircular form. The Mount (2010) incorporates a piece of pasted-on and roughly painted fabric, but the most extreme example of appropriation to be seen here is in the largest work, The Chinaman’s Dream (2013). This includes an all but obliterated panel of carefully lettered text, which offers a veiled context for a pair of rubber gloves pinned to the canvas by thick dollops of paint.
Not unexpectedly, there is an ambiguous sense of scale here. If some compositions suggest microscopic dimensions, others may claim cosmic proportions. They are further characterised by the inclusion of curiously inventive elements, such as a smear of strident orange and dense colonies of blue spots or threatening shard-like shapes. But amongst all this juxtaposition and apparent random scattering, order and control are surely evident. The paintings are unified, both individually and collectively, by the artist’s repertoire of now signature forms and finishes. And for all the formidable nature of some of the elements, they are executed with a lightness and deftness of touch. This collection continues the pattern first established here in 2009, with Blackburn investigating the seemingly limitless possibilities of painterly effects. These works demand contemplation, and the challenge for the viewer is to connect the dots – and all the other shapes that now distinguish this artist’s extensive visual vocabulary – in order to extract meaning from what has been conjured up on canvas.
- Richard Wolfe, January 2014