Exploring a new constellation

Chris Heaphy's paintings are a spirited investigation of cross-cultural connections, the fragility of the planet and the history of the Maori prophets. Virginia Were investigates.

Auckland artist Chris Heaphy was excited about his upcoming exhibition and also a little unsure how his New Zealand audience would receive his 'new' paintings, several of which were leaning against the wall of his Mt Eden studio when I visited him in July.

Though the birth of these crisp, collage-style paintings can be traced back to 2003, few of them have been seen in New Zealand, though they've been well received overseas. They made their debut in late July at Heaphy's exhibition, Sea of Tranquility, at Gow Langsford.

With dramatic shifts in direction come inevitable bouts of anxiety for artists willing to take risks, but Heaphy needn't worry - the large canvases stacked against the wall literally sing with colour, visual excitement, ideas and the suggestion - never didactic or heavy handed - of multiple meanings and interpretations.

At the time Heaphy was finishing works for three different shows and the paintings surrounding me had a cohesion and intensity that suggested a process of fine tuning and distillation over a long period, as well as Heaphy's willingness to keep adding to his ever-expanding visual vocabulary.

These eye-popping inventories or maps of signs and symbols, rendered in silhouette, vacillate between the abstract and the figurative, leaving the viewer free to wander amidst their atomized spaces, although we are gently nudged in certain directions by the artist's intriguing titles. In the painting Walk This Way, for instance, there's a wonderfully strange alliance between the Tuhoe prophet Rua Kenana and that ubiquitous symbol of childhood fun and frivolity, Mickey Mouse. Rua's presence is suggested by the inclusion of playing card symbols, which he adopted as his own in the early 20th century and used to decorate the distinctive round walls of his house Hiona at Maungapohatu in the Ureweras.

The glorious mixture of symbols from two very different worlds - early 20th-century Maori and Pakeha - in the form of boots, hats, guns, skulls, skeletons, ruru, pipes and profiles of Maori heads, all coalescing within Mickey Mouse's outline, suggests Heaphy is taking a deeply satirical look at cultural imperialism, the loss of innocence associated with colonisation and the relations of the powerful to the weak in general - themes being played out on the world stage today.

The imperative to "Walk This Way" suggests the idea of blind faith in the face of cultural, religious or political uncertainty, and given the title of this painting and its imagery, it's interesting to learn that Heaphy has long been fascinated by the Maori prophets and faith healers, Rua Kenana and Ratana, who may well have exhorted their followers to "Walk This Way" in their attempts to negotiate the considerable impact of Pakeha on traditional Maori society in the early 20th century.

The repetition of the skull motif in this painting, rather comically as Mickey Mouse's nose, reinforces the sense of the macabre in these works and the way Heaphy mixes up his imagery puts viewers on notice that our interpretations of so-called 'universal' signs and symbols are always highly contestable and contingent. Some symbols do however have universal power. No matter whether you're a Tibetan monk or a Mexican, a skull will make you think of death, fragility and impermanence, and to be confronted with two very large ones, as in the paintings Kingdom and Birth, has an undeniable impact.

Once you've drawn breath, you're pulled in to examine the mosaic-like details in these two works; they exert an almost gravitational pull, responding to our need to move in close and 'read' the surface. Like people staring up at stars in the night sky, we can't resist the urge to create recognisable objects from apparently abstract shapes and patterns. Interestingly, references to space exploration abound in the titles of these paintings: Columbia, Sea of Tranquility (where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon), One Small Step for Man.

In Kingdom, the skull is both creepy and carnivalesque - its cavities filled with shapes like brightly coloured animal crackers beloved by children and adults alike. It's also like a planet or a world, teeming with life in its most basic forms - animals, plants and humans. Perhaps all the objects are like thoughts flying around inside the receptacle that is the skull?

"A skull can have fairly macabre readings, however over millennia it has been used and interpreted in so many different ways," says Heaphy. "I'm interested in what the skull can represent - ideas that we as humans have about ourselves, our planet, our understandings of the universe. I'm interested in representing the skull as a vessel so I've painted some of these skulls like a globe, so for example I might be alluding to ideas of global warming, species extinction or the need for protection."

