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‘There’s a lot of language in a garden’

Hamish Clayton talks to artist Karl Maughan in his studio


<P data-associrn="1408676"></P> <P>Surely there are few New Zealand artists whose works are as instantly recognisable as the hyper-real canvases of Karl Maughan, whose paintings of gardens have become a kind of cultural landmark. Despite their heightened colour and densely ordered composition, they carry a paradoxical sense of something darker as well, a sense of vague menace that the subject matter and handling ought not be allowed to convey.</P> <P data-associrn="1408677"></P> <P>When I visit Maughan in his Mount Victoria studio, I’m given not only a rare glimpse into the artist’s private working space, but also a chance to listen to him describe the extraordinary range of influences that sit below the surface of his super-charged paintings. In an entertaining and free-ranging conversation, he continually trades on asides and anecdotes gathered from his childhood in Palmerston North to his time at art school in Auckland; from the 10 years spent living and painting in London to his returns, first to Auckland, and then, earlier this year, to Wellington, the city of his birth. </P> <P data-associrn="1408675"></P><P>Hundreds of books line the shelves in his studio, mostly of art, but novels and poetry too, and throughout our conversation he routinely dives into this reservoir to find writers and painters who illustrate the deeper philosophies underpinning his approach to art making. Warm and funny, his stories unspool into tangential asides that have a canny knack of returning to their source, as if, for Maughan the painter as well as Maughan the conversationalist, the journey is as important as the destination. </P> <P data-associrn="1408672"></P> <P>Generous with his time and his energy, he’s also been involved with Te Papa’s<EM> Colour &amp; Light: Impressionism from France &amp; America </EM>show, talking at the museum about his regard for the impressionists and their importance to his own artistic project. On impressionism, as on other subjects, Maughan makes for compelling listening, and it is here that our conversation starts.</P> <P></P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: How did you get involved in the Te Papa show? </P> <P data-associrn="1408662"></P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Well, it’s funny ’cause I guess my work is impressionistic in a way &#8211; in a different kind of way &#8211; though I’d say my work has a bit of a sinister element that probably isn’t so apparent in those paintings [on show in Te Papa’s <EM>Colour &amp; Light</EM>]. Would that be right, do you think? </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: I think so. I saw your latest paintings at Paige Blackie last night, which I really liked, and I heard other people around me saying the new stuff was more impressionistic, but I felt that perhaps the term ‘impressionistic’ might be a little bit misleading; it might very well be impressionistic relative to where you’ve been, but the effect is still that kind of hyper-reality which is a different thing . . .</P> <P data-associrn="1408674"></P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah, exactly, and I guess the ‘impressionistic’ thing is because the subject matter is similar in a way, and there’s an influence there for sure. I would say my work is more heading down the road of Monet’s water lilies, you know that amazing change when he moved from impressionism to something else. It’s great that one of those made it into the show [<EM>The water lily pond</EM>] for that reason, because it’s great to see that change from painting what’s around him in villages and so forth to actually engaging with this whole new subject, you know, in his later life. </P> <P>I’ve got a really good friend in London &#8211; I used to share a studio with him &#8211; Matthew Collins, and he was talking to me about my work. He said when he was a kid he was in quite a bad way, did a lot of dodgy things, and one of the things he did was go out to Heathrow airport, this must have been about 1971, he was about 12, and he got on a plane to New York. So he arrived in New York and the authorities were like, ‘What the fuck were you doing on the plane?’ There were fascinating newspaper articles all about it. Anyway, so when he got back to England he got sent to borstal because of it. And he said the borstals in those days were kind of like the old mental institutions, like those Victorian places with those big gardens, and all the gardens were overgrown and sort of crazy and sort of mad and he said he used to take really strong acid that someone had smuggled in. He said walking around those gardens on acid was like looking at my paintings!</P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: To me they feel like fairy-tale gardens, almost, or<EM> Alice in Wonderland</EM> gardens. Maybe it’s something to do with that real starkness between the shadow and the light.</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: That’s definitely one of the differences between my painting and the impressionists, that stronger sense of light that I like to play up. Certainly I used to do that when I was painting in England; I used to make the paintings brighter than the imagery I was using. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: So are the gardens that you paint based on actual gardens?</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah. I’ll take an image from somewhere and then . . . take this one for example, I’ve sort of combined two. This [lower right area of the painting] is one garden, and I’ve taken this one garden here and combined it with another garden there [the left of the painting]; so I’ve just put two things together to make that path sort of work for me, and I can disappear off into the horizon, and I just sort of make things work. I used to be a slave to the camera in the old days, I suppose. Now I just let it tell me so much and I add things if I feel I need to. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: There’s an extraordinary kind of depth in there, and yet you can forget about the garden part of them sometimes and almost feel like you’re dealing with colour-field painting. </P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah, the colour-field thing I really played up for this last show; someone said they felt impressionistic which was great because it’s sort of a wee reference back to the Te Papa exhibition. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: Have you always been into the impressionists? </P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah, I guess, in a way &#8211; I’ve probably been more interested in Van Gogh or Gauguin &#8211; but Monet, yeah. He’s interesting, Monet. It’s interesting what Robert Hughes says about him; he doesn’t exactly say he’s pedestrian, but until he went through the Giverny thing, the water lilies, which became almost total abstraction really, he was . . . he was just a painter essentially of various things. </P> <P>I like all kinds of painting, and I like other art as well. I’m a real fan of Michael Heizer. I’ve got a book on him here somewhere. He bought this huge bit of land, 2,000 acres right next door to the Nevada test site, and he built this giant . . . um, well, what’s called <EM>Complex one</EM>, and called it a three-dimensional painting. It’s an amazing project. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: Perhaps not on quite as grand a scale, nonetheless, the physicality of your larger work seems quite an important element.</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: I love doing large work. It’s really nice doing large work. I’m just about to do some large ones for a show in Auckland. One will be 4 metres by 4 metres, which will be fun to do. I’m looking forward to that already. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: I read somewhere once that you liked the idea of doing one of those big McCahon walk-by numbers.</P> <P data-associrn="1408661"></P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Oh I love walk-by paintings. I did one for Sydney. Have I shown you that? The idea is that you start in Perth and go right across to Sydney. So it’s 21 metres long. It was a fantastic thing to do. I sold one of [the panels], or two of them I think. It was that classic thing where I sold two and the next person who came along wanted to buy one of the ones already sold and I was like, ‘Oh for God’s sake!’ They asked me could I redo number one, and I was like, ‘I’ve just spent six months killing myself doing this. Do I really need to do more?’ </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: Photography’s quite important to you, isn’t it?</P> <P data-associrn="1408662"></P> <P data-associrn="1408660"></P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah, I photograph a lot of the things I paint, and now I just use my iPhone, because before I’d always forget to take my camera places and I’d go, ‘Oh fuck, why haven’t I got my camera?’ My camera was a big camera and it became this big thing that I had to carry around with me everywhere or else I wouldn’t get the shots I wanted. You know Peter Peryer, he takes everything on his iPhone. My friend Marcus took him around Southland for two days, driving round and round, all over the place, looking at different sites and so forth, and Marcus said to me, ‘How many photographs do you think Peter took on his iPhone?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he said, ‘One. The one he wanted.’ <BR>&nbsp;<BR><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: Has it always been gardens for you?</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: It has actually. So this is my early work, around my house, back when I was at university. I had this fantastic flat, this is out back, and this is out front, a bit Van Gogh-y, and this is my first garden painting really.</P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: Gee, that’s actually the most impressionistic thing I’ve seen from you I think.</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah, very heavy painting. I did them on paper. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: How big?</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Oh, each sheet of paper is probably that big [gesturing approximately 1 metre high by 700 millimetres wide], and then I got into this very detailed stuff with quite thick paint. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: And how did you find &#8211; </P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Oh, I just used to look over fences &#8211; </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: And you’d take a photo?</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: And what was the journey then: from photo, through blank canvas, to finished product? </P> <P data-associrn="1408673"></P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Well, I used to grid and just paint, start in the one corner. I tend to layer a bit now, make life a bit easier for myself. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: How long does it take to do a big one? </P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Ah, sort of a week, two weeks, it depends. I sort of stuff around with them quite a lot afterwards too. </P> <P data-associrn="1408659"></P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: There’s some cool stuff in the studio here. Who did this one? </P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: That’s a guy called Mark Reynolds who’s an actor / artist. I just bought it in an auction for 400 bucks, but it’s a really nice painting. It’s the hills in Makara, it’s looking towards Makara. It’s a great painting, eh? </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: Yeah, it’s sort of like Georgia O’Keefe had a crack at painting the sky.</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yes exactly! That’s what I liked about it. It’s sort of a little bit Brent Wong, a little bit Georgia O’Keefe. And this is a really nice work by Megan Jenkinson. It’s one of those lenticular prints, you know where you walk around &#8211; </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: Yeah, and the image changes &#8211; </P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah. She wanted to do one of the southern lights so when she came home from Antarctica she made this by just putting some light across a curtain. [Laughs.] Oh and this is nice. This is my friend Catherine Russ. She does these very amazing photographs. She photographs them, then projects them, then re&#8211;photographs them so she gets these incredible textures. She projects them on a rug or something to get those kinds of textures, so yeah, this incredible . . . Oh and that’s one of mine, that chair. I did that in high school, when I was in seventh form. </P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: So were you always the kid who could paint and draw? Did you always want to be an artist? </P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Yeah, I guess so. It’s funny, I never really thought about it because in those days, in the ’80s, no one really made any money out of art, there were no artists around that I knew. I grew up in Palmy, so it was always a bit like, ‘Is there anything else you can do as well?’ I only just got in to art school, someone dropped out and so I got in. </P> <P data-associrn="1408663"></P> <P>Oh and this [painting on the studio wall] is an old friend of mine, this is Michael Stevenson, who does a lot of conceptual installation art, but he did these amazing paintings in the ’80s, beautiful, really incredible paintings. And it’s funny ’cause you think this [scene] is sort of invented, but you go driving out past the last house in Dargaville and there it is and you go, ‘Oh my God! That’s it exactly!’ And that’s just how it is: the hills behind, the grey day. </P> <P>Oh and do you know these ones? They’re fantastic, this little [series of art books]. Absolute beauties. All these beautiful colour reproductions, really good quality. I started collecting these books in New Zealand, I had about 10 or 12, and I got all the rest online actually, in England. Look at the fauvists. You don’t get books like this any more, all these colour reproductions, incredible things. I love the fauvists. Totally. </P> <P>Do you know about &#8211; was it John Russell? &#8211; the Australian artist who knew Van Gogh? He did a portrait of Van Gogh. Anyway, so they met each other and he said to Van Gogh, ‘You should go south. You should get out of Paris and go south to Arles.’ He was the one who said to Van Gogh he should get some colour in his painting. Then in, what, 1905, or 1902 or something, he meets Marquet, who was sort of an early fauve, and Matisse, and he invites them to stay with him, because he was a wealthy guy, a cotton merchant’s son or something, and he had this really nice place on the coast. And he was telling them, ‘You guys need more colour in your work.’ You should see the works before and after. Suddenly they’re fauvists. So this Australian guy was sort of responsible for these two major movements. Amazing. </P> <P data-associrn="1408665"></P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: At art school, given you’ve always had a thing for the gardens, what sort of reception did you find there? </P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Well, Michael Stevenson was there, and Dick Frizzell was quite a driving force behind us all; he was sort of finding himself with his landscapes at the time, these sorts of rough landscapes that he did in the late ’80s, and riffing off Michael Stevenson as much as anything. He was influencing him a lot and vice versa I suppose . . .</P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: So it was a good time to be a painter in a way.</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Well, it was, and in New York there were all these young artists who were throwing out the modernist thing and doing more postmodernism, I suppose, but just more expressive really. So you could kind of do what you liked, which was good, and I mean, you still can in a way. </P> <P data-associrn="1408664"></P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: One thing I really like about painting is that sometimes it feels, relative to whatever else is going on in the art world, as though it’s got its back up against the wall and that seems to give it a kind of vitality.</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: Oh yeah, I totally agree. I love that line from Robert Hughes, from that book The Shock of the New: ‘One of the projects of art is to reconcile us with the world, not by protest, irony, or political metaphors, but by ecstatic contemplation of pleasure and nature.’</P> <P><STRONG>Hamish</STRONG>: Do you get much flak for staying in the garden?</P> <P><STRONG>Karl</STRONG>: I’ve got this great analogy, well, one I like anyway. It’s like saying to a writer, surely you’ve said everything you want to in English, don’t you want to write in another language? </P> <P>There’s a lot of language in a garden and I’ve never run out of ideas. <BR></P> <P><A href="http://www.arts.tepapa.govt.nz/off-the-wall/325589/5888/media/fower-beds-at-vetheuil">Listen to Karl Maughan's response</A> to Monet's Flower <EM>Beds at Vertheuil</EM>, an excerpt from Te Papa's audio guide for <EM>Colour &amp; Light: Impressionism from France &amp; America</EM>.</P> <P><A href="http://www.arts.tepapa.govt.nz/off-the-wall/325589/5891/media/the-water-lily-pond">Listen to Karl Maughan talk</A> about Monet's garden at Giverny, an excerpt from Te Papa's audio guide for <EM>Colour &amp; Light: Impressionism from France &amp; America</EM>.</P>
Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio,Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio,Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan in his Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan&#39;s Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan's Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan&#39;s Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan's Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan&#39;s Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan's Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan&#39;s Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan's Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan&#39;s Mt Victoria studio showing a fold-out reproduction of &lt;EM&gt;Twenty-seven hundred miles&lt;/EM&gt; (2012), August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan's Mt Victoria studio showing a fold-out reproduction of Twenty-seven hundred miles (2012), August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan&#39;s Mt Victoria studio showing Mark Reynolds painting (left) and Catherine Russ photograph (centre), August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan's Mt Victoria studio showing Mark Reynolds painting (left) and Catherine Russ photograph (centre), August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan&#39;s Mt Victoria studio showing Michael Stevenson painting (centre), August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan's Mt Victoria studio showing Michael Stevenson painting (centre), August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan&#39;s Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa

Karl Maughan's Mt Victoria studio, Wellington, August 2013. Photograph by Michael Hall, Te Papa