Arts Te Papa is changing…

We’re building a spectacular new art gallery and making changes online.

The Arts Te Papa website will be shutting down soon, but head to Collections Online to find your favourite works from New Zealand’s national art collection.

Find out more about the new art space

Keep up to date with news from Te Papa

Other Te Papa Sites

What would yellow look like

Artist Darryn George interviewed by Lara Strongman


<P data-associrn="1423193"></P> <P>Darryn George (Ng&#257;puhi) is a Christchurch-based artist whose works draw from two cultural traditions: the architecture of the wharenui, or meeting house, and geometric modernist abstraction. He has exhibited widely throughout New Zealand and in Australia. In 2013 he exhibited at the Palazzo Bembo during the Venice Bienniale as part of the <EM>Personal Structures: Culture mind becoming</EM> exhibition. Writer and curator Lara Strongman visited Darryn in his studio to discuss his recent work.</P> <P data-associrn="1421846"></P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: It’s interesting looking around the studio: on this wall there’s three very large austere minimal paintings, then on the other two walls there’s a completely separate body of work in progress. </P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: I’ve always tried to do two bodies of work at the same time. When I run out of ideas or get a bit stuck with the minimal work, I come over to the word works, which are a lot more ornate. I can play with different surfaces and with mark-making, which is quite expressive at the moment. Then when I get tired of that, I come back over to the minimal works. For me it’s just a nice break in headspace.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: Do they involve different ways of thinking?</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: They do. The process is the same, because I build them up on the computer first and then work into them. There’s something quite nice about just stripping things back as far as you possibly can. I’ve always battled with that idea; how far can you strip them back?</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: How do these new works relate to your last body of work? </P> <P data-associrn="1421855"></P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: My last body of work began by looking at my filing cabinet and pulling out the drawers and looking at the folders stacked in it - then making drawings. These new works over here started off by looking at clipboards. I’ve always been interested in symbols and things to do with data collection. This one is like a card catalogue that you find in old filing cabinets and libraries. The other two started off as clipboards, with the bulldog clip up the top, which has been pared back. One of the things I’ve been interested in is playing off the matt finish versus the really high gloss. I’ve done that in the past with different polyurethanes, but with these surfaces here I’ve managed to get them a bit more refined. Just that subtle shift of playing with surfaces.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: Is there any earthquake reference with the clipboards? It struck me the other day that we’re a city of people in hi-vis vests with clipboards.</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: There could be. That’s the thing about these minimal works; they get read in all sorts of ways. I’ve come from a sort of a spiritual idea I’m playing around with, but you can take them any way you want to.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: They’re open-ended, and they allow people to project their own readings into them.</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: Yep. I’m quite comfortable with that.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: The clipboard and the card catalogue ideas continue the work you did for Venice earlier this year, with the room that you created at the Palazzo Bembo. What did you take from your experience of exhibiting in Venice?</P> <P data-associrn="1421860"></P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: Actually I’ll come back one step further. This matt came from when we were setting up the room at the Palazzo Bembo. The whole room was in this high-gloss finish. But there was one little area, a heater. And we couldn’t take it out. So we made up a wee box to go on the outside, just to cover it up. But I didn’t actually have any more high-gloss paint. So we fossicked around the storeroom and all we could find was this chalk board, blackboard kind of paint, and it was really matt. We painted the box that we put over the heater. And then I thought, ‘Man, that box looks really awesome against the gloss of the room!’ I was really rapt with it. We went out and did some travelling around Rome and when we came back the technicians had found some glossy paint, and they’d painted over it. It didn’t look as good. And I thought to myself, there’s a formal thing going on there that’s really lovely. And that’s how these works came about. </P> <P>Venice was great. For me, it was lovely to be able to see that these works had a language that translated into different cultures. I was a bit worried that the work was going to be read as New Zealand or indigenous and that sort of thing, but it was never picked up in that way, which I thought was interesting. I enjoyed the feedback.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: What would have worried you about it being read as ‘New Zealand’, if that had happened?</P> <P data-associrn="851149"></P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: I suppose I was worried that people wouldn’t get it, or they wouldn’t like it, or it would be seen as a little regionalist thing that was just for New Zealand and didn’t apply to the rest of the world. For me it was really lovely just seeing lots of people talking about what the work could mean, or watching them get wrapped up in the surfaces. All those things that are quite universal. I enjoyed that aspect of it. I’ve had experience in Australia, where I’ve taken word works, and just got the feeling like, ‘Oh, that’s New Zealand art, we’re not really into that so much.’ So that’s what encouraged me to go for a minimal, geometric, abstraction-type work I thought might be read better internationally, and it was.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: Do you think that’s something to do with an Australian association of the painted word with McCahon?</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: Definitely. </P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: There’s increasingly an architectural, or architectonic, quality in your work. That’s both in the internal schemas for the word paintings and in the minimal paintings, as well as in the larger schemas that you’ve produced for rooms. You and I have talked before about your work being a kind of memory architecture. Can you talk today about the relationship between your work to the architecture of the wharenui?