It's interesting to track the development of Heaphy's image bank. In 1997 he made a large work (also titled Walk This Way) painted directly onto the wall of the Manawatu Art Gallery, which registered his interest in Maori history and particularly that of the prophets. "That work was almost like an inventory of the symbols I was using at the time - most were invented and some were borrowed," he comments.

In this wall painting were Rua's playing card symbols as well as images of walking sticks and prosthetic limbs, and in the accompanying catalogue, we see the source of these images - an old black and white photo of Ratana's Whare Maori with its collection of walking sticks, crutches and wheelchairs alongside traditional taonga like cloaks and mere. Ratana was a faith healer who lived south of Wanganui and had visions that convinced his followers he had the ability to heal his people in a time when the 'flu epidemic and other European diseases had taken a huge toll on Maori. Ratana suggested his followers didn't need their crutches and artificial limbs and persuaded them to give them up.

For Heaphy, who is of Kai Tahu and Pakeha descent, the imagery associated with Ratana and other Maori prophets, "felt like a strange link to those times and a much bigger, broader history, which connected with my own personal experiences and how I felt about myself as an artist. "I was searching for something to say that had relevance to me as a painter who had recently finished art school. Like many people I was visiting museums to look at our amazing taonga, but after a while I found myself increasingly drawn to the other stories in our history that weren't told in museums. I became more interested in the collision of cultures and how one culture can interpret the same thing entirely differently from another, and how symbols are borrowed and reinterpreted as we saw with Rua Kenana and his playing card symbols. These ideas of exchange have always interested me greatly."

The hinge between Heaphy's previous body of work, which was more subjective and painterly, and these more graphic paintings was the 2003 installation, After the Big Bang, shown at Jonathan Smart Gallery in Christchurch and later at Pataka Porirua. Comprising 365 cut-out metal shapes, one for each day of the year, Big Bang was hung in a constellation-like cluster from the ceiling and illuminated by a single light bulb in the middle of the cluster. The shapes moved, casting shadows on the walls of the gallery and the viewer became part of this universe, walking amongst the shapes and casting their own shadows.

"This work developed like an inventory of the symbols I had used earlier, and it was a continuation of the earlier wall paintings, however it was more about drawing with shadows. The new paintings are a continuation of those ideas."

Heaphy graduated with a BFA from Ilam in Christchurch and an MFA from RMIT University in Melbourne. As a young artist fresh out of art school, he became a bricoleur of objects, painting on placemats, tablecloths and beer coasters. These prosaic, inexpensive objects had a rich potential for retaining traces of their previous lives, which intersected in interesting ways with the artist's own painterly interventions. In the recent paintings the large shapes of skulls and hands function in a similar way to the early found objects, providing a scaffold or template for the artist to work within.

As well as early Maori cave paintings and moko, the extravagance of detail in Heaphy's paintings brings to mind the intricacy of Victorian embroidery, a craft much admired by Maori at the time. Some of the painted imagery of flowers and foliage found on painted meeting houses, which are documented in Roger Neich's book Painted Histories: Early Maori Figurative Painting, were most likely inspired by European embroidery. "Embroidery ties in with the collision of Pakeha and Maori cultures and how Maori adopted these symbols. The English imagery of exotic plants started to appear alongside native flora and fauna in painted Maori meeting houses of the late 19th century."

Heaphy shares a fascination for cross-cultural collisions of this type with two other significant New Zealand artists - Gordon Walters and Theo Schoon. Walters became a close friend and mentor, and Heaphy often visited the artist and his wife Margaret Orbell, author of several books on Maori literature, tradition and belief.

The vibrant energy of Heaphy's most recent paintings is beautifully summed up in the title of one of the works - Be Blatant, Be Emotional, Risk Everything - and with a growing reputation in Europe, the United States and Asia, it seems Heaphy's willingness to follow this credo has certainly paid off.

Chris Heaphy with his painting Armstrong Tranquility, 2008, acrylic on linen. All images courtesy of the artist and Gow Langsford.

Walk This Way, 2007, acrylic on linen.

Kingdom, 2007, acrylic on linen.

Chris Heaphy, Sea of Tranquility, 2008, acrylic on linen.