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: Sodden Downstream, by Brannavan Gnanalingam

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sodden_downstreamSodden Downstream has one of the best high concepts of any recent New Zealand novel; a major storm hits Wellington and all public transport has stopped, but Sita, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, has to get from the Hutt Valley to the city or risk losing her zero-hour cleaning job. Along the way, she’s helped by a varied cast of economically struggling characters also caught in the storm.

The novel’s a tonal departure for author Brannavan Gnanalingam, whose previous books have been more comic, and it’s a mixed success as a genre experiment. I liked the crisp prose style, but it’s often needlessly explicit, as if unconfident it’s getting the point across. There’s a good paragraph about excessive WINZ scrutiny spoiled by the blandly didactic sentence ‘Struggling people weren’t allowed to make mistakes’, a point the rest of the paragraph was making perfectly well.

Sodden Downstream’s narration is limited to Sita’s perspective, but the interior monologue we get doesn’t always gel with the actions of the character. Satirist Gnanalingam wants Sita insightful, while the plot needs her naïve; sometimes she’ll express confusion with New Zealand social norms, then a few sentences later make a wry, knowing observation about them. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with her being a smart, funny character, but her inconsistent cultural vocabulary leads to moments where you’re sharply aware you’re not listening to a barely-getting-by refugee but a middle-class Wellington intellectual. At one point she says her cooking wasn’t going to get a Michelin star, which I thought was one of those bits of cultural knowledge limited to people who had to wear ties to high school; I’d assumed a restaurant having one star meant it was rubbish and had to look it up.

Another voice issue is that we just don’t feel the urgency the plot needs. The mock-epic needs the same amount of tension as a straight quest narrative, especially when the tone’s as serious as it’s meant to be here, but Sodden Downstream feels almost casual when it’s meant to be pressing. There’s a very effective punctuationless chapter near the end where Sita flashes back to the civil war, but prior to this we don’t get that much of a sense of the strain she’s under.

This might be by design; what’s the trial she’s facing now compared to those she’s faced in the past? But it creates a major technical problem – if the novel’s about how bad things are now, and also how much worse they were before, it devalues the current struggle from a narrative perspective, which is the exact opposite of the book’s political intent.

Sita doesn’t set out on her quest until about 50 pages into the 180 page novel, a structural choice I can’t see the logic behind. This is a novel with a clean, stark premise, but it’s bogged down with a conventional expository first act instead of starting the story with the clock ticking. Because the details of Sita’s stressful home life are kept separate from the main action, we nearly forget about them once things are moving, and we don’t feel the connection between her life and her journey – we don’t have a strong enough sense of what she’s fighting for. If these details were spread throughout the story they’d cement that connection, and they’d be more interesting because we’re already identifying with her struggle. It’d help with the voice problems too – wouldn’t a woman in Sita’s situation be more likely to fret about the home life she might lose than strangers’ micro-aggressive questions about cricket?

The other characters are types, but generally well-drawn ones. Gnanalingam, a Lower Hutt native, has a great feeling for the area’s personalities and a precise ear for its idiom; a scene where Sita meets a just-released prisoner is especially good. The baddies are handled with less grace, though. They’re cheap targets, for one; cops, SUV drivers, WINZ. They’re painted a little more sympathetically than the monster in Alien, a little less sympathetically than Jew Süss. They’re moustache-twirling bastards, devoid of charisma, uninterested in even trying to conceal their essential bastardry. When Sita’s boss calls her, he uses the word ‘odium’ five times in two pages as a power move and calls her by a hated nickname every other sentence.

Would someone really act like this? I conceded they might, even that the specificity of ‘odium’ suggests it might be taken straight from a real-life anecdote. But realist fiction is a technical trick, a genre with a set of arbitrary conventions; it doesn’t matter if something is real, it has to feel real. Probably the rich are as awful as Gnanalingam makes out, but real life’s allowed to be cartoonish, while realist fiction readers demand complexity even when it’s phony. Especially bad is a scene where a red-faced, tight-uniformed cop bullies a troubled teenager, where he’s so blandly, typically wicked that I felt perversely compelled to take his side, if only to liven up the scene’s tired dynamic. Sure, it’s also a tired, familiar dynamic in real life, but we can at least ask fiction to inject a little specificity into everyday tyranny, right?

The flaws mean that this isn’t as strongly-worded a social critique as you might expect from the premise. Since only consensus villains are called out, readers are unlikely to feel their beliefs have been challenged. The non-villains are often casually, clumsily offensive, but are otherwise lovely, full of compassion and local colour and bonhomie, and there’s a slightly uncomfortable amount of praise of New Zealand from Sita. Chalk this up to cultural cringe, maybe – I was also pretty uneasy with the novel’s extensive use of the word ‘Kiwi’, which I associate mostly with advertisements – but it feels like calculated punch-pulling, as if Gnanalingam’s pre-empting an attack on his patriotic credentials from the Plunket-Hoskings-Garner editorial triangle.

Why can’t Sita be resentful? Why does she have to be the kind of noble, staunchly suffering refugee the Herald might write a fluff piece on? When you write a perfectly virtuous character who’s defined by their social type (and Sita certainly is), you’re playing into the idea that those people have to prove something, that the validity of their suffering is tied to them being better-than-average human beings. Since someone’s personal morality has nothing at all to do with the injustice of their social position, the really radical thing to do would be to write about a refugee who’s a total prick and demonstrate its complete irrelevance to the ethics of refugee policy. It might make for a better yarn, too.

Sodden Downstream is an alright novel with the components of a really good one, but they’ve been carelessly assembled. It could’ve been vastly improved with another serious edit, both for the narrative issues and technical ones – there’s a grammar error in the dedication, two sentences into the book, and more follow. Gnanalingam, a lawyer as well as a prolific essayist, critic and a five-time novelist in six years, feels like he writes as fast as he presumably must, and this work doesn’t seem to have gotten the attention it needed.

I like prolific writers because, as a rule, they’re weirder – more obsessive, less rigorously self-censored, closer to the lumpy, eerie source and further from good taste. But Sodden Downstream isn’t idiosyncratic enough to justify its very fixable issues; it’s not especially formally daring, or politically controversial, or boldly sentimental, or angry, or exuberant. It’s tasteful, and happy to exist in a familiar political conversation rather than push it anywhere. It’d be ideal for a year 11 English class; it’s got humanism and swearing.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Sodden Downstream
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
Published by Lawrence & Gibson
ISBN 9780473410292