THE WAY IT LOOKS TO ME
Mervyn Williams, Auckland, 2015
The word Façade was chosen in association with the works in this exhibition because this word, better than any other, evokes the kind of experience that looking at my paintings involves. An invitation to look behind the more obvious qualities offered by the first impression, which is so often the only impression gained of a painting, since a cursory glance is all many viewers are prepared to grant the work in front of them. Following my early modernist work of the late 1950s and early 1960s, I began in earnest to delve into the nature and potential of visual perception. Having received from an early age training in both music and visual art, I had always felt somewhat frustrated by the fact that paintings and sculpture generally reveal themselves in their entirety at a single moment – the essential substance of the artist’s intention is manifest at a single take. Not so in the case of music. Here the work of art unfolds over the course of its performance, whether it be pure music or so called programme music. This issue is addressed most successfully in visual terms by the kinetic sculptors, most notably the great New Zealander Len Lye, whose finest works not only involve an automated equivalent of a performance, but in the process, incorporate highly complex percussive sounds.
My own work into this area began with a pairing of unequally spaced grids that created a variety of moving shapes and patterns as the viewer moved past them. These works were shown in the early 1970s at the New Vision Gallery, but because of their small size were unable to fully realise the possibilities of the idea.
The finest example of a time based work I have ever seen was exhibited at the Auckland Art Gallery in the 1980s and consisted of a block of ice located at a great height above a large pool of pure water. Into the ice had been frozen scores of small pebbles and as the ice melted the pebbles were released and dropped one at a time into the pool below. In the darkened room only the pool was illuminated and the effect was mesmerizing!
Although my work in this field has been ongoing, it is the paintings that are of most concern here and the evolution from the optical works of the mid 1960s to the mixed-media works of the last few years that is being addressed.
Just as music consists entirely of sound and the silences between sounds as it seeks to create a meaningful sensory experience without verbal language, so my paintings from the mid 1960s sought to do the same thing with visual perception. From the very beginning I wished to emulate the purely abstract nature of music and avoid any form of narrative in my work. This intention is equally true of modernist abstraction of course. The difference lies in the nature of the imagery employed, avoiding the cool minimalism of much of the abstract art that preceded Op Art. I deliberately sought out patterns, shapes and colour combinations that demanded the viewer’s attention, set up cognitive conundrums and sought to resolve the entire composition into a unified and challenging sensory experience. The finest poems achieve this, as does great music, the best architecture and design. No room for the simply decorative, the insipid banality of pretty pictures, but an opportunity to explore a state of heightened awareness. The work then, became entirely concerned with the process of looking at it, what it was about in fact was perception itself and the possibilities of this, its effect on our ideas about what is real and what is illusion. Is what we see what is really there?, does the camera really not lie and what about “seeing is believing”?
Art is, at its core, a creative process and to be considered Art, painting and sculpture must at the time of its creation be seen to embody some degree of innovation, some identifying quality that sets it apart, not only from the artist’s earlier work, but from that of artists working around them. There are two distinct approaches to this challenge, one well represented by Francis Hodgkins, who pursued a single underlying idea right through her long career, taking it from an accomplished version of a style popular at the time and practiced by thousands of her contemporaries, to works that are so distinctive they could only have been made by her. Colin McCahon on the other hand, represents a much more radical approach. From very early in his career his work stands out, far ahead of any other painter working in this country and well ahead of most working in any other. Not only is innovation and originality evident within any given phase of his work, but the inventive power underlying each new period is also truly remarkable. Having accepted early in my career that these are the objectives and challenges of serious art, I have sought to emulate the high standards set by these and other pioneers. There is, however, more to all this than simply knowing the rules of the game. This in itself will not provide the creative force needed to propel one’s work into that elite category of the truly unique, which probably explains why most painters keep making more or less the same painting throughout their career and most paintings seen in the galleries at any one time look much the same as each other, specially the ones that sell!
Which brings me to my most recent incarnation as an artist. Following my very early exploration of modernist principles in the late fifties and early sixties which resulted in paintings that were considered at the time simply incomprehensible. I began to explore Op Art, a new approach to painting then emerging overseas, which embodied some of the principles of that same modernism, but harnessed exciting new technological developments in the making of art that looked like no other. At last, I thought, a genuinely innovative art form, in step with the new and exciting world of the 1960s! – not likely, not in art anyway, and certainly not in New Zealand. Regionalism seemed to take an even tighter grip, the “dead tree” school seemed even more entrenched, later spawning a grotesque new variant of the style in the form of social realism! while the few New Zealand artists working in the new international idiom, at an international level, were almost totally ignored.
By the end of the 1970’s, having produced a wide range of works within the realm of Op Art, earning me the epithet of “Optic Merv”, but precious little else, it was time to move on to something entirely my own – my illusionary paintings. These I developed over twenty years and believed that they would be my final word on the matter. I never imagined another new direction might emerge so late in the piece, and yet during the first decade of the twenty-first century it did, and what made this possible was the “digital revolution”. Slowly it became apparent that many of the immensely complicated compositions I had created in sketch form in the mid sixties, could actually now be realised in a highly finished form by combining my traditional painting techniques with modern Digital ones. My paintings today represent the fruits of this partnership between the traditional and the contemporary. Although there will be seen here and there, references to the enigmatic illusory paintings and many to the very optical works of the 1960s and 1970s, most I hope and believe will simply reflect my desire after a lifetime of painting, to keep inventing new things to look at – and new ways to look at them. In short, to celebrate, as always the gift of perception.