Back in 1973 I won a prize at the North Shore Arts Festival in Auckland. My painting was considered by some to be quite controversial at the time and it has certainly been eye opening (and perhaps shocking!) for my assistant who has been reading and copying the old newspaper clippings and articles from that time.
As yet I have been unable to locate a colour image of the painting, but the colours would be similar to those in this blog post about some other works of mine from that period, which are still in the collection at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki
Below are a few of those newspaper articles and clippings which I have kept in a scrap book for many years, but which my assistant insisted must see the light of day – she seemed to find it fascinating and thought others would too.
It seems I caused rather a stir, some of the opinions written in to the papers are hilarious – or infuriating – depending on your viewpoint.
This – signed ‘Not a Prude’ – is a particularly ugly example (the original clipping is rather damaged so I will quote a section):
Two ugly, course, grotesque figures, sprawled out, one in a most disgusting attitude, and not in any way pleasing to the eye…. why not paint two nice young girls (nudes, if he likes) with lovely long flowing hair, throwing a beach ball.
From the opinion s section of the North Shore Times Advertiser, February 1973
I feel that the author of this letter has said a lot more about himself than the painting – and not in a good way!
Here is a more positive one though:
In fact there were many positive responses, and the painting was bought by Grahame Chote, collector and director of the International Art Centre, Auckland. I recently got in touch with his daughter Fran Davies who is now the director, and she was able to provide me with this image of the painting in their downstairs gallery in the early ’70’s.
The following article is Grahame’s response in the Auckland Star, to the controversy surrounding the painting.
And from the newsletter:
He was not the only interested party:
I would love to know who those ‘American tourists’ were! [Ed.]
However, the controversies continued:
You never would have thought I was such an enfant terrible in my youth… would you??!!
I have taken a trip back to my native Tasmania for a few weeks and have been with my old art school mate. He has unearthed some ancient stuff… all done around 1964/5. A mixture of painting, linocuts and chalk sketches. Some of it’s not bad, if I do say so myself!
Somewhat reminiscent of our old chum Bacon? Who was a huge influence on me can you tell?!!
The above sketch was a study for a painting which was acquired by the Dunedin art gallery. (A few years ago!)
Becoming an ‘artist’ is so simple. Get out of bed, down to the art shop, get loads of gear, make some marks, and there you have it. BINGO! Of course you could have called yourself a brain surgeon, an airline captain, a chess grand master, a computer programmer, a Michelin starred chef, a cabinet maker, a concert pianist, a lawyer or an infant teacher. Spot the difference with the latter disciplines. They can take years to develop and master, and in many cases the applicants fall by the wayside. So art arrives in one bound, not only that, the idea is so seductive (an artist, wow!) the illusion takes root. And guess who supplies the nourishment for this little hot house plant? There is gold in them thar hills. The circling online art sites and paying exhibitions are legion, they will get your work seen everywhere, provide loads of collectors itching to get hold of your output.
Believe that and you would believe anything.
Occasionally, of course, by dint of sheer numbers, the quality of work can rise to pedestrian, but that’s about it. To provide some kind of contact from all this stuff, the trick would be to herd them all into some mega compound, set fire to the lot and create the biggest barbie in history. A bonfire of the vanities. Next week you could probably do the same. It’s one abiding virtue? It can be fun and therapeutic, of course. Quite right too.
I used to take adult art classes for many years and thoroughly enjoyed it.…AND, so did my students! We still keep in touch.
The lure of ‘artspeak’ or ‘art bollocks’ is irresistible, the pretentious and obfuscation of the words generally being in an inverse relationship to the threadbare quality of the image. Let’s finish with a little gem I spotted the other day:
‘Her critical eye casts outwards as well, challenging contemporary mores and identity politics through the medium of the ‘old masters.’ She examines ‘otherness’, intimacy and indeed masculinity via the tropes of the Elizabethan court; a metaphor for our own times.’
Working across different disciplines adds an element of confusion to the casual studio visitor, or, in one case it was somebody who wanted to see some work for a local show. Being familiar with the range of my children’s illustrations, the first thing she saw in the studio were several very large non-figurative paintings and lots of smaller ones. Puzzlement and doubt abounded. There was nothing cozy about these things. Had she come to the right place? How to extricate herself?
This was symptomatic of the reaction of many visitors and has led to me providing a brief tutorial in order to clarify this. Let’s start with the ‘abstract’ stuff.
My explanation was, and is, by invitation only otherwise the listeners boredom levels would be severely tested. Their interest was genuine and any hint of a patronising attitude from me would be spotted at once.
The gist of my riveting talk turned on learning the history and the language (or lack of it) of painting. As it is with literacy or numeracy or musical notation or culinary techniques, the study of these things is crucial. Otherwise, without the background knowledge of ‘reading’ paintings then the the lure of conventional pedestrian ‘proper pictures’ in all their tedium prevails.
Does one tackle this with a barrage of words? Heaven forbid. Consider this. After having enjoyed a play, or a novel, or a collection of poems, would you like to see a series of pictures to further increase one’s understanding? Or, conversely, does the visual experience have to be translated into mountains of words? Of course not. I once had a show where the only words were ‘fire exit’, and that was because it was compulsory. As somebody said ‘painting is about painting, everything else is about everything else.’ Quite so. Study it, learn about it, look at it, and even try it. Then forget the words.
As previously mentioned, illustrating childrens books has been quite a successful venture. And along with Ronda’s superior literary skill our Lighthouse Keeper books have kept us both busy for over 40 years. Being published by Scholastic they have been a hit in schools, with hundreds of lighthouses being crafted by kids all over the world!
Some years ago, Ronda and I were doing a school visit in London. For some reason, we worked with the kids in a lecture theatre, at the end of which was a grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was on my own finishing off some session pictures for my young audience. At some point a young man appeared, asked if I minded if he did a rehearsal on the piano. ‘Of course not’, I replied, ‘can I come and see?’ He was doing that wonderful warhorse, the piano part in Beethoven 5, a piece I had known since I was about 4 years old. His concert date was pretty close. He was nervous. He had umpteen goes at the start of the rondo. I approached the piano. ‘Look at this,’ he said, gesturing to the left hand page. He played a bit. ‘Now look at the right,’ he said. ‘You can see the problem! Bloody difficult, fancy a go?’ Of course, I could not see it at all. All I saw was a series of black marks on a piece of white paper. He looked at these marks and his head filled with music. This language was incomprehensible to me. My head filled with nothing. Not a hope. The music of top class painting is the same. It is wordless and deeply affecting.
And of course, the dross of the ordinary in this venture is just as evident and as easy to spot. There is acres of it. This can be very confusing. Online websites are full of the stuff, so much of it is of spellbinding mediocrity. More explanation required….
[A coda: Back to the lecture theatre type experience with the children….
Making images for children is wonderfully unequivocal and almost totally wordless. The scene is a draughty assembly hall. 200 kids, years 1 and 2 are settled down and expecting a good show. So, get to work and then grab them and hold them, but be quick about it. Do that and the rapport is a kind of silent and magical electricity. The children almost take all the oxygen out of the air. At the end, nobody wants to leave, including me and the teachers. If you are not up to it, death is not lingering, it is immediate and horribly final . Children don’t mess around with platitudes. This activity is not for the faint-hearted. In which case, go and do something else…..]