Book Review: Gordon Walters, New Vision

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_web-gordon-walters-catalogue-auckland-art-gallery-publication_1024x1024.jpgGordon Walters is one of New Zealand’s most renowned modernist artists – his koru series instantly recognisable. Substantial in content and size, this book accompanies an exhibition that is being held in Dunedin until April of this year and will then be at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki from July through November 2018.

The hard cover is striking – a reproduction of Walters’s black, white and blue geometric ‘Painting J’ (circa 1974). An interesting choice given the instant recognition afforded to his koru works – the choice of cover making it clear that his art extended beyond what he is best known for.

Contributors to the book include artists, art historians, curators, art history lecturers and others with specialist expertise and interests – including Māori and Pacific architecture and art history, historic art, craft and design, and the development of modern art in New Zealand and global modernisms.

The introduction explains that Walters ‘created a network of active relationships from a synthesis of forms, concepts, cultural traditions and perspectives’. The chapters explore in detail the multiple influences – at home and abroad – upon Walters’s art. Several chapters discuss the criticisms that were levelled at Walters as a Pākehā artist who incorporated Māori symbols into his art, primarily the unfurling spiral shape known as koru (also referred to in this book as pītau). Although Walters was accused of appropriation, he did not believe that the koru-like form in his paintings was essentially a reproduction of a Māori symbol. Instead he preferred to describe the symbol he created as ‘a horizontal stripe ending in a circle’.

However, the authors make it clear that Māori culture and symbolism were significant influences for Walters. He acknowledged that he had drawn on the principle of repetition that is a strong characteristic of Māori art, seen in kowhaiwhai patterns for example. While some Māori supported Walters, not all accepted nor stood up for him. Curator, lecturer, researcher, activist and art historian Ngahuia Te Awekotuku is quoted as describing Walters as both insolent and ‘damn cheeky’.

Brown’s chapter, entitled ‘Pītau, Primitivism and Provocation’, explores Walters’s many, varied and often complex relationships with Māori culture, imagery and art. This includes an overview of how the Waitangi Tribunal looked at the work of Walters’ – amongst others – when examining and delineating the distinction between taonga and taonga-derived works.

Walters’s connections with other artists are well-documented, in particular his friendship with Theo Schoon, an Indonesian-born Dutch artist who moved with his parents to New Zealand in 1939. Walters and Schoon together visited Māori rock art sites in Canterbury. Walters was fascinated by what he saw and experienced during these visits, and the power of the rock art images. Later, he studied Aboriginal bark paintings as well as other indigenous art including tapa cloth designs and Marquesan tattoos – constantly seeking inspiration from cultures other than his own.

Schoon introduced Walters to work produced by Rolfe Hattaway, an artist living with a mental illness described as schizophrenia. Hattaway’s unconventional art – some of which is included in the book – inspired Walters to experiment with shape and form, particularly rearrangement and transformation. This preoccupation with rotation and reflection and other transformations remained a key feature of Walters’s work over time, and is examined in detail in several chapters. The book raises questions about how – and whether – Walters and Schoon acknowledged and valued Hattaway’s work.

As a young man, Walters’s visits to Wellington’s Dominion Museum and National Art Gallery challenged his thinking and stimulated his curiosity about both culture and art. Despite for a long time earning very little income from his art, Walters was a frequent traveller, with many trips to Australia. He lived for a time in London which allowed him easy access to galleries in Europe. His connections to, and relationships with, art and artists from Europe, the Americas, the Pacific and New Zealand are described and discussed.

The text is academic, yet accessible and thought-provoking. The book would be a valuable resource for anyone interested in Walters’s art – in particular art collectors, art students, art enthusiasts and people wanting to learn more about the history of modern art and its evolution in New Zealand. Each chapter is accompanied by detailed footnotes. Additional features include a chronology of Walters’s life, an exhibition history, a selected bibliography and a comprehensive index.

