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Bewilderment

An over-the-shoulder view of Michael Illingworth by Megan Dunn


The weave of the burlap is coarse as corduroy. The sun is boiling brown, surrounded by a white ring. The circle is the shape that completes this composition: the two gourd-like heads of Adam and Eve, their unequal eyes. Eve has blue eyes. Her pupils are black round pricks. She looks thoughtful, perhaps even pained. Adam’s eyes are lime green. He has no pupils at all, and consequently looks like a bit of an idiot.

The artist has paid exuberant attention to their genitalia. This painting is crude but lavish with longing, even suspended disbelief. A vertical slit runs down Eve’s mound like a crack. Her vagina is an inverted hill. A few hairs struggle away from the centre. The trunk of Adam’s penis is long. His balls are in the shade. We can’t see his knob. It has dropped from view.

A defining creation

Painted in 1965, As Adam and Eve is Michael Illingworth’s defining creation. When Te Papa purchased this iconic work from the auction of the Les and Milly Paris Collection in 2012, it had already had a long and vibrant history. From its inaugural exhibition in Auckland at Barry Lett Galleries, the painting quickly acquired its own mythology. An elderly couple deemed the work obscene. The police requested its removal from view. Barry Lett Galleries refused. Illingworth was outraged. The case was taken to the district attorney, who eventually dismissed it, but the public outcry had already cemented Illingworth’s dissatisfaction with the small-mindedness of middle-class New Zealand. He'd recently returned from working at Gallery One in London. Run by Victor Musgrave, Gallery One was the first dealer gallery to exhibit a number of European artists in London, including Yves Klein. Abroad, Illingworth had searched for a new style and found it: a heady blend of primitivism and modernism that he perfected in a series of deeply idiosyncratic works throughout the 1960s and 70s. I like to think the elderly couple’s offence was caused not just by the over-ripe genitalia, but by the odd rendering of the spiritually significant figures themselves. Adam and Eve appear as totemic puppets.

Is this a good painting? Illingworth’s technique is intentionally simplified, his brown-and-ochre colour palette distinctive, even belligerent. His figures are created out of basic shapes: triangles for bodies and noses. Circular heads. The shapes invite a temptation to try and make things fit. This is a non-conformist work about conformity. Adam and Eve are central to the Christian creation story. It’s a narrative about shame, about what happens when we are not good. In 1975, 10 years after its debut, As Adam and Eve was banished from a group exhibition at the Pakuranga Arts Society in Auckland.

‘I contend that only lovers will face Adam and Eve’

Illingworth wrote the above in a draft letter to the New Zealand Listener. He was right. The same year as the Pakuranga exhibition, art collectors Les and Milly Paris bought the work from Peter McLeavey Gallery. As Adam and Eve hung on the Paris’s bedroom wall for two decades - until Milly decided times had changed. She placed the painting in a more prominent location, between a Michael Smither and a Don Binney: ‘I said to Les, “It's the 90s. People should be able to cope with this painting.”’1

‘It's humorous. I don't know why people took such offence at it because, yes, he has exaggerated that area, but if you look into the eyes ... it's about the expression in their eyes. That's what speaks to you.’2

When I look into the eyes of Adam and Eve I see bewilderment. Adam is startled. Eve disappointed. I don’t need to be told Illingworth wasn’t religious. The evidence is written on the figures’ bodies. Adam and Eve are brown as kauri tree trunks; the rolling hills in the background echo their pot bellies. They are not painted in contrast to the land, yet nor do they seem at peace in their nakedness. Their fey arms branch toward the sky. The sun is a point of atomic unrest.

A portal into the past

Illingworth’s paintings are perennially associated with the 1960s and 70s, when he made his first definitive works. His art offers a peculiar portal into the past: New Zealand seen through the eyes of an immigrant. Illingworth moved from Britain to Tauranga with his family when he was 20 years old. He felt a strong affinity with Māori culture; in the 1950s, he lived in a rural Māori community in Matauri Bay, Northland, forming a lifelong connection to the area. Illingworth’s work incorporated Māori motifs, ‘most notably the three-fingered hand used in representations of the human figure in carving.’3 His use of Māori iconography was unselfconscious.

In many of Illingworth’s canvases, the New Zealand landscape is thick with sexual symbolism: in Land, land, and island (1971), the bodies of a man and woman are sliced into the earth like molten lava. His stylised images of the landscape are of imagined places as well as specific locations. The sky above Pah Hill (1971) is lit by a psychedelic haze. His use of vivid colours, including oranges and browns, links his work to the fashions of the time. Illingworth’s oils are frequently described as ‘jewel-like’ because they glisten with the lacquered finish of ceramic glazes.

The Piss-Quick portraits

But it’s Illingworth’s portraits of the ‘Piss-Quicks’ that really stick with me. Mr Piss-Quick is often suited, his triangular body adorned with a jacket and tie. Mrs Piss-Quick occasionally has the luxury of a dress, but is just as likely to be stark naked, as though the fundamental state of woman is in the nude. The portraits embody the heterosexual vision of man and wife.

