OUR PEOPLE - OUR LAND
Curated by Richard Wolfe
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Long before it was settled by humans, Aotearoa / New Zealand was a land of birds. Some sense of the early dominance of our so-called ‘feathered tribes’ was given by botanist Joseph Banks’ description of the dawn chorus when the Endeavour was anchored in Queen Charlotte Sound on 17 January 1770. As Banks recorded in his journal: ‘their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable.’
Several of New Zealand’s native birds are acknowledged in this selection of works. Layla Walter’s cast glass Kokako Bowl immortalises an endangered forest bird which is occasionally seen on our $50 note. The relationship between birds and humans is examined in Liam Barr’s imaginative pairing, Two Tui, and also in Ray Ching’s Reischek and the Satyr, which alludes to the Austrian taxidermist Andreas Reischek who collected natural history specimens in this country in the late nineteenth century. On a table in a hut in the Fiordland rainforest lies a recently bagged example of this country’s nocturnal and almost flightless parrot, the kakapo, tagged and destined for the Director of the Dominion Museum in Wellington.
The increasingly precarious state of our avian fauna is the subject of Nigel Brown’s triptych, Short Lives of Birds, in which the flickering lamp of enlightenment and the incorporation of text show the influence of Colin McCahon, one of Brown’s teachers at the Elam School of Fine Arts. Against a backdrop of barren bush-cleared hills, Brown’s message is that these birds are in need of human protection.
The tui in Liam Barr’s painting are connected by a flowering branch of one of this country’s most distinctive plants, which is also the subject of Ann Robinson’s cast glass Twisted Flax Pods. The same artist’s Puka Vase acknowledges another widespread member of the local flora, its name given to no less than two different trees, a shrub and a climbing plant. But it is not just this country’s birds that are under threat; the giant of the forest, represented here by Jim Wheeler’s bronze Kauri branch – Matariki, is now at the mercy of dieback disease.
Four months before the Endeavour first sighted New Zealand, on 7 October 1769, Cook and his men carried out astronomical observations in Tahiti. Lisa Reihana has recreated that event in her Cook’s Transit of Venus, setting it against elements drawn from Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, an 1804-05 French block-printed scenic wallpaper which she describes as a ‘pictorial fantasy’ and a ‘fabulation located in someone else’s elsewhere’. This contemporary postcolonial reworking of a utopian vision of the Pacific is a moment in time from Reihana’s multi-screened video presentation, in pursuit of Venus [infected] 2015-17, which is part of Emissaries, New Zealand’s pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale.
This land is fringed by some 15,000 km of coastline. In Cloud Coast Brent Wong, a master of visionary and surreal images, presents an eerily sublime seascape with clouds arranged in perfect formation. Turning to a specific location, Grahame Sydney has captured the hardy vegetation and rugged offshore islands to the immediate north of Whangaroa Harbour, the site of a dramatic event in this country’s early history, the destruction of the sailing ship Boyd in 1809. Aspects of the coast – particularly that of Taranaki – have featured prominently in the work of New Plymouth-born Michael Smither. In his view of his hometown’s breakwater, man-made concrete blocks resolutely resist the ravages of the sea. Another artist with strong regional connections is Trevor Moffitt, a painter of narratives and social history. Originally from Southland, he is represented here by Vineyard, Number 3 from his Canterbury paddocks series. Northland and its gum diggers are subjects associated with Garth Tapper, another recorder of contemporary New Zealand life, and this was presumably the location of the patch of dappled bush captured in McLaughlin’s.
The east coast north of Auckland provided both the raw material and inspiration for Margaret Lovell’s bronze Omaha Wave. She sculpted it on the beach from scrim-reinforced plaster, using the sand as her mould; after drying and further work it was taken to a foundry to be cast. Some 10 km to the north is Pakiri, the location of Aroha Gossage’s Beyond the Veil – Ki Tua o te Arai, a characteristically atmospheric landscape which reflects her close personal relationship and ancestral attachment to the whenua/land of the hapu Ngati Manuhiri.
Auckland’s other coast is represented by The Windswept Beach, Piha, by well-travelled Australian artist Ken Knight. His use of energetic brushwork and heavy impasto follows the impressionist style of the largely Melbourne-based Heidelberg School of the late nineteenth century, and he was attracted to what he describes as the ‘primeval grandeur’ of this country’s West Coast.
The central North Island was a region well-known to Peter McIntyre. In The Rangitikei River he captures the meandering power of nature, inexorably carving its way through the rugged landscape. It was with another bird’s-eye view of that river, its canyon and enclosing cliffs, that McIntyre won third prize in the 1957 Kelliher Art Award.
He is also represented by the watercolour, Kakahi, a farming community south-east of Taumaranui on the Main Trunk Line. McIntyre had a holiday home and produced a number of paintings here, and it was the subject of his 1972 book Kakahi New Zealand. The woolshed, traditionally distinguished by its red corrugated iron roof, is a prominent feature of this country’s rural landscape.
The atmospheric interior of one such vernacular structure is captured in Grahame Sydney’s 1983 watercolour, Evan’s Shed, included here along with the artist’s original sketch and an etching based on the completed painting.
New Zealand’s sheep population is not what it used to be, but dairy cattle numbers are on the rise, and Justin Boroughs has depicted an urban herd, in Auckland’s Cornwall Park. Another acknowledgement of rural New Zealand is Ken Kendall’s characterful and half life-size bronze, The Horse Trainer. A strong rural connection is also made in Don Driver’s large mixed media banner Ammo, named in honour of a well-known fertilizer. Similarly composed of simple bold forms and incorporating mixed media is John Blackburn’s Rotorua & Muriwai – Open Book, which acknowledges the two regions in this country where the UK-based artist has maintained studios. In contrast, a decidedly urban landscape is Karl Maughan’s rendition of the garden of writer Peter Wells, biographer of the restless nineteenth-century missionary, botanist and explorer William Colenso.
As for the inhabitants of this land, Marian Fountain pays tribute to New Zealand servicemen who dug a complex of tunnels under the Western Front in northern France during the First World War. Her bronze, The Earth Remembers, featuring the profile of a member of the Tunnelling Company in his distinctive lemonsqueezer hat, is a smaller version of her 3.5 m high memorial of bronze, paint, patina, soil and grass which was unveiled at Arras on 9 April 2017. Peter McIntyre was official war artist during New Zealand’s next major conflict overseas, from 1941-5, chronicling the activities of its forces in Crete, North Africa and Italy. His engaging watercolour portrait shows Trooper Desmond Williams, a member of the Long Range Desert Group dealing with the extreme conditions of the Libyan Desert near their captured base at Kufra Oasis.
Zarahn Southon has studied painting in France and the United States, and his mastery of intense realism and commitment to a traditional approach to portraiture are apparent in the engaging Enuake. The photographic portrait is represented by a work from Australian-born Di ffrench’s 1988/9 series The Thousand Rocks, in which she explored the ability of gestures and expression to convey something characteristic of her subject. Taking an allegorical approach are the two bronze sculptures, Llew Summer’s Lead on, and Terry Stringer’s Hello Summer, Goodbye Summer, the latter showing youth both greeting and farewelling and thereby witnessing the passing of the golden years. The same sculptor’s large bronze McCahon Triptych consists of three vertical elements which coalesce to form an intense portrait of an individual who was both an influential teacher and one of this country’s foremost modernists.