Talk is cheap. Anyone can visit an exhibition or a local artist at their studio and say “that’s great” … but it doesn’t pay the bills.
Reaching for your credit card at an art exhibition is the most sincere compliment you can pay an artist, and it was gratifying to see the number of red stickers on works at this year’s Creative Hawke’s Bay Invitational Art Exhibition at the Hastings City Art Gallery. It did occur to me though, that the best artworks don’t always come in convenient flat rectangular frames that can be hung on walls. Sometimes art comes in a form where scale, content and material composition preclude its purchase by private collectors.
An example is Leanne Culy’s work. Her delightfully painted oars are deservedly popular. But the best and most touching work I have seen from her was the installation that told her family story in last year’s Source exhibition in Hastings. Another whose work doesn’t always come in a readily collectable format is Chris Bryant-Toi. In the past, the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery has commissioned this type of project and I am hopeful that sometime in the future the Hastings City Art Gallery’s financial kitty will stretch to permit such presentations. Currently, we rely largely on the loyal support of local artists who give their time and personal expenditure to provide work that will be enjoyed but not necessarily sold.
It also occurred to me, walking around the Creative Hawke’s Bay show, how much I depend upon these artists. For me, it is the creative people who make life worth living in Hawke’s Bay. They breathe soul and vitality into the community and I need to have a regular “fix” of art from them to keep going. If anything, entering an artist’s studio is an even headier experience than seeing an exhibition; visiting the studios of Napier artists Jo Blogg and Fane Flaws is simply exhilarating. Jo Blogg has one of the sharpest minds on the local art scene. She has an unerring eye for selecting unlikely materials to match ideas drawn from current events, trends and personal experience. I can recall corrugated card, jigsaws, resin, acrylic and Perspex, pen and ink, pharmaceutical pills and now paper chads. The chosen media is always used in a way suited to its possibilities and limitations.
The repetition and rhythms of pattern obviously fascinate her and in her recent work the concept of Buddhist sand mandalas has provided a vehicle for her ideas. Her mandala patterns can be read in many ways. They can simply be a sensory experience with the repetitive patterns inviting zen-like contemplation of their calm beauty (she is a good colourist), but they can sting as well. Patterns can be seen as symbols of control as in her road sign mandalas “Don’t Tell Me What to Do”.
Sometimes there is anger as seen in “Medicated Mommas” (ever wondered why women are given so many pills?). There is even anxiety in “Living with Animals”. Alternately, her work can amuse, touch or needle you. This artist is pathologically incapable of being boring or clichéd. Fane Flaws is something of an old-fashioned modernist and one of the most creative people I know. Artist, designer and musician he has been part of a vital New Zealand sub-culture which has never really been officially recognised (I don’t see him getting a knighthood), and yet has in its way helped define us.
And the ideas just keep coming. Demolishing an old garage, he looked at the wreckage and thought, “this stuff is too beautiful to dump”. Since then it has worked its way into a brilliantly entertaining series of assemblages which echo a range of modernist masters but still end up characteristically the work of Fane Flaws. “Father and Mother” (Marewa Gothic) playfully reprises Grant Wood’s iconic “American Gothic”, while “Deconstructed Shed Tiki” nods to a range of artists from Picasso and Henri Laurens to Dick Frizzell. Flaw’s work is a mix of reverence and irreverence. He unashamedly acknowledges the modernist artists and the musicians whom he admires. The enemy he sees is pomposity and frequently his work is punctuated with texts of droll and often self-deprecating humour, such as “Self Portrait as almost Serious Artist”. Don’t be put off by the entertainment value though. He is a seriously good artist. The assemblages reveal an acute sense of design and he really can paint and draw. His work is loaded with ideas which are often more intuitive than contrived. He says himself, “I don’t really understand what happens.” Well, maybe, but he puts it all out there for a viewer to unravel and enjoy.
For whatever reason, not all of our best artists were displaying at the Invitational. For example, it’s easy to forget that Gary Waldrom, from Waipawa, is still one of our very finest artists, though he’s rarely seen and his output is small. Waldrom is very demanding on himself; nothing leaves his studio until it is up to his standard. Unsatisfactory areas of paintings are ruthlessly expunged and reworked until resolved. So what makes Waldrom’s work remarkable? Well, for a start, he paints like an angel with that easy grace we see from painters like Vermeer or Edouard Manet. Like a good dancer, the apparent ease of performance masks the years of hard work that underlie his skill. Waldrom is self-taught. James Mack in Art NZ wrote how Waldrom “in virtual isolation has taught himself to paint like a Renaissance master”. This is, of course, a bit unfashionable in contemporary art circles, where skill is often hidden under the guise of “faux primitivism”. For this writer, though, the beauty of his glazed and layered oil paint is a joy to see. The best part of Waldrom’s art is its content. Most New Zealand art seems concerned with things, issues, places or abstractions.
We are not often confronted in paintings with individuals of such disturbingly vivid presence. The casting of Waldrom’s pictures comes from an assortment of Flash Harrys, clowns, losers and innocent/knowing females who are, as David Eggleton says, “comic, yet also vaguely menacing”, their presence amplified by the close-up, wide angle perspective. Their incongruity is often heightened by setting them in the stifling heat of Central Hawke’s Bay in high summer. Waldrom denies any intentional narrative or symbolism, but you can spend years reading your own interpretations into his work. There is no-one else like him in New Zealand art and his projected local solo show can’t come too soon.