Painters on painting
The act of putting brush to canvas continues to be a vital, explorative way of making art. Julian McKinnon speaks to four New Zealand painters about their practice and is told, “There are so many ways to be a painter now.”
Painting now is as vibrant as it has ever been. Collectors and speculators covet it, institutions display and hoard it, critics write about it. Why is that? In a 2015 lecture at New York’s Jewish Museum, German art critic and theoretician Isabelle Graw offered one answer, suggesting that “each time painting has tried to question its boundaries, what has resulted is a revitalisation of painting”. Graw’s lecture is a valuable listen for seasoned professionals and youthful aspirants alike, offering an insightful analysis of one of our oldest visual art forms. Trends in painting may come and go; yet for all the contortions of theory and market forces, those who work with the medium have reasons beyond business or academic rationales for doing so.
James Cousins is relaxed in a corner of his Mt Albert studio, surrounded by works in progress. He is at a raw stage of developing new work; elemental woodcut prints and monochromatic paint tests are pinned against the walls. “I’m interested in drawing some of the elements I was using in my paintings out and exploring them in different ways. The same principles of negotiation between positive and negative and translation of information are at play in these as in the paintings,” he says.
Cousins’ recent paintings weave complex geometrical matrices together with finessed imagery sourced from photographs. The results can be dizzying to look at: sharp-edged geometry in contrast to hazy images in soft focus. “When my work is really operating in the way I want it to, you have to ask the question, ‘What is it that I’m looking at?’ It draws you in or it compels you to engage with it. The assumptions you make from a distance shift when you come closer, hierarchies and relationships slip and change. Time spent looking at the work becomes important. That’s something you don’t easily get from the internet.”
A key consideration in Cousins’ work has been the nature of representation and how images are created. In his selection of source imagery he’s made recurring use of a book of botanical photographs. “I’ve been using them for a long time, because I’m attracted to them as images, but also because there’s a kind of naivety to them. They’re from a book that documents flowers in New Zealand, though it doesn’t address any difference between plants that are indigenous and those that are exotic. Then they’re placed in a studio and photographed like portraits. The notion of how representation works in them is really interesting.”
Cousins has been a senior lecturer at Elam School of Fine Arts for nine years, and considerations of theory are often intertwined with his thoughts on his own work. “One of the problems with painting is that it risks a kind of hegemony. You go to art schools around the world and they’re all reading the same texts – Joselit, Verwoert, Graw, Bois, etcetera. If you ignore all of that you risk coming off as uninformed. Reading that kind of content can bring a certain clarity, though more recently I’ve found there’s enough of a conceptual framework within my work for it to sustain itself without relying on input from those sources.”
Addressing painting in the broader context of contemporary art, Cousins’ perspective is pointed. “It’s an issue for painters today that the audience needs to be familiar with a language of painting before they can see it operating on the same level as some other contemporary practices, which can articulate political views more directly. There’s an assumption that painting is intrinsically conservative, unlike post-object art, which deals directly with real-world problems. That kind of art has been seen as more progressive and more liberal, though I think it’s possible for that to become another form of conservatism because it has the capacity to overlook nuance.” He offers his thoughts on who the work is ultimately for. “I think there has to be a generosity towards the audience, because none of it matters without one.”
In her Avondale studio Sara Hughes is standing at a workbench. Hundreds of rolls of brightly coloured adhesive vinyl are neatly organised on a shelf behind her. Hughes’ artworks often feature bold contrasting colour and hard-edged geometry, weaving optical affects that shift and pulse in the viewer’s gaze. Hughes is also often commissioned to create large-scale public artworks, which she manages alongside producing paintings for frequent gallery exhibitions. “Whether I’m dealing with a 500-square-metre wall or 10cm-by-10cm piece of paper, everything I do comes out of painting. It’s ingrained in me in terms of how I think about line, colour, composition, and so on. I don’t want to be bound by the medium of painting, because I use other materials as well, but my work always comes back to the language of paint,” she says.
Hughes is among the most accomplished mid-career painters operating in New Zealand today. Her list of awards and achievements include the 2003 Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in Dunedin, the 2005 Wallace Art Award Paramount Prize (leading to a residency in New York), and the 2008–09 Creative New Zealand Visual Arts Residency in Berlin. She also travelled extensively in Asia in her mid-20s. So much travel has influenced the way she works. “It might be in the way you draw a line, or which kind of brush you make the line with. Exposure to that much visual culture broadens the way you think, even about the simple things. Going to India and seeing how pigment creates imagery when spread across a road, or going into a European church and seeing how a fresco responds to light, these things don’t become the narrative or the specific features of the work, but they do inform your wider understanding of visual language.”
Hughes’ artwork is highly sought-after by dealers and collectors here and abroad, though she’s chosen to balance her workload. “I show with one gallery in New Zealand and one in Australia. If I had four or five dealer shows a year, I’d start to feel like a production line. I couldn’t work like that, I’d be rehashing ideas. The work has to come first.” Nevertheless, she has enjoyed a rich vein of success, and is able to operate as a full-time artist. “At the moment I feel pretty lucky to be supported by my work, though I don’t feel like I’m making for a market. If I did feel that way I’d really start to question why I’m doing this. There’s a purist in me – I believe in art and the ideas behind it. It needs to be more than something you just put on your wall.”
