Mayfair to Muriwai 2017
7 – 26 March 2017
It is now eight years since ARTIS welcomed John Blackburn back to Auckland for his inaugural exhibition. Seven annual exhibitions have followed and Blackburn is once again established as a member of the Antipodean art scene.
Mayfair to Muriwai 2017 will be a significant event. Blackburn has entrusted ARTIS with a unique collection of his early paintings dating from 1964 to exhibit alongside new works created during his residency at Earthskin Creative Residency in Muriwai earlier this year.
To request an exhibition catalogue or for more information please contact us.
Essay by CHRISTOPHER JOHNSTONE
Not many painters in their eighty-fifth year could conceive of producing one exhibition but for John Blackburn this is his fourth exhibition in twelve months, preceded by a major show of around fifty works at his London gallery, Osborne Samuel, late last year and two smaller shows in Edinburgh and Yorkshire.
It repays to tell Blackburn’s back story because without it one might wonder how Blackburn arrived “fully-formed” on the New Zealand scene as recently as 2009. Luton-born John Blackburn’s career began with a hiss and a roar. After art school in Kent and National Service in the RAF, in the mid-1950s Blackburn found himself in New Zealand. Here he met and married Maude McKinnon, settled down in Glenfield and began painting. A self-presented exhibition in Auckland brought him to the attention of Colin McCahon, who included him in Paintings, a significant hang of new painters at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1959. Then his Encaustic series (1961), the most advanced modernist art yet painted in New Zealand, was bought by Les Harvey (developer of Parnell Village) enabling Blackburn to return to England with his family in 1961. There, from his exhibition late that year at the Woodstock Gallery, a sizeable number of paintings were purchased by Jim Ede for Kettle’s Yard, the renowned collection he established and gave, with the house, to the University of Cambridge. Ede’s enthusiasm also encouraged private sales. In his early thirties Blackburn was well on his way to being recognised as a leading British painter. However, though he never left off painting, family now took precedence over exhibiting, followed not long afterwards by the successful business that he and Maude launched in 1979, Canterbury Bears. This hiatus ensured that Blackburn’s exposure in a highly competitive British art world of the 1960s and ‘70s lost steam completely and without representation, his achievements were totally forgotten.
Things came full circle when a chance sighting of the Kettle’s Yard pictures led to Blackburn’s “rediscovery” and a major survey exhibition in 2006 of over 45 years of work at Folkestone’s Metropole Galleries and representation by leading West End gallery, Osborne Samuel in 2007, only his second London exhibition!
The majority of works in this his eighth exhibition at Artis were painted in Littlebourne, Kent, Blackburn’s home, but half a dozen were made in his studio in Muriwai – or completed there, since one was begun on his last visit to New Zealand in 2015.
Indeed the studio was made available for him by Nancy King, Les Harvey’s daughter, so she and ARTIS Gallery have made Blackburn’s reconnection to New Zealand possible.
Blackburn does not exactly admit to slowing down but really there’s insufficient time to paint large paintings while in New Zealand. A compensation of sorts is the inclusion of a retrospective component, with paintings from the 1960s and early 2000s, hitherto not seen here. The paintings from 1964, Blackburn remembers, are of the kind that Jim Ede used to sell to Cambridge students “for a fiver a piece”. Amongst other earlier paintings are some that he has “reworked”, not because they were incomplete or unsuccessful but because
he feels the need to “update” them by drawing on the “intervening experience”.
It is a coincidence that the earliest works in this exhibition date from 1964, when 54-64 Painting & Sculpture of a Decade, a ground-breaking international survey exhibition of over 350 works was held at the Tate Gallery. Blackburn did not see the exhibition but amongst the 150 artists were a good number of those who at the time and subsequently attracted Blackburn’s admiration, including William Scott, Roger Hilton, Tapiès and Ray Parker. And others, whose work like Blackburn’s, from Alan Davie to Jean Dubuffet, were “dans le vent”, reflecting the Zeitgeist which informed his art then as now.
Since that time, Blackburn’s work reveals a remarkably consistent vision and approach to imagery in a career that spans over six decades, although his back catalogue also documents a real diversity of work, including some significant series that have a totally different sensibility. Paradoxically this too is consistent with Blackburn’s modus operandi. On the one hand he has visual vocabulary of motifs and structures that constitute, let’s say, his signature style, while on the other, he is a magpie, attracted to odd materials, from blister packs to rusted metal sheets to bits of textiles, detritus which he upcycles into his painted constructions. It’s risky stuff but Blackburn is very clear about it as he explained while preparing the exhibition: “There’s no point in simply doing what you already know; the important thing is to search for what you don’t know”, while adding mysteriously, “Although in dark times the familiar is comforting”.
An exquisite painting like Littlebourne IV (2016) is classic Blackburn. It’s hard to believe how effortlessly the marks are made, the vividly coloured positive, part of a “bowl” or “cup” shape, which the artist has made all his own, and the negative or ghost outline in gesso alone, the whole in perfect balance, in tune, singing out. A life time’s experience lies behind such mark making as it does for Clear Skies Triptych (2016) where a similar aesthetic is at work. These shapes and treatments – amongst others – recur frequently in his work through the decades, but they are always fresh and illuminating, reflecting both order and change, “continually open to experience and reassessment” and “new inventions of form and material as he strives for what he describes as “an elusive truth””, to quote Ian Massey in last year’s Osborne Samuel catalogue John Blackburn. Material Nature.
Another “signature” shape or motif is the bold “L”, which often seems to be marked out first to set the painting’s initial structure. Some paintings begin with a white textured gesso ground or a collaged piece of textile before paint is applied. Another trope is repetition, whether of the forms already mentioned, taken to an extreme with one of the Rotorua paintings, Big Blue Cups, Rotorua (2017) with its repeated multi-coloured ‘bowls’, or gestures such as the short hatchings or dots, whether regular or random, mysterious runes that animate the surface. From Blackburn’s earliest work, there are examples of large, vigorous and confident a la prima gestures, several of which on one small board can virtually make the complete painting. And one must not overlook Blackburn the colourist; whether those intense areas of a single colour – he has his favourite red, blue, orange and green – or equally characteristically, his pale green or pink pastels.
Blackburn emphasises the emotional and humanistic underpinnings of his painting, their existential yet affirmative qualities. And sometimes they overtly reference specific issues, such as war or torture. Generally speaking this exhibition is in a light and positive mode but real life, in this case nature, can intrude – unexpectedly – like the dragonfly [and dandelion] trapped for ever in the matière of the painting Taraxacum (Dandelion) – Littlebourne (2009), reminding the viewer to respond intellectually as well as visually to what Blackburn puts before us.