The book has a good balance of images and text, including not only Walters’s work but also photographs of his studio, his fieldwork, and clippings of both modern and indigenous art cut from magazines and other sources which he glued into his scrapbook. His scrapbook forms a ‘consciously assembled catalogue of … visual information from across cultures and across time’. Photos of Walters show a young man whose hair grew in soft curls, reminding me of the koru that later featured so prominently in his work.

I was surprised by the extent and range of styles (including landscapes, nudes, floral works, surreal art and abstracts) depicted in the book. There’s a somewhat serious self-portrait in charcoal, as well as screen prints, works in acrylic, ink, gouache, oil on canvas, and oil on muslin. The colours range from stark black and white to vibrant yellows, blues and reds. Several works are repeated within different chapters, being central to the discussion and perspectives of individual chapter authors.

Additionally, the book contains works by artists whose work Walters engaged with, such as Josef Albers, Paul Klee and Victor Vasarely.

The font is smaller and fainter than ideal, although the text is printed on good quality paper that turns smoothly and the pages stay open easily.

For anyone who attends the exhibition the book will be an excellent reference. Due to its weight and size, this is not a book that most people would want to carry with them while visiting a gallery. However there would be value in reading it before attending the exhibition, to know what to look out for and to gain a deeper understanding of Walters and his art. It is certainly a book to return to over time. Several pages fold outwards from the spine of the book to provide a multi-page spread. While not recreating a full exhibition experience, the side by side placement encourages analysis and allows the reader to compare the similarities and differences among related works.

Ultimately, as with any art book, the book cannot do justice to the scale, depth, colour and complexity of the original works – it has, however, heightened my interest in attending the exhibition.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Gordon Walters: New Vision
Published by Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
ISBN 9780864633156



Book Review: Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, by Chris Brickell

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_teenagersThe photograph on the cover of Chris Brickell’s Teenagers, which we learn inside is a New Year’s Eve party at Caroline Bay in 1962, is typical of the way many of us still see the quintessential New Zealand teenager: lanky, big-eared white baby boomer lads and soft-featured white baby boomer sheilas, living it up and looking cheeky. Because the ‘teenager’ as a phenomenon was first recognised in the post-war era, and the generation on whom the term was bestowed started celebrating their youth even before the war had ended, the image of what it is to be a young person in New Zealand seems as frozen in time as these cheeky faces: a 50s/60s mash-up of marching girls, milk bars and the Mazengarb report.

All of that is in Brickell’s book, along with a pretty comprehensive and never dry guide to the time’s socio-political factors, pressures and new freedoms. Given the ease with which baby boomers will talk about this sort of stuff, and their appetite for hearing it repeated back to them, it must have been tempting to give this sliver of time even more space. Key to Brickell’s success here, as in his excellent Mates & Lovers: A History of Gay New Zealand, is the balance he strikes between representing a plurality of experience while recognising common themes and behaviours over time.

It’s not untrue to say the book proves again that youth is youth and always will be, but that isn’t the only lesson here. It is the differences, not the similarities, which make Teenagers so engrossing. Brickell’s attention to those groups which fall outside of our received image of the past (see cover photograph) allows him to reveal a messier, more class-conscious New Zealand. Yes, there are stories of individuals revelling in teenage joy and discovery, but the various troubles of New Zealand’s teenagers often reflect all too neatly wider tensions around national security and identity.

The book is laid out chronologically, and the reader is drawn in to individual lives through diary excerpts, letters and oral accounts. Brickell only covers that time up until the 1960s, but it’s clear through the book’s closing chapter that the period of his own youth is just as fraught and storied as any which precede it. The book is rich with stories and diversions chosen with percipience, but there will always be more to say.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand
by Chris Brickell
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408688

Book Review: Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War, by Chris Bourke

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_good-bye_maorilandOver the past few years, we have remembered many of the events during the Great War, 100 years on. Each battle is commemorated, medals are displayed, letters rediscovered and exhibitions opened to the public. The influence of the Great War on our distinctive New Zealand music was a story waiting to be told. I was delighted to find Chris Bourke has contributed another book to help chart the growth of music in our land. In his previous book, Blue Smoke: The Lost Dawn of Popular Music 1918-1964, he covered a huge range of styles and developments over 50 years. In Good-Bye Maoriland, he looks at the individuals and influences on our New Zealand music as a result of the Great War. Chris Bourke is a writer, radio producer and editor. He is meticulous in his research and I always appreciate the thorough notes that support his writing.