</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: The thing I like about the wharenui is that it is a meeting place of lots of different things. There’s a spiritual aspect, but there’s also geometric abstraction. You’ve got the pou and other figurative forms, but there’s abstraction going on in the rafters and the painted k&#333whaiwhai designs and the tukutuku panels. So there’s a whole lot of abstraction in the wharenui, but there’s also a whole lot of meaning connected to it. For me, it legitimises me being able to put a narrative on some of these abstract works. </P> <P data-associrn="1421863"></P> <P>I think the other thing is that the wharenui’s a place where conversations are had. Conversations reaching back into history, and conversations about belief systems. So whenever I do a room, that’s a reference for me. The wharenui’s a spiritual place. It’s a place of communication, where meetings are held, and where topics are debated. That comes into my thinking. With <EM>Pulse</EM> (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, 2008) I was interested in trying to take the room from being an art gallery to being a space where you could actually have talks and conversations.</P> <P>I’m always sourcing designs from the meeting houses, but then I put them through my process of simplifying things down. The other point is that the wharenui is made up of designs that have come from the area around them; from the local food source, or the vegetation. The artists of the wharenui have put these forms through a simplifying process and connected meanings to them. And that’s what I do all the time. I take things from around me - my clipboard or my filing cabinet or whatever - and I put them through my system of simplifying it down, and then I put my ideas together and create some kind of wharenui-type space.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: Yes, and it strikes me you do that in both the internal space of the paintings and then sometimes with the paintings themselves, as an entire schema.</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: That’s right, yeah. All the time I’m bouncing back and forth between the M&#257;ori culture and what’s going on in the wharenui - that would probably be my main source in terms of the M&#257;ori side of things - but I’m always going into contemporary and modern European art as well. I’m always looking at Barnett Newman, and all those European abstractionist guys are really important to me. And Gordon Walters; he brought those two things together so well. </P> <P>It’s a funny thing. Every so often when I feel that the work may be getting too narrow, I pull it back and spend a bit more time in the international art world. But then it’s like that’s not quite right either. </P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: It’s a field, isn’t it, a field that’s in tension. Different currents radiate across that field at different times. And the tension is between the customary and the contemporary, and negotiating pathways back and forth between those points.</P> <P>I’m interested in the way that you talk about how you fold the world around you into the work, in the same way that the artists of the wharenui did and continue to do. Something that strikes me is you’re a Ng&#257;puhi artist living in Christchurch. Can you talk about where your family come from, originally? Is there a particular place up north, a particular wharenui, that’s a touchstone for your family, for you and your work?</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: Well, Dad’s from Bland Bay, which is part of the Whangaruru Harbour. There’s a little marae up there called Ngaitonga. There’s not a lot of decoration. It’s just basically a hall, some photographs, a few k&#333;whaiwhai designs. But it’s a great place of singing, of waiata. A place of words. The culture up there is very strong. I went up for Nana’s funeral a few years ago. It was just the most extraordinary experience for me, being down here, being isolated from the Ng&#257;puhi culture and from the family as a whole.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: You moved towards incorporating more sinuous forms in your work a few years ago. What prompted the shift?</P> <P data-associrn="1421865"></P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: I have to be honest about that. That was actually a formal decision. As a painter you don’t want to get yourself into a corner. You always want to have options to move out into different directions. I was using the masking tape all the time, and I thought, ‘What happens if I just do masking tape for the rest of my life? And then I might find myself trapped because I’ve only got a few forms that I can play with for the rest of my life.’ </P> <P>So that was a matter of going, ‘What happens if I do the opposite? Instead of working with a roller and masking tape, what happens if I pick up a tiny little brush and start hand painting again and playing those hand-painted marks against the sharp stuff that’s been made with the masking tape?’ I think that’s a decision that keeps coming through all the time. In the past I used to do really bright, colourful works. What’s the opposite of that? Just make black works. Just take all of the colour out and play with the texture and make black works. So, I was doing masking tape works. What’s the opposite of that? Well, it’s making by hand. Another opposite is throwing paint at the canvas, and that’s what’s happening in these latest word paintings.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: I know your process of making paintings is iterative, and you go through a large number of possible variations on an idea. You mock your works up on a computer, making digital sketches before you even pick up a paintbrush. Do you still work that way? </P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: Absolutely.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: How do you incorporate thrown paint into your digital process?</P> <P data-associrn="1421866"></P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: I probably make more and more digital images now than I’ve ever done before. And I’m making less work. I’m kind of just slowing the whole thing down, putting less work out there. I could show you one; my computer’s just jam-packed at the moment. With the splashes, I’m making mock-ups. I’m dropping paint onto pieces of card, and then photographing them and putting them into my computer, then layering the splashed form into the background behind the works and building it up like that.</P> <P>I’ll get a general feeling for what it’s going to be like, on the computer. I mean it won’t look exactly the same as when I paint it. But this is my way of playing with those opposites. What does this splashy surface here look like against the really slick? And what does it look like if I start to use a pencil instead of a paintbrush; what would that look like against the enamels?</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: You’ve needed to work with collaborators quite often to pursue new lines of enquiry in the work. Can you tell me a bit about your experiences of collaboration?</P> <P data-associrn="1421867"></P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: Actually, I’ll come back to one other thing. You know how I’ve got different styles going on? That’s another thing about the meeting house. You’ve got all sort of different things going on at once. Sometimes I’ve felt like putting these very different works together, in the same show. And again, I justify that because that’s what happens in the meeting house; it’s a whole lot of different styles that are brought together.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: There’s no single aesthetic.</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: No. There’s repetition. But the wharenui involves a collaboration of lots of different things.</P> <P>Probably 90 percent of my collaborations with other people have come about from a person in the industry who’s approached me. In every situation the industries have brought something quite different to the work. It might be in my painting: an area that I’d always do flat when I paint it, the carpet-maker might make that bit the raised-up bit. I start to see all sorts of variations going on in my process, new possibilities. It gives me a nice option later on if I want to incorporate that. </P> <P>Or working with plants, it’s almost like putting some of the textures that I play with in paint on steroids, because the whole thing just becomes really textural and grunty. So for my part, the collaborations are driven by curiosity. What would this thing actually look like? And in pretty much all cases it looks better than what I could do, by myself, if I was trying to work things through. I make ideas in my head and I put them on to canvas. But sometimes, those industry guys just make it better. </P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: What does a typical day in the studio look like for you? </P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: It varies. I haven’t got a set routine at the moment. That’s just because there’s so many other things going on. Normally it would be me sitting down reading for a start. And then I’d probably get on to my computer, do a few digital designs. Once my brain is a bit confused about that, I’ll get on to a painting that’s half-worked. I’ll do that for a few hours, then I’ll come back to the computer, rework some designs, start pushing things a little bit further, print out some bits and pieces, have another respite, and go back to the painting. So I’m going back and forwards a lot of the time. I very rarely have breaks, and it’s because I’m constantly just moving around from each different process. If I get tired of both of those things, I will pick up a book and start either reading or flicking through an art magazine. </P> <P>Lara: What’s the relationship between your studio practice and your work as a teacher?</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: It’s a really good relationship, in the sense that when I’m in the studio, often I’m testing out little ideas. And sometimes you don’t get time to test out things properly. You make lots of notes in your diary but you don’t have enough time to progress them. So you sometimes have these little theories about what you could do. Well, often when you walk into the classroom, the kids are doing things that are kind of an out-working of what you’re doing yourself. The projects I set are heading down a related path. You can’t help doing that as a teacher; it’s just part of your history and your practice. So on many occasions I have got the students to test out some of my theories … where appropriate of course!</P> <P>Teaching is really important to my art practice, because when you’re a teacher, you actually become a learner. You’re articulating a lot of the things that happen in the studio. You think it through a bit more when you’ve got to articulate it with language. I think that’s a really healthy thing to do. Going into the classroom actually helps you frame up things in a way that’s a bit more understandable. That’s important for an artist. You want to bring people with you.</P> <P>I’ve got a lot of friends outside art. But in terms of the art world - over the years I’ve learnt to be fairly independent.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: That’s a condition of making art in Christchurch, isn’t it?</P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: Yep, it is. </P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: Perhaps it’s also a condition of making art anywhere. Artists do tend to be independently minded people, but I do think that artists have become particularly independent, down here, since the earthquakes. </P> <P data-associrn="1421869"></P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: When I lived in Hamilton in the early 1990s, for a couple of years there was no feedback. It was just immersing myself in the studio, trying to work out what I’m actually about and what my work’s about. And that was kind of a lonely thing. I think I learned from there to be a bit more independent in thinking about my art and practice.</P> <P><STRONG>Lara</STRONG>: It strikes me that when an artist makes a new body of work, there’s a narrative in the work, there’s a process that you’re working through to produce this particular body. There’s a starting point and an end. But frequently there’s also unfinished business. The idea that’s just kind of at the back of your mind, working away. And which might well provide the segue into the next series that you’re working on. Where’s the unfinished business, do you think, in these works? </P> <P><STRONG>Darryn</STRONG>: At the moment, I’m interested in playing around with colour again. I’ve just started to think about what some of these works would look like if a bit of yellow came into them. Particularly this one down the end here. It’s just … what would yellow look like, poured into it? I’m wondering what would happen.<BR></P>
Darryn George in his studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George in his studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George&#39;s studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George's studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George&#39;s studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George's studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George&#39;s studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George's studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

image

Darryn George, Matapihi #5, 2006, oil on canvas,
Purchased 2008.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Darryn George&#39;s studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George's studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George&#39;s studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George's studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George&#39;s studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George's studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George&#39;s studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George's studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George&#39;s studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman

Darryn George's studio, Christchurch, December 2013. Photograph by Lara Strongman