On the subject of painting’s relationship to digital imagery, Hughes is philosophical. “Why do people still go and look at paintings? You can see everything online now. I did question myself at one point, ‘Why am I making this big, physical clunky thing?’ For me it’s the need for connection, emotionally and intellectually. There’s a pure pleasure to smearing paint across a page. The physical engagement of the arm and the immediacy of the colour are richly satisfying.”
Looking back over the two decades she’s been in the business, Hughes sees a distinct change. “Working intuitively was something I pushed away during art school, it wasn’t seen as valid. It’s important to be robust and critically engaged in your work, though at some point it’s also important to believe in it yourself and enjoy it,” she says. “There’s definitely been a loosening of what’s possible. There’s so many ways to be a painter now.”
In a cluster of buildings in Kingsland, Robbie Fraser and a group of other young artists share a large, open studio space. The environment is conducive to dialogue – both verbal and visual. Fraser is sitting at a desk, surrounded by his hard-edged abstract paintings. “You can’t think of art making like a traditional career that supports a life, because it’s going to break your heart and your head if you do. It’s not easy to make it work. You can get into a funk where you get stuck in some shitty job that you’re doing to pay the rent, and then that sort of takes over from painting,” he says.
The transitional phase from the youthful romanticism of life as an artist to sustaining a long-term practice can be a steep curve. “A lot of people shut down or take a break once they leave art school, and that’s a pathway to stopping making work altogether. You have to keep working, and stay open to new ideas and approaches. Having other practitioners around you is incredibly important; it provides conversations and visual cues. You have to talk to other artists about how they work, and listen to what they say.”
Fraser is refreshing in his openness about the practical and financial challenges that many artists face. “The system that I’ve got at the moment works. I work a job a couple of days a week, and then I paint on the others. I need to have a studio, I can’t work from home. It’s about the headspace as much as the physical. When I was younger my thinking was all about having the right dealer, and doing a particular number of shows. Now I’m more concerned with the work. I have to take my time with the paintings and let them go out into the world when they’re ready, otherwise they can be undercooked.”
Fraser’s recent paintings make use of sharp lines, simple geometric forms and intense, contrasting colours. Surprisingly for such structured works, many of them feature brush marks that appear incidental or unintentional. Yet, they are too obvious to have been made in error. “I want the accidental to be reinforced. People think that if there’s a mistake in a work, it’s unintentional and shows something that has eluded the artist. The ‘mistakes’ in my work are there to disrupt and in turn to increase a notion or feeling of disequilibrium, an anxiety or shaky ground. If I wanted these to be absolutely perfect, I would do them in Illustrator and print them, or use stencils and spray paint, or even get someone else to do them. For this type of painting, oil paint is probably one of the worst things to use. Paradoxically that’s what makes me use it,” he says.
In terms of the relationship between art making and reading, Fraser’s working method is pragmatic. “I approach theory like I’m a filter or medium. It’s like panning for gold. You sift and sift. Production processes can be like that too, like the old photographic process where you take a roll of film; one shot’s good, five are okay, and the rest are crap. I find it can be like that with painting at times,” he chuckles. But his enthusiasm for the discipline is unabated. “It’s the best thing in the world. The rush you get when you know you’ve done a great job, or when you didn’t know it was going to turn out that way – that’s the best feeling.”
Séraphine Pick is sitting at a dining table in her Rongotai home. Sun is streaming through the windows, dazzling after days of rain. Roaring aircraft engines frequently state the proximity of Wellington airport. “When I was at art school the whole ‘public persona’ thing wasn’t a concern at the time. It’s more of a thing now.” Pick is musing on changes since the early 1980s when she attended Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch. She mentions the pressures of being in the media and in the focus of collectors, who often seek an identifiable style of work. “It takes your freedom away, being branded,” she says.
Pick’s recent work has featured a lyrical treatment of paint, with large areas of translucent washes, paint runs, and hints of raw canvas complementing figures and landscapes. “I’m trying to get more immediate, less laborious, in the way I paint. Just a light mark on a canvas can be beautiful in itself. Every time you make a painting it’s a new experience. You can’t entirely control it. It’s made by hand, so the hand is evident. I’m not interested in the sort of painting where you draw a picture and fill it in. I like working with the process of layers. But I am moving more towards focusing on the materiality of the medium, the handling of paint and the use of the accidental in building an image. There’s a continual balance between intuition and decision-making.”
In 2015 a major show of Pick’s work, White Noise, was shown at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt. Two works in particular titled Easy Living and Easy Living II made use of a lighter, more radiant palette. “There’s an almost religious or psychedelic aspect to them because of their scale and colour. They’re based on 1960s and 70s hippie documentary imagery sourced from the internet and using impressionist and post-impressionist painting application paralleled with a psychedelic-like colour palette. All of which can be seen as very kitsch now. Some people loved those works, because they made them feel uplifted despite the critique I was presenting within.”
Pick – like her fellow-painters James Cousins, Sara Hughes and Robbie Fraser – is enthusiastic and articulate when discussing painting. Though perhaps painting, or any art form, can’t ever really be discussed in a pure sense. It’s always contingent upon a context of production, gallery or display environment, and the broader culture of its time. Nevertheless it remains a domain of critical enquiry, carefully balancing unbridled creativity and technical discipline, and retains a space where a viewer can bring their own thoughts, associations and meanings to the work.
As Pick says, “As soon as you paint people some form of identification is bound to take place and we bring our own experience to the artwork. But they’re reacting to the painting, and the pleasure of looking. That’s what I love about making art, because you can’t control the audience’s reaction to what you do. And that interaction is what completes the artwork, and where it goes on to have a life of its own in the world.”