Bourke begins by describing the place of music in the family home. In 1916, 40% of New Zealand homes contained a piano. This is a staggering statistic when you consider the pianos were imported, heavy and very expensive. Music shops flourished selling the latest sheet music and music making was an important part of life for towns and cities. This was the era of Brass bands, the local Choir and Vaudeville Shows, which often travelled the length of the country and included visiting celebrities. However, the idea of making a living from music was still undeveloped for most citizens and the part played by music during the war shows how important it was as in uniting and entertaining the troops. Add to that, the patriotic nature of many songs and we begin to see the influence on the war to the development of New Zealand music.

The chapters follow a logical progression as they include the songs to stir recruits, the memories of soldiers lost, the Concert Parties, Waiata Maori and returning home. Each section shows the changes that occurred as the war advanced. It also charts a maturing of a distinctly New Zealand music. I can see Bourke writing Blue Smoke and realising that the Great War was a rich story on its own. Often it is not until we begin to seek answers that other questions arise.

This book is not just a well-researched history. Every page is illustrated with appropriate photographs. I found these fascinating as formal and informal shots allowed the reader to see the high standing in which music making was held. The cover artwork of many New Zealand written songs could actually make another book in the future. Especially, because so much of this music will be lost as families move and downsize.
This book will inform those interested in both war and the cultural history of New Zealand. It is a source book for anyone working with music of the period and a fascinating read for the generally curious, like me.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Good-Bye Maoriland: The Songs and Sounds of New Zealand’s Great War
by Chris Bourke
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408718

Book Review: Athens to Aotearoa, edited by Tatum Jeff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_athens_to_aotearoa.jpgHow does New Zealand art engage with its classical inheritance? Not the second-nature parts we’re barely conscious of, but the vestigial, alien stuff – gods and gorgons and all that? Critics and artists offer their takes in the essays collected in Athens to Aotearoa.

It’s another cross-marketing success from VUP – craftily, the blurb leads with the glamour of “New Zealand’s most important artistic voices” and backends poor old dowdy criticism. It’s very accessible for an academic text; I pieced together my knowledge of the ancient world mostly from films starring pro wrestlers but I could understand most of it. The only exception was Tom Stevenson’s essay on Xena: Warrior Princess, which clearly wasn’t written for readers who were five when the show went off the air – was this show really so central to national identity? And how’s Xena pashing Hercules one episode and Julius Caesar the next? Baffling.

The artists’ essays are mostly theory-conscious enough to blur with the more academic stuff, but Witi Ihimaera’s collection-opener, “What If Cyclops Was Alive and Well and Living in a Cave in Invercargill?”, is breezy and wonderful. Other highlights are essays by Sharon Matthews and Geoffrey Miles on James K. Baxter, obviously an especially rich subject here, and Peter Whiteford’s incisive essay on Anna Seward’s Homer-invoking Elegy on Captain Cook. Quality’s high throughout. There are no bad essays here, although the final piece, Arlene Holmes-Henderson’s comparative study of Classics as a school subject in NZ and the UK, is the kind of graphs-and-stats thing a casual reader’s apt to flick through at speed.

As you’d expect from a collection originating in a conference theme, there’s no overall thesis advanced in these essays, and their eclecticism and often minute focus sometimes makes the classical world feel like a strangely niche subject for study, like “The Car in New Zealand Pop Music” or “Wigs in Poetry”. Where it did reach for a deeper point, I wasn’t always convinced. When classicist Simon Perris, in his engaging piece on Maui and Orpheus, writes of “Māori-classical-Pakeha Triculturalism”, it felt a bit like a mycologist arguing for the cultural centrality of the mushroom.

I also would’ve been keen to see something more evaluative. The really interesting questions Athens to Aotearoa raises, about the use of an imagined Greece to mediate Māori-Pakeha cultural dialogue, are just suggested instead of being really dug into and interrogated. There’s definitely room to argue that the implications are more ambiguous than the fairly rosy bicultural picture we get here; when we compare Maui to Orpheus, do we make the myth resonate deeper or culturally streamroll it, strip it of its weird particularity?

But it’s far from the worst thing for an academic text to suggest there’s a lot more to be written about the subject, even/especially one so seemingly niche. Athens to Aotearoa is a bit of a miscellany, but an intriguing, consistently engaging miscellany. It’s an obvious must-read for anyone interested in classics and New Zealand art, and the response essays probably will be too.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Athens to Aotearoa
edited by Tatum Jeff
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561766

Book Review: Rants in the Dark, by Emily Writes

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Rants-in_the_dark.jpgI discovered Emily’s blog Dear Mama (now Rants in the Dark) thanks to Jolisa Gracewood, who marked her as a blogger to watch in a ‘new media’ session at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2015. I read some of her pieces as soon as I got home, and everything about parenting suddenly made sense. I immediately commented on one of Emily’s blog posts and got seriously the quickest response I’ve ever had: she knows how to build the community she wants to see.

I was delighted to see Emily become the Parenting section editor at The Spinoff, and publish pieces by mamas and dads from all over New Zealand, explaining aspects of their parenting and lives to us all. I’m now divided on whether the Parenting or the Books section is better!

Emily’s parenting philosophy is to let kids be kids, parent with respect, and be kind. But as she says herself ‘This book is an advice-free zone.’ Emily shares the trials and tribulations of parenthood as you’ve rarely seen it before – if there is one takeaway, it is that every child is different. Even within families.

The format of the book is cleverly done, with very short pieces (for checking out on the loo with kids interrupting) interleaved with longer – but not too long, we’re talking sleep-deprived mum length, essays. Some of the essays are serious, like ‘We built a village’, others are more a yawp into the void: see ‘How to get your baby out of a swaddle’ for a cry-laughing moment for an example of this. All of the essays are easy reads for those of us who don’t remember what being a fully functional, sleeping adult feels like any more.

If you are pregnant and wondering just what you are in for (really), grab this book. If you are pregnant and on the terrified side of what you are in for and still hoping everything is going to be like the ante-natal teacher has told you (it might, don’t get me wrong), then um maybe wait a few months. Once you have your bubba, it will all make sense.

Like Emily, I have two boys. I’ll leave you with this: ‘My boys are very delicate and gentle and loud and boisterous and cuddly and angry and delighted and easily upset and resilient and quiet and hilarious and rambunctious.’ Children are wonderful, and so is Emily. Thank you Emily, for being the person who is brave enough to talk about the bits of parenting that other books do not.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Rants in the Dark
by Emily Writes
Published by Random House
ISBN 9780143770183

NB: Emily Writes is doing several events over the coming months. Check out where she will be next here on her website.

Book Review: The Genius of Bugs, by Simon Pollard

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_genius_of_booksImagine you are a bug living in a bug world, where a blade of grass is as tall as a tree! All around you are other bugs with secret weapons on search and destroy missions. Lurking behind every leaf are mini-masters of disguise waiting to catch you out.

Bugs have been on earth for almost 400 million years. They were here before the dinosaurs and are still here, 65 million years after dinosaurs became extinct. What these critters do is really clever. The genius of bugs is revealed through their use of weapons, feats of engineering, scams and deceptions, and incredible teamwork.

This is a great book to introduce children to the magic of bugs. The use of in-built weapons by the Bombardier beetle, the marvel of miniature engineering of the Dragonfly and how a Portia jumping spider uses its exceptional intelligence to hunt other spiders.

I read this book with 5 ½-year-old Abby. We pored over the pages with her exclaiming ‘ooh yuk’a lot, but fascinated all the same. Afterwards, we took her magnifying glass outside with her net and bug catcher to see what we could find. We found a fine collection of moths, flies, spiders and snails, examined them at length and finally released them back into the wild.

