Post-seismic, post-colonial paintings
Tony de Lautour’s latest paintings continue his ongoing exploration of colonisation, control and ownership of land – only now they reflect on the post-quake landscape of Christchurch.
Its title is Central Planning, and it consists of two picture frames – the outer one enclosing overlapping abstract blocks of colour with background plywood showing through, the inner frame surrounding an empty void, with the white gallery wall showing through. As Christchurch artist Tony de Lautour explains, he’s ‘framed’ his hometown – though with a bit of help from the Christchurch City Council. “The work is my reaction to the latest CERA/council plan. They’re proposing a specific plan for the centre of the city, including setting up a ‘green frame’ around the inner city. But all they seem to intend to do is knock down perfectly good buildings that are in the way of the ‘plan’. The central area seems overplanned – too many ideas cancelling each other out. It’s outside the centre where all the interesting building is happening – fortunately the local people there are not so constrained.”
Tony de Lautour’s latest paintings – in a recent show at Auckland’s Ivan Anthony Gallery and at the Ilam Campus Gallery in Christchurch – are a far cry from the earlier faux-naïve, motif-laden paintings of his nascent career as one of Christchurch’s ‘pencil case painters’. Or are they? Along with fellow Ilam alumni Shane Cotton, Seraphine Pick, Peter Robinson and Bill Hammond, his early works were reminiscent of the doodles and scribbles on the pencil cases and rulers of bored adolescents in the back row of the school science lab.
His first solo show at Christchurch’s Brooke Gifford Gallery in 1994, Bad White Art, was laden with scratchy images of stars, hearts, skulls, guns, cobwebs, lightning bolts and crucifixes on thick impasto backgrounds, and his winning work in the following year’s Visa Gold Award was embellished with the same crude jail-tattoo mash-ups. Through the 1990s he continued with the same subject matter, though contends he always strove to maintain formalism in his larger image-heavy works, introducing pure abstracted shapes and symbols, with a tilt as much towards typography as bored scribblings. He also pared back the imagery, often appropriating recognisable shapes – the Nike ‘swoosh’, McDonald’s arches, the Apple logo – filling the shapes with mountains and creating islands, which were seemingly adrift in a sea of global branding.
By 2000 he’d found another surface to conquer. He’d amassed a collection of old quasi-romantic antipodean landscapes from garage sales and junk-shops, initially bought for their frames, but, as he explained, “they looked like empty stage sets. It seemed right to fill them in, or even appropriate the hand of the original artist and make it look like someone had been there.”
And fill them in he did, with brawling kiwis, strutting stags and lions, which are scarred, tattooed, dragging on roll-your-owns, and staggering through the elysian backdrop of alpine grandeur amongst a litter of broken bottles, syringes and bones. Sometimes he made more stealthy interventions, creating subtle faces on mountainsides or in clouds, arguing that as the original paintings were heavily romanticised he had no issues ‘revisioning’ the images.
Canterbury University Associate Professor of English Mark Williams co-opted one of de Lautour’s revisionist colonial works as the cover for the book he co-edited, Maoriland: New Zealand literature 1872-1914 (VUP, 2006). The painting depicted a serpent coiled around the trunk of a cabbage tree and a Bible on a lakeside rock in the foreground of an idyllic South Island landscape. In the foreword to de Lautour’s artist’s book, B-Sides & Demos(2009), Williams writes, “The question we did not pose directly there (in the book) is one that de Lautour addresses everywhere in these superb works: the relation of that demonised late-colonial world to the virtuously postcolonial present. De Lautour’s recoveries of colonial art comment on an equally agonistic and equally compromised present; they speak to white anxieties in late-twentieth century Christchurch.… He has sensed what biculturalism failed to notice, that declaring themselves postcolonial does not separate Pakeha from their ancestors.”
De Lautour’s way forward has involved looking back over his shoulder. He recalls: “Initially it may have been a mid-career thing, where I went back and looked at what I’d painted earlier – and found the abstract shapes were becoming more interesting than the figurative imagery. I found myself going back and ‘cutting up’ and reassembling the imagery into new work. I like to make paintings to find out what I’m doing, rather than saying, ‘This is what I’m doing’ and then setting out to illustrate it.”
This ‘reassembling’ of his earlier works segued into the Text Message paintings in 2008 in which the scrawled text present in his earlier works became a modernist geometric composition, whose abstracted forms substantiated the actual message. In an interview with Matthew Galloway in The Silver Bulletin in December 2012, he explains the progression of his text paintings: “In the later text paintings, where I began to use geometric forms and symbols such as the cross as substitutes for letters, the title or text takes over and becomes the entire content. It happened in a gradual way that reflected my concerns at the time – cubism, constructivism, song lyrics, names, text messages and a remixing of elements from my earlier paintings.”
De Lautour’s journey towards abstraction was ultimately defined by the twin tectonic events in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011. “After the earthquakes I found anything to do with figurative painting seemed redundant and insignificant, frivolous even. Abstract images had more power.”
As he walked around Christchurch, photographing and recording the post-seismic destruction, this imagery became even more evident. “The abstract shapes I was starting to paint were an escape in some way, but I could see the connection with the piles of rubble, the building shapes, even the way that suddenly everything became colour-coded – red zone, green zone, etc. Coincidentally, I’d also painted a series of precarious towers prior to the first earthquake, and suddenly I was viewing them quite differently.”
Like most Christchurch residents who’ve chosen to remain in the city, de Lautour’s outlook on life and art has radically changed over the past two years. He has returned to over-painting found artworks, but unlike the revisionist works of ten years earlier, these paintings are now partially obscured by
swathes and blocks of colour.
As part of the 2012 Christchurch Art Gallery Outer Spaces project, he published Unreal Estate, attacking the ubiquitous Property Press with his brush. Erasing, obscuring and blotching out the houses for sale in the real estate magazine, he referenced the earlier natural destruction, and ongoing (un)controlled demolition of the city. He also published a suite of prints titled Property Press in conjunction with the Watermark Print Workshop. In the accompanying catalogue art critic Andrew Paul Wood writes: “On one level the symbolism is obvious: the landscape and the buildings that stood in it have been erased, or in the case of liquefaction, covered over. The deconstruction of the land is echoed in the deconstruction of the page. Land ownership and control has long been an interest of de Lautour’s going back to his exploration of the theme of colonization, control and ownership in his early work. Perhaps the obscuring of the text also suggests the frustration experienced by many people living in Christchurch.”
Unlike many people, de Lautour has the benefit of working out his frustrations through his art. In his recent exhibitions, titles like Central Plan, Painting for an Unbuilt House, Tourist Trap and Open Plan are evidence of the way the Christchurch rebuild permeates all levels of activity. He recalls: “While I was working on Tourist Trap, lying close by was the council booklet showing a schematic diagram of the central city, with the river and blocks of colour showing how they were redesigning the city to make it better for tourists.”
Post-earthquake, Tony de Lautour has had to change and adapt his life as well as his art. His eighth-floor studio in the old Government Life Building in the red zone was badly damaged, though he did gain access to the space to remove works and art supplies. With the fate of the apartment he owns undecided, he now rents a townhouse in Riccarton and has established his studio in the adjoining double garage. He’s currently awaiting the re-opening of his Christchurch dealer gallery Brooke Gifford. In the meantime he plans to exhibit works on paper at Chambers241 later in May, and then to have a show with his Wellington dealer Hamish McKay later in the year. /Dan Chappell