Illingworth’s opinion of New Zealand society was less generous than his appreciation of the natural landscape, and the Piss-Quicks are his critique of the petty bourgeoisie. They come in pairs like novelty salt-and-pepper shakers. But are they just piss takes? And what does it mean to take the piss quick? ‘The most literal explanation of the Piss Quicks was told to [photographer] Steve Rumsey by Illingworth himself, who said the figure represented a specific type of middle-aged man he observed in London, who would move quickly through art exhibitions barely glancing at the art, before asking directions to the toilet.’4

Man and woman figures with still life and flowers (1971) is lewd with innuendo. It’s also the kind of painting that can’t be easily brushed past on the way to the loo. Two flowers in the foreground of the still-life arrangement jut across the man’s chest like yellow-tasselled nipples. The bowl before the lady of the house brims with lemons. Her bust is shaped like a neck comforter, something worn in-flight to aid relaxation. Illingworth clearly had great fun with these satirical paintings. They smart. But the Piss-Quicks are empathetic too, even endearing. The orange glossiness of their round heads denotes Illingworth’s signature style, and the mustard colour palette ties his work irretrievably to the 1970s. If the Piss-Quicks had zippers for mouths they’d look exactly like Zippy, the loud-mouthed puppet from the 70s children’s television programme Rainbow. The theme tune is well known to a generation of children:

Up above the streets and houses,
Rainbow climbing high.
Everyone can see it climbing
Through the sky.5

Television had only been broadcast for five years in New Zealand when Illingworth finished Painting with rainbow I (1965). A rainbow arches drolly over a row of pastel houses. Each house is similar, a bland face, bewildered by itself. Illingworth’s vision of suburbia isn’t easy to decipher. Has the rainbow fallen flat? Illingworth didn’t approve of television: he thought it was a second-hand experience. Looking back on Illingworth’s ideals and art, it’s hard to imagine he would think that society has progressed. The Internet. Facebook. Twitter. This year, New Zealand legalised gay marriage. Mr and Mrs Piss-Quick seem particularly quaint: a vision of happiness squeezed into a conventional shape, man and wife.

‘What am I doing here?’

‘The little faces in my paintings with no mouths and with hands waving signify two things; the feeling of a lost quality - what am I doing here? Where do I belong? - and the feeling of a possibility, purity, an ideal that may become something but is certainly nothing at the moment,’6 So Illingworth told his dealer, Barry Lett, in an early interview.

I moot that the key word in this often-quoted speech is ‘little’. Illingworth was considered an unusual addition to Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art, the landmark 1992 exhibition in Sydney. The show took an ambitious view of the evolution of art within the national consciousness. Illingworth was included in the show posthumously. His practice was considered significant by the critics - but not central to the creation of a distinctly New Zealand art history. Illingworth was always the odd ball, the stranger in a strange land. Or maybe a land that was not strange enough.

‘I am building a façade for my own world’

In his catalogue essay Mod Cons, Robert Leonard wrote that ‘from the beginning of colonisation, New Zealand was framed up as some kind of paradise, a natural wilderness where the last of England could have another crack at building the ideal society.’ Illingworth had made the move to New Zealand with his family but he was not comfortable living in suburbia. Leonard describes Illingworth’s generic-looking people as ‘aliens’ and his canvases as ‘sub-divided’, ‘separating nature, suburb, city, work, and love.’7 Illingworth’s neo-primitives inhabit these paintings like plastic figurines moved around the squares of the board in The Game of Life. They wave to the viewer, are framed between trees, and drive cars through traffic lights: stand-ins for our own lives, dreams, and aspirations.

Illingworth’s art has become emblematic of spiritual exile: the struggle to fit into society. The Headlands exhibition included Tawera (1965).  A lone figure stares out of a window, greeting the viewer from the recessed frame of a white windowsill. Over his shoulder, a glimpse of a painting of an island. Is Tawera happy? Does he want to come outside and play? Or is he trapped inside a world of his own imagination?

‘In the paintings I am building a façade for my own world, against the establishment façade, the façade of hypocritical suburbia,’ Illingworth said in 1965.8

Too much of an idealist?

Illingworth wasn’t afraid of an argument. His career was often characterised by complaint. At worst, he can come across as naïve - too much of an idealist. Boiled down to their essence, his ideas about the ills of contemporary society can seem overtly black and white. Nature = good. The establishment = bad. It is hard to imagine a contemporary artist now describing their practice in terms of the ‘primeval self.’9

Yet Illingworth was also ahead of his time. His 1967 exhibition at Barry Lett Galleries was the first sell-out dealer show in New Zealand. He believed in the economic rights of the artist. He fought for the independence to work full time as a painter when the national art market was still in its infancy. It’s still a tall order to be a full-time artist. The odds are stacked against success. Illingworth became the inaugural Frances Hodgkins Fellow in Dunedin, but left halfway through the fellowship, claiming he could not create art in the studio circumstances that were provided. His early battles with the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council are well documented. He poked fun at Hamish Keith, the council's then chair, and is known for his public gripes about living in poverty. His life and work chart the professional growth of the New Zealand art scene.

