Max Gimblett, Jeffrey Harris and Fiona Pardington all make pictures that look a lot like art. That might sound odd. They are recognised as artists, after all. But whereas some art looks down-to-earth, like everyday stuff, the work of these three (for better or, in some cases, worse) fits with a popular perception that art is all about the emotions and spirituality.
Gimblett grew up in New Zealand but has lived mostly in New York. He is widely known as a result of his big personality, the workshops he runs at galleries and art schools, his distinctively shaped (quatrefoil) paintings, video footage of his painting process (with that startling roar as he lets loose another great flailing paint splatter), his frankness, particularly about his devotion to Zen Buddhism, the alacrity with which he has deposited his work in public gallery collections and the momentous achievement, for a New Zealander, of having a painting hung in New York’s Guggenheim museum.
To mark Gimblett’s 80th birthday, his Auckland dealer, Gow Langsford, has published a book reproducing works from the years he has exhibited with it. There is also a useful overview, by Anna Jackson, of his life in general, from military service in Europe to learning pottery in Canada, then the acceleration of his art career after he wangled his way into the New York art world in the early 1970s. Some might be fascinated by odd little titbits of information (he received the “Old Boy of the Year Award” from his old primary school, King’s, in 2011). But how Gimblett actually became an artist is left somewhat to the imagination. We are told that he married American art writer Barbara Kirshenblatt in 1964, then skip the years until 1971 when he had his first solo exhibition – by which time he was in his mid-thirties, an unusually late start for an artist of note.
An interview with Gimblett reveals a little more. Apparently, while living in Toronto (this must have been in the early-to-mid-1960s), his wife came home from work and found he had drawn a self-portrait. “You are an artist,” she said.
Scattered through the book are words of adulation and affection from friends and some of Gimblett’s own writings, including a letter to Len Lye thanking the older artist for his guidance: “THE ANCESTOR TOTEM WISE MAN FATHER MASTER LINKAGE IS A REAL STRUCTURE AND I SIMPLY LIVE & PAINT HERE IN THE CITY AS A RESULT OF TREADING YOUR ‘LIGHT PATH’.”
This kind of thing gives art a bad name.
Whereas Gimblett makes messy abstracts, Jeffrey Harris is best known for messy multi-figure scenes packed with symbolism and angst. Judging from a Dunedin Public Art Gallery exhibition and accompanying book, over the past five years Harris’ paintings have become smaller, simpler and quieter (though most of the “new” works were in fact started in the 1970s or 90s). Typically, they show a blankly staring figure in a landscape. There are also some weird, slimy-looking crucifixions.
The book’s essays have a perplexing relationship to the reproduced paintings. Where Lucy Hammonds sees representations of contemporary culture – “a borderless, globalised, media-driven realm” that departs from “the New Zealand vernacular and its art-historical associations” – I see a rural New Zealand landscape, any time from the 1920s to the present, with echoes of Rita Angus, Ian Scott, Michael Smither et al. If the paintings are “about what we can’t see”, why am I looking at them? And I search in vain for a “cinematic” quality, for a juxtaposition of family and friends with “figures that might have stepped out of the pages of Vogue”, and for “increasingly anonymous” figures that “play to the fears of the 21st century, of a constructed, manufactured existence that is somehow testing the limits of our social fabric”.
Vincent O’Sullivan’s essay similarly abounds in assumptions: “the starkness of how we live”; “what we are, and the fault-lines that traverse us”; “you can’t help but think” (my emphases). And what are “we” to make of the following description of Harris’ drawings of the 1970s? “Here too was the random cross-fire of lines that struck you as the stretch marks of a society hesitant to be born into anything other than the fixity of where they happened to be.”
Sloppy verbiage does not do justice to the artist’s evident care and precision.
Fiona Pardington: A Beautiful Hesitation is a different kettle of fish. The attention to detail – sumptuous design (by the artist’s brother, Neil Pardington) perfectly complementing the photographs, 11 new essays plus an archive of previous writing, the sheer collaborative effort – now this is a book. Its publication coincides with a Pardington survey at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, first shown at City Gallery Wellington and curated by Aaron Lister. Beginning with Hana O’Regan’s mihi, the book’s most original achievement is that it consistently foregrounds Pardington’s iwi, Kai Tahu, with its distinctive beliefs and lexicon (“taoka” instead of “taonga”, for instance). It encourages a more sophisticated understanding of cultural identities in Aotearoa New Zealand, rather than all things Maori stuffed into one kete.
I have formerly admired Pardington’s more direct, gutsy images – portraits, 1950s soft-porn re-photographed and blown up to monumental scale, icky medical afflictions – and rather despised the theatrical set-ups and fetishistic fragments surrounded by masses of text. I still think some of it is the artistic equivalent of self-pleasuring rather than (to quote Susan Best) “deeply sensual”. But the book, and Lister’s essay in particular, teaches me to see contrasting values as integral to Pardington’s art – to appreciate her humanity and even humour in mixing the sublime and the abject, profundity and kitsch (treasured heitiki and “wonky tikis” alike).
Overall, the essays are heavy but (in contrast to the other books under review) scrupulously written. Lister refers to “families” rather than “series” of photographs to suggest their aliveness and connectedness; Best describes Pardington’s photographic “touch”; Kriselle Baker reflects on “the proximity of beauty and pain”. However, when Peter Shand refers to a “narcotic” experience induced by the images, nice though that description is, I begin to wonder again if assumptions are being made about how viewers will (should) respond. Anything can have a spiritual dimension if you really want it to. And when Pardington goes for dark, smudgy indistinctness, does it mean that her work is deeply spiritual, or just that she is trying to persuade us that it is?
FROM GRAFTON TO THE GUGGENHEIM: MAX GIMBLETT, edited by Anna Jackson (Gow Langsford Gallery and Max Gimblett,$40); JEFFREY HARRIS: RENAISSANCE DAYS, by Lucy Hammonds (Dunedin Public Art Gallery $39.90); FIONA PARDINGTON: A BEAUTIFUL HESITATION, by Kriselle Baker and Aaron Lister (Victoria University Press, $70)