I should be grateful. There is more good art being made in Hawke’s Bay now than ever before. Sadly, though, there is also more bad art and just about anyone who puts a brush to canvas can call themselves an artist.
Mercifully, we seem to be over the worst of the lifestyle, wine country clichés, but the easy-way abstracts and quasi-surrealists are still with us, as are the artists who, though old enough to know better, are still reprising their level 1 NCEA Art folios. A tui here, a koru there, with a fern frond or two and voila! Real New Zealand art.
All this of course begs the question, what is good art?
In one sense, I suppose, art is a bit like wine, if you like it then for you it is good and if you don’t then it isn’t. However, with art (and wine) the more thoughtfully you approach it, the more the good stuff will reward you and the rest will seem boring and forgettable.
Don’t expect good art to reveal all its qualities immediately though. Sometimes, as with some of our most interesting friends, it takes time to discover their depth and best qualities.
Just to contradict myself, I have to say that one artist who greatly impressed me when I first saw his work this year and who continues to impress me is Anthony Chiappin.
Chiappin is a design lecturer at EIT and is of Italian-Australian parentage. The pungent imagery of Catholic Church interiors made a deep impression on him when he was young, as did the suburbs he grew up in. “I love the suburbs,” he says. What? How unfashionable. Chiappin sees them as heroic in their own way with people battling to do their best amidst tensions, ironies and weird individualism.
You won’t see any actual images of this in his work, but there are fragments for the viewer to latch on to – a hint of a street grid here, a possible tree or hill there, but nothing literal.
Chiappin’s art is really about surfaces. He is fascinated by the degradation of the surfaces around us as they peel, wear and reveal layers which record the passing of time and usage. This shows in his complex abstracts, which, like the surface of an old wall, are comprised of many layers. For paintings based on such humble subjects the results are remarkably beautiful as he manipulates a range of media from acrylics and enamel to road-marking spray and tagging inks. His techniques are full of risk, though, and, while some paintings come off in days, others may gestate for over a year.
The colours and textures of suburbia are there, but I think that the real landscape of Chiappin’s work is in the inner world of instinct and challenge for both artist and viewers.
Some artists take a wide-reaching view of the world at large, but Michael Hawksworth seems to see existence through microcosms. His images come from personal secretive things, fragments of long unopened books, the weirdness of bits of body surface seen through a microscope.
The severe nature of these sources is belied by the refinement of his techniques. The drawings are exquisitely sensitive with consummate control of line, texture and spaces.
Currently Hawksworth is combining collage with traditional drawing. Selecting collage images for their ambiguity and sometimes painterly qualities, he then redraws or, as he puts it, re-complicates them on his computer along with his own drawn additions. The resulting forms stretch, contract, dance and convulse their way across the picture with a life of their own, while offering tantalizing hints of their origin.
There is no particular agenda in Hawksworth’s art. Rather, he offers us clues and entry points to engage with and create our own world of interpretation.
Often the good things in life are under our noses and we just don’t see them. Paula Taaffe has been around for a while, but it is the consistency of her most recent work that is really doing justice to her talent.
Interestingly, the excitement and edge in these paintings comes from deliberately created contradictions. For example, the painted shapes come from sweeping, impulsive brushstrokes, which are then suddenly cut short by precisely delineated edges. The technique involves cut stencils and the biggest artist’s brush I have ever seen. “I love edges, the tension of an outline,” she says. Even as a child she loved cutting out shapes. There is also a moment of suspense when the stencils are removed (did it work or not?) which is more akin to printmaking than
She flirts dangerously with colour. “I am a colourholic,” she says. But somehow it all stays under control. The resulting shapes swarm joyously around the picture. Taaffe wonders if people won’t take her seriously for this reason. Should good art be concerned only with the dark side of existence? Heaven forbid.
So what do these three artists have in common? In a word, intelligence. It is work that will continue to offer delights and insights over a long period of time. This is some of the good stuff.