Illingworth in the 80s

Illingworth’s paintings of the 1980s put a different spin on the Piss-Quicks. The figures’ inflatable faces become pinker, ready to pop. These peculiar people stare at new-fangled sculptures and hang out at art openings, occasionally equipped with glasses of wine. Illingworth’s frustration with the hierarchy of the national art world is at its most pointed. The Colin McCahon expert (1981) is a one-eyed bigot, dressed prissily in a jacket and tie like a school prefect. His mauve balloon rises above the two McCahon artworks in the background. This image is buoyant with sarcasm.

The balloon is a recurring trope. The balloon has a curious fragility. Its function is decorative; the balloon is built for play. In Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Piss-Quick (1968), the gentleman holds a yellow balloon above his head like a bright happy thought. Landscape with balloons is fringed with green balloons high above the hills in the sky, like clouds protecting the gods.

One by one the balloons burst. In 1971, Illingworth had relocated his family from Puhoi, outside of Auckland, to a remote area of the Coromandel. Life at Coroglen was meant to create more space for creativity. Instead, Illingworth’s focus was divided between painting and farming. He fell out with Barry Lett Galleries over their joint ownership of Coroglen, eventually buying the galleries’ share of the property and parting ways. His artistic production slowed. In the 80s, Māori artists claimed their own place at the centre of the canon, and the work of an earlier generation of Pākehā practitioners, who had utilised Māori motifs, was critically re-evaluated. The ideological frameworks that had supported Illingworth’s early practice were no longer current or fashionable. Modernism was destabilised by post-modernism. Painting images of the New Zealand landscape stopped being of paramount concern to a new generation of artists.

In 1985, the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace anti-nuclear flagship, was bombed by French agents in Auckland Harbour. Illingworth put in a proposal to create a large-scale sculpture as a public memorial at Matauri Bay, which was unsuccessful.10 The proposal for this sculpture is an insight into Illingworth’s depth of feeling for this event, his political conscience. In my lifetime, I’ve found it hard to see rainbows as anything more than a nostalgic symbol from a children’s TV show, benevolent and benign.

Michael Illingworth died of cancer in July 1988. Only 55 years old.

Illingworth’s art endures because it is bewildering. His best work resists too much knowledge. Each bubbled head asks a question. Look into their eyes: surprise.

Endnotes

  1. Sophie Speer, ‘Artistic Vision Builds Something Special’, Stuff website, 30 August 2012
  2. Ibid
  3. Aaron Lister and Damian Skinner, A Tourist in Paradise Lost: The Art of Michael Illingworth, City Gallery Wellington, 2001, p. 22
  4. Ibid, p. 23
  5. Rainbow television programme theme song written by Hugh Portnow, Hugh Fraser, and Tim Thomas of the band Telltale
  6. Barry Lett, ‘Interview with Michael Illingworth’, Barry Lett Galleries Newsletter, 19 August 1965
  7. Robert Leonard, Mod Cons, exhibition catalogue for Headlands, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1992, pp. 161-163
  8. ‘Interview with Michael Illingworth’, 19 August 1965
  9. Ibid
  10. Illingworth’s proposal for a large scale sculpture incorporating the propeller of the Rainbow Warrior, a plinth and a human figure bearing witness to the tragedy, is in the Estate Archive, Coroglen. This information is sourced from Aaron Lister, ‘“A new lord demanding much attention”: Unpacking Michael Illingworth’, MA thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 2003, p. 114
image

Michael Illingworth, As Adam and Eve, 1965, oil on canvas,
Purchased 2012.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

image

Michael Illingworth, Pah Hill, circa 1971, oil on canvas,
Purchased 2004.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Michael Illingworth, <EM>Man and woman figures with still life and flowers</EM>, 1971, oil on canvas, 762 x 660 mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 1971/25 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Michael Illingworth, Man and woman figures with still life and flowers, 1971, oil on canvas, 762 x 660 mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 1971/25 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Zippy from the television show <EM>Rainbow</EM>. Photo © Ken McKay / Rex Features

Zippy from the television show Rainbow. Photo © Ken McKay / Rex Features

Michael Illingworth, <EM>Painting with rainbow I</EM>, 1965, oil on canvas, 838 x 965 mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 1965/14/2 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Michael Illingworth, Painting with rainbow I, 1965, oil on canvas, 838 x 965 mm, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 1965/14/2 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

image

Michael Illingworth, Tawera and landscape, 1967, oil on canvas,
Gift of Hans and Martha Lachmann, 1995.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz