John Reynolds packs felt tip pens and a spade to make outstanding new works here and abroad.
Meeting John Reynolds in his Auckland studio in the charmingly down-at-heel Achilles House is a high-energy experience. His bright orange shirt matches the large orange canvas propped against the wall and he talks nineteen to the dozen, clearly excited by the success of his largest painting project to date, Cloud, commissioned for the 2006 Sydney Biennale.
He began the work last November and in June this year installed 7073 small square canvases, which stream in the shape of a cloud across the foyer and west wall of the Art Gallery of New South Wales toward the immense window at the east end of the gallery.
An homage to Harry Orsman’s Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English, published in 1997, Cloud voices 7073 words and terms from the dictionary – all drawn in silver pen on white canvas so the text shimmers and flares as the viewer moves past.
It is, he says, the apotheosis of his career to date and this is no small thing because Reynolds has had some impressive highlights, including being a finalist in the Walters Award.
He saw the offer of arguably the prime spot in the Biennale – an enormous white space broken up by neo-classical arched doorways – as a challenge and an honour.
“Cloud wouldn’t exist without this space and this opportunity. The space is absolutely critical to the work,” he says. Cloud is such an astute response to the space and such a powerful, poetic evocation of Aotearoa that New Zealanders living in Sydney who saw it were moved to tears. However they weren’t the only ones to respond. People who had never heard the words “urban marae”, “fiscal envelope” or “pakeha style” engaged with the scale and beauty of Cloud.
“Intimate immensity” is the term Reynolds uses to describe the work, which is so rich and detailed, so large that to stand in front of it is to be engulfed in a cloud of language that – like a real cloud – is constantly shifting and changing. It comes into sharp focus directly in front of you as you get caught up in individual words and then dissolves at the edges, shearing off in your peripheral vision. Silver pen on white canvas perfectly evokes the chimerical New Zealand light as well as the elusiveness of language.
“When you stand in front of the work it’s like a giant speech bubble; you can’t see the whole thing at once; it hazes off and that is how speech is.”
Reynolds was captivated by Orsman’s dictionary – the only one of its kind in the world and over 40 years in the making – when he first saw it. Then came the offer of the Art Gallery of New South Wales foyer and the confluence of the space, the dictionary and the idea of a cloud as an organising principle for the work – as well as a spiritual metaphor for Aotearoa – brought the work into being.
“The challenge was perfect; the book as source material for a work was already in my mind.” The fact that Cloud made its debut overseas in an international art context has given the work a universal significance it may not have had were it first shown in New Zealand.
“It’s a work that reflects New Zealand’s connection to the community of English speaking nations. At the same time it particularises what is local and regional about our language through a particular set of vocal tics.” As well as colonising a wall in a robustly Australian institution – the foyer will forever bear its trace – the work marks a shift in Reynolds’ career toward increasingly large site–specific works. Its power resides not in painterly virtuosity but in the artist’s cohesive adherence to the spirit of Orsman’s text and the use of decidedly low status materials – cheap canvases imported from China and Reynolds’ trademark silver ink pen.
“The dictionary has 6000 main entries and almost 10,000 minor entries. I wanted to honour the book and I also had to try to neutralise my impulse to go for certain terms. I chose enough head words and sub-headings that I felt I had a fair appraisal of the text.”
Despite the complexity of making it, the work’s components are deceptively simple – a text, a wall, an image – cloud, silver pens, canvases, and 28,000 velcro dots. Beginning last November with a formula for how many canvases were needed per square metre of wall, Reynolds ran a production line – highlighting entries in the dictionary, numbering them and then painting a daily quota of canvases.
Completing between 80 and a 100 a day and working six days a week with the help of two studio assistants, Natasa Kruscic and Elliot Collins, he worked in the Achilles House studio rented specially for the project. Before that Reynolds’ painting studio had been a bedroom in his Grey Lynn villa.
Finally the last canvas was complete and all 7073 were packed into 125 boxes ready for transit to Australia. But the strict numerical system was overthrown during installation when Reynolds arranged canvases randomly, allowing his signature sense of fun and word play free rein in the lower reaches of the work.
For someone who is primarily known as a painter, this artist is moving in surprising directions and judging by two recent projects, using native plants to make site-specific public sculptures, the label no longer fits.
His 2003 work Snow Tussock was commissioned for a spectacular rugged East Otago site, the first work in a new park being developed by Otago gold mining company Oceana Gold. In line with its resource consent conditions, Oceana Gold has agreed to rehabilitate the mining area and create a park combining large-scale artworks, landscape design, ecology and heritage features. The company, working with park curator and co-director of Starkwhite, John McCormack, is commissioning artworks that will combine with other features to form a destination for visitors and tourists that will breathe new life into the local economy.
John McCormack says Reynolds’ proposal to make a site-specific work using native plants was perfect for the project. Although in its early stages at present – two works have been completed and many more are in the planning stages – the park will be launched and opened to the public further down the track.
The site for Snow Tussock, a large grid of snow tussock planted between an old church and a graveyard on the outskirts of the town of Macraes Flat, was carefully chosen. “This was an opportunity to do something environmentally, politically, socially and aesthetically connected with the local community and landscape,” says Reynolds.
The work celebrates the beauty of an endemic species that is under threat because traditionally “fucking tussock”, as some locals call it, is burnt to clear land for pasture. Drawing a parallel with his use of this ubiquitous low status plant (it’s not totara or kauri) and the cheap pre-prepared canvases and marker pen used in Cloud, Reynolds points out that snow tussock is not everyone’s favourite species. A few see it as a beautiful native plant worth protecting but most see it as a thorn in the side of efficient farming.
The decision to site the work near the township in a weed infested area with a dilapidated farm shed, rather than in the mining area, was strategic and political, says Reynolds. By visually linking the graveyard and historic church, Reynolds created a succinct visual metaphor and injected new life into the environs. Locals helped him plant the work, digging up existing tussock from land that was about to be cleared and replanting it in the designated area; they have since restored the church and graveyard that form part of the artwork.
Like Cloud, Snow Tussock is a large work made up of multiples, giving the viewer an experience of intimate immensity. When you walk between the avenues of this beautiful native grass, you see individual plants shimmer and flare in response to changing light and weather and at the same time you are engulfed in an immense field. Unlike Cloud, Snow Tussock is organised in an orderly grid and there is a time component to the work, which will continue to evolve and grow long after the artist is dead.
A second related work by Reynolds is under construction in the park. Golden Spaniard is a hillside shaped like a ziggurat built from waste rock left over from mining operations. The viewer will walk through a softly curved inverse ziggurat built on top of the landform, creating an enclosure and viewing space to take in a mass planting of 10,000 Golden Spaniards. These are spectacular native plants whose flowers create an incendiary golden blaze – a pun on the company’s core business!
Reynolds’ two Otago works are compelling on many levels. On one they invoke an experience of the sublime, such is their visual and sensual impact; on another they refer to environmental degradation and the loss of species caused by New Zealand’s pioneering culture. Thirdly they extend New Zealand’s visual arts vocabulary by using native plants to make permanent public sculpture – something that hasn’t been done on this scale before. Watch out for more public outdoor works by Reynolds using native plants in Auckland.
With these three major works under his belt, and a film about them by Shirley Horrocks in production, Reynolds’ career is moving at quicksilver pace.
“I know that making Cloud will change my life but how it will change, I don’t yet know,” he says.