For Gisborne artist Peter Ireland, the New Zealand expatriate painter Frances Hodgkins is an inspiration. ‘She was a tough old bird’, he says, ‘and I admire hugely her focus, commitment and tenacity.’
Hodgkins was nearly 60 when she gained recognition in England in the late 1920s, and she painted some of her most celebrated works in the last decade of her life. Always open to experiment, she has been an exemplar for New Zealand artists for more than a century.
When Peter Ireland read a book of Hodgkins’ letters in 2017, he had an idea for a new series of paintings, linking her art and her letters. Those eighteen works are now on display in ‘The Artist Life’, an exhibition opening 4 June at Napier’s Rabbit Room at 29a Hastings Street.
Sampler X (ruins), shows Ireland’s method. Taking a Hodgkins painting from the collection of Te Papa, he selects a detail, transposes it to a circular format, and superimposes a short text from one of Hodgkins’ letters. ‘I always have to wear a hairshirt – & I am inured to economy’, it reads. The text seems to float against the image, flickering in and out of view, inviting us to look closely to puzzle it out.
Ireland has often drawn on historical images in the past, toying with ideas of originality and appropriation in his art. Here, Hodgkins provides a departure point, an invitation to experiment with new imagery and colour harmonies, while exercising his wit and imagination. These are playful, inventive works: as Ireland says, ‘In filmic terms, Hodgkins is the producer but I’m the director!’
It’s no accident that the texts in the paintings recall the cross-stitch of embroidery. Ireland has a longstanding fascination with the traditional sampler, a piece of embroidery or cross-stitching produced as a demonstration of skill in needlework. ‘They’re beautiful and often touching objects’, he says.
Ireland has used this distinctive cross-stitch device in his paintings since the 1990s, in an ongoing series of ‘Sampler’paintings. Compared to those earlier works, which addressed attitudes to the land, and were often provocative and ironic, his new Frances Hodgkins Samplers are quiet and intimate in tone. We could be overhearing a conversation – two painters swopping stories across time, ruminating on their lot.
Ireland has selected quotations from Hodgkins’ letters that reflect on the challenges of the artist’s life, hence the title of the exhibition. ‘I could do with less admiration and more sales’, reads one. ‘Think well before you embark on an art career’ is another.
The exhibition is full of such rueful reflections, but the overwhelming impression is the inherent joy in painting – in being alone in the studio, immersed in the mysteries of line, form and colour. Peter Ireland’s radiant and engaging paintings are a fitting tribute to the courage and commitment of Frances Hodgkins.
The Rabbit Room, Hastings Street, Napier
Opening: 5pm, 4 June till 31 July