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Different strokes

Megan Dunn on <EM>Splash! Four contemporary New Zealand paintings</EM>


<P data-associrn="1457989"><STRONG>Sinkholes</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="">Fiona Connor’s <EM>Can do academy #3</EM> (2014) conjures the site of the artist’s studio. The ceramic sink makes the biggest splash. The pink paint that so eloquently balloons above the basin is watered down. Murky drips and pastel dribbles adorn the once white wall in a celebratory spray of colour as though fireworks have gone off. The plumbing is partially exposed; the pipes (name-tagged ‘hot’ and ‘cold’) reach into a white tank that in turn leads to a grey industrial switch, flicked on at the bottom of this art work as though heating the water. But the water doesn’t exist. Nor does the electricity. Nor the painter who splashed pink over the wall and then snacked on a Granny Smith apple before leaving its sticker concealed beneath the basin of the sink. <EM>Can do academy #3</EM> presents painting as a DIY project: something everyone – potentially – can do. </P> <P data-associrn="">Connor is well known for creating installations and sculptural pieces that reproduce and displace the architecture and furnishings of galleries, museums, and institutions. Her 2010 Walters Prize-nominated work <EM>Something Transparent (please go around the back)</EM> replicated the exterior walls of the Michael Lett Gallery 14 times within the gallery’s white cube interior. The dealer space became a maze or a hall of mirrors; during the show, viewers could not open the front door of the gallery and did indeed have to go around the back to gain access to the exhibition. </P> <P data-associrn="">Born in 1982, Connor is from a generation of neo-conceptual artists, operating in a post-object art world where the boundaries between traditional forms like painting and sculpture are fluid and open-access. An Elam graduate, Connor completed her Masters at Cal Arts and currently lives in Los Angeles. Her riddlesome exhibition&nbsp;titles avoid the personal in favour of seemingly innocuous description: <EM>Inner City Real Estate</EM>, <EM>Reading the Map While Driving</EM>, <EM>Style Guide Spa</EM>. Her recent exhibition <EM>Bare Use</EM> recreated the fixtures and fittings of a Californian spa, including lounge chairs and plush towels, creating a parallel between the elite escapism of the spa retreat and the white cube gallery. </P> <P data-associrn="">Connor has said: ‘I am interested in laying one scripted space over another to explore the way art is approached and our boundaries of engagement, abandonment and empathy.’<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="">In <EM>Can do academy #3</EM>, Connor invites the viewer to empathise with the painter as an invisible presence: a ghost in the machine. The wall above the sink wears the white outline of a hand dryer that, like the painter, is no longer on site. This work was originally shown in the exhibition <EM>Can Do Academy</EM> at Hopkinson Mossman Gallery, Auckland,&nbsp;that featured a series of artworks removed from the walls, their stenciled outlines tantalising and abstract. Connor’s attention to detail is convincing, but she’s not a painter either. Instead these works romance the idea of becoming a painter by presenting the tactile pleasures of work in process. Her sink could belong to a school art room or an artist’s studio. Standing over the basin you can imagine washing out your brushes, flicking splashes of yellow paint like sparks. </P> <P data-associrn="1391287"><STRONG>Different hemispheres </STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="">Gretchen Albrecht is the kind of artist who could inhabit Connor’s <EM>Can do academy #3</EM>&nbsp;with aplomb. One of New Zealand’s most renowned abstractionists, Albrecht is also a bold colourist. <EM>In a shower of gold</EM> (2011) delivers on the promise contained within its mythological title: bright yellow acrylic flows seductively from the centre of the painting like Zeus’s shower of gold impregnating the Princess Danae. Albrecht leaves a corner of the canvas unpainted. <EM>In a shower of gold</EM> pulses with colour and the sweeping movements of the artist’s squeegee brush. </P> <P data-associrn="">Albrecht created her first hemisphere paintings in 1981, the year before Fiona Connor was born. They were produced on the floor of the studio during a year-long Frances Hodgkins residency in Dunedin. Each hemisphere is composed of two stretched canvases made into quadrants and bolted together. Working in acrylics, Albrecht applied paint directly onto the canvas, allowing the pigment to seep into the fabric, building up rich layers of colour. The first canvases were the width of her armspan. She describes the distinctive hemisphere as, ‘a shape I could put my voice into’.