This is a great book with lots of information and facts about bugs. It was great to see a page dedicated to genius bugs from New Zealand, and overall this is a great book for the aspiring biologist.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

The Genius of Bugs
by Simon Pollard
Published by Te Papa Press
ISBN 9780994136213

Book Review: Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_dont_dream_its_overThe title for this collaborative book of essays and insights, borrowed from the Crowded House song, “Don’t Dream it’s Over”, is apposite and timely. From the song there is the line “…they come to build a wall between us…”. If we took that literally with regard to journalism, applied to the commercial model for media, it seems that the quality product will soon be found behind a paywall; and the mass media will not provide anything in the way of investigative reporting in the future. The contributors to this book  make it abundantly clear that long-form print journalism is on the wane, and, in any case, the whole future of the print media itself is in doubt.

A lot has already been written about this demise, however, and though covered here the real insights are into the specific role of New Zealand journalism. We like to think of Crowded House as a New Zealand institution, but do we similarly think of any of the local media with this level of esteem? Other than the regard shown for public broadcasting on radio, in the form of RNZ, one’s reaction to the essays in general is to ask what is worth saving in the commercial media? And does it actually matter? Those of us who do listen to RNZ for much of the morning and early evening are still well informed, by and large, and can then pick and choose what to read or view from the commercial outlets. But even then, RNZ can be challenged for its content, as some of the contributors do, on the basis of a deficit in their indigenous and Pacific stories.

Industry insiders, such as Brent Edwards, do concede that there has been a loss of trust between the audience and the media, and he is particularly critical of political coverage. RNZ is actually the only media outlet that covers the proceedings of Parliament, while all the rest of the Press Gallery simply focus on the game of politics without any substance of policymaking. I suggest that the so-called ‘political editors’ don’t actually report anything, but simply provide an insider commentary. Morgan Godfery provides a brilliant chapter ‘Against political commentary’, where he wrestles with his own involvement as a commentator, and trappings of the elite company he has kept. He refers to the idea of ‘savvy commentary’, and the narrow demographic background of commentators creating a hermetically sealed world. He refers to the odd premise that this perpetuates: “a belief that political progress comes from pragmatic insiders who know how to manoeuvre within the system…” With his critique in mind, we should also note how partisan most of the broadcasters have become, even though the media insiders refer to certain examples to counter this.

The book’s editors point to the release of Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics as a catalyst for the collection, and contributors refer to the innovative use of the Panama Papers as a counter-example, whereby the government was held to account. Hager has his own chapter in the book, and the Panama Papers are mentioned a number of times, including in Peter Griffin’s essay on New Zealand’s fledgling data journalism ‘scene’. Griffin’s title is ‘Needles in the haystack’, but it might as well have been ‘Missing the wood for the trees’. This is because none of the contributors note that without the release of the Panama Papers as an international story, and with the New Zealand stories actually coming out of the Australian Financial Review, we would never have known that there was a tax haven operating in New Zealand. The local media seem to think that they are responsible for exposing this, and creating policy change, though nothing has actually happened yet to close the tax haven down. In fact, certain business reporters were aware of the trust law and the related industry, that is the basis for the tax haven. These are the same couple of reporters that noted that John Key’s agenda for an ‘international financial hub’ came to grief a few years ago. There is no mention at all of business reporting in this book, and its role in providing expert analysis of economic issues, even when it is still ideologically aligned to the right.

But, overall, the Freerange Press has done a great job with this book, and every chapter is worthwhile. Peter Arnett provides a foreword, and reflects on his being a foreign correspondent in Vietnam, something of a high point for the international press. There is also a chapter on the views of some journalism students, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they almost all want to work for major international broadcasters, other than the one who is happy to find a job at RNZ. The book has some very good design features, and some impressive motifs for each chapter heading, and the ‘tags’ at the end of the book. The ‘tags’ appear in place of a conventional index, which may, however, have been of some use given the length of the text. There is even a chapter that discusses the role of design in the digital age, which adds another dimension.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennett
Published by Freerange Press
ISBN 9780473364946