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="">Born in 1943, Albrecht belongs to a generation of artists who inherited abstract expressionism from international artists like Helen Frankenthaler and Morris Louis; and inherited regionalism – the search for a New Zealand identity – from New Zealand artists like Rita Angus and Colin McCahon. Graduating from Elam in 1963, Albrecht began by producing figurative imagery, but during the 1970s her seascapes and landscapes became increasingly abstract, painted in striking, formal colour schemes: <EM>Rainfall</EM>, <EM>Sky clearing</EM>, <EM>Summer harvest</EM>.&nbsp; But it was a 13-month trip abroad to America and Europe in the late 70s that provided the catalyst for the hemispheres that were to define her oeuvre for the next 20 years. </P> <P data-associrn="">Albrecht writes of seeing Piero della Francesca’s <EM>Madonna del parto</EM> in the cemetery chapel in Monterchi: </P> <P><BLOCKQUOTE style="MARGIN-RIGHT: 0px" dir=ltr>The fresco fitted the curved shape of the roof and the Madonna stood right in the centre in a blue dress, pointing to the split opening in the centre of her dress. She divided the painting into two perfect halves and on either side of her, holding back the curtains of a kind of tent she stood under were two angels, each a duplicate in reverse of the other.<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP></P></BLOCKQUOTE> <P data-associrn="">Gretchen Albrecht and Fiona Connor demonstrate the approaches of two successive generations of artists, each a duplicate in reverse of the other. Albrecht alludes to architecture and the history of painting through connotation.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> Her hemispheres echo the classic shape of the lunette, the semicircular arch in the cemetery chapel at Monterchi that frames and contains the <EM>Madonna del parto</EM>.</P> <P>Connor, by contrast, captures architecture and the history of painting through installation. In <EM>Can do academy #3</EM> she presents the anonymous artist’s studio as a site of industrial potential. But look closely. The shape of the ceramic sink also forms half a hemisphere, and the yellow paint splattered on the wall could be more free-fall from Zeus’s golden shower.</P> <P data-associrn="1319089"><STRONG>Noughts and crosses</STRONG> </P> <P data-associrn=""><EM>Wanker</EM> is lively and vibrant; the paint has a slap-dash appeal, each stroke thick and lustrous as though it has been applied in a rush. Like Gretchen Albrecht’s <EM>In a shower of gold</EM>, this canvas draws its seductive power from a virtuoso display of colour. Painted in dazzling yellows, reds, greens, and blues, four rows of crosses shake and shudder within their lattice boxes. The composition is as spontaneous as a sketch. It’s easy to imagine the slicks of paint are still wet even though this canvas was finished during the purple haze of 1979. </P> <P data-associrn="">Does this painting deserve to be called a ‘wanker’? The irreverent title is a clue to the equally colourful life of the artist. Allen Maddox was an abstract painter; his career is as synonymous with crosses as Gretchen Albrecht’s is with hemispheres. The two artists were contemporaries, although Maddox more obviously embraced the profane in his confrontational choice of titles. Maddox was a schizophrenic. He was also notorious in New Zealand art for his raucous temper and Scouse humour. But how much did his life story add to his art and how much did it subtract?</P> <P>Born in Liverpool in 1948, Maddox was a teenager when his working-class family immigrated to Napier in the early 1960s.&nbsp;Later, back&nbsp;in Britain, he allegedly attacked his first wife with an axe and was relocated to New Zealand by his parents who were – understandably – concerned for his welfare. He displayed a talent for art while young. Maddox attended Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch but dropped out after he was failed for submitting a blank piece of paper. The assignment: to produce a passive painting.<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP></P> <P>If anything, Maddox was an aggressive figure in the national art scene of the 1970s and 80s. He, Tony Fomison, and Philip Clairmont became a trio known as ‘The Militant Artists’ for their unyielding approach to life and painting.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> Maddox’s work was informed and inflamed by his alcoholism, drug-taking, and his bouts of psychosis. His gestural crosses are often cited as local examples of abstract expressionism; each painting a performance that Maddox lived in the moment. However, his playful interpretations of the modernist grid and wry self-reflexive titles like <EM>Wanker</EM> and <EM>A Pom in NZ</EM> also convey a postmodern sense of irony.</P> <P>Of the infamous crosses, art critic Ian Wedde said: ‘Maddox’s compulsive repetitions and (dis) orderings of them could almost plausibly be read on either side of the cusp: as the crazed acting out of an idiot savant; or as calculated pastiches of self-expression.’<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP></P> <P>Maddox’s own criticism of his work? ‘Too sane in the frame.’<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> His first cross-painting, produced in 1976, began as an accident and may have ended as a hex. Maddox cancelled out a failed painting and discovered his ‘crosses in boxes’. He never looked back. The cross became a point of no return. The compositions he wrought from this simple structural framework are seemingly endless: at once random and in sync, nihilistic and joyful, repetitive and variable, a game of no noughts and all crosses. Even the X on the end of Maddox’s surname is somehow satisfying, as though it was purpose-built for him to paint.</P> <P>Maddox lived and worked in Napier for the majority of his art career, until his early death in 2000, aged 52. By that time he was married to his third wife. Recalling their initial meeting in the Philippines, she said: ‘Allen told me he was a painter. I thought he was a house painter.’<SUP><FONT size=2>9</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn="1413645"><STRONG>House painting</STRONG></P> <P><EM>Dromorne Rd – Putiki Street</EM> (2012) is tall and overbearing, like the wall of a house. The viewer approaches this cool grey canvas as though it might be hard work.&nbsp;And in a way it is. This patchwork painting is composed from the cotton drop sheets Andrew Barber used over the 12 years he spent employed as a professional house painter. Barber’s title, like his colour scheme, is practical and dispassionate. Not for him the hot-headed sentiments of Allen Maddox’s <EM>Wanker</EM>. Dromorne Road refers to the site of the first house Barber painted in Remuera. Putiki Street refers to the site in Grey Lynn where this completed canvas was first exhibited. </P> <P data-associrn="">For Barber, house painting and abstract art are not mutually exclusive activities. Instead, he uses one to inform the other. For the professional house painter the majority of the job is spent in preparation for paint application, rather than painting per se. Perhaps that’s why Barber turns the technical aspects of the job inside out. In <EM>Dromorne Rd – Putiki Street</EM> the process has become the product: smears and splatters of paint stipple the drop sheets. Sail makers stitched the sheets into a diagonal pattern on industrial sewing machines. The back of the stretcher is also on display as a piece of structural design worthy of aesthetic consideration in its own right. </P> <P data-associrn="">Born in 1978, Barber received his formal training at the Auckland Society of Arts and at Auckland University of Technology. He first became known for a series of imagined landscapes produced on square canvases using thick house-painting brushes. The tools of the trade – brushes, wall plans, canvas – remain central to his practice. His monolithic paintings literally fill the room. Many of his abstract works are installed as three-dimensional objects within the gallery; a painting is no longer just a two-dimensional image to be hung on the wall. Yet, Barber always retains his fascination with the surface of each canvas. </P> <P data-associrn="">Art writer Abby Cunnane writes: ‘A diagonal line frequently appears in Barber’s recent work. This may materialise within diamonds of sewn fabric, as the series of lines painted across a square canvas, or in the transversal of a large-scale freestanding screen work bisecting a gallery space.’<SUP><FONT size=2>10</FONT></SUP></P> <P data-associrn=""><EM>Hedge</EM> (2012), for instance, is a freestanding patchwork cotton canvas that has been sewn into a diagonal design. This canvas features no paint at all. Instead, the twill weave of the cotton becomes both the content of this work and its subject. Barber fetishizes the fabric grain. The viewer can walk around Hedge and watch daylight seep through the weave of the cotton as though it is a window frame. </P> <P data-associrn=""><EM>Dromorne Rd – Putiki Street</EM> looks like a checkerboard or a tiled floor but also contains the classic modernist grid. Barber highlights the utilitarian nature of painting today: making a splash can be hard work.</P> <P data-associrn=""><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL><FONT size=2> <LI>Fiona Connor quoted in press release for <EM>Bare Use</EM>, 1301PE Gallery website, <A href="http://www.1301pe.com">www.1301pe.com</A>, accessed 22 March 2015.</LI> <LI><EM>Reflections: Gretchen Albrecht</EM>, directed by John Bates, NZ On Screen, 2006. </LI> <LI>Gretchen Albrecht quoted by Linda Gill, ‘The One The Two The Ten Thousand Things’, in <EM>After Nature</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui, 1986, p. 14.</LI> <LI>Francis Pound, ‘Albrecht’s Hemispheres’, in <EM>After Nature</EM>,&nbsp;p. 26. </LI> <LI>Tegan Dunn, ‘Allen Maddox 1948–2000’, Paige Blackie Gallery website, <A href="http://www.pageblackiegallery.co.nz">www.pageblackiegallery.co.nz</A>, accessed 22 March 2015. </LI> <LI>ibid. </LI> <LI>Ian Wedde, ‘Hung, Drawn and Quartered’, in <EM>Allen Maddox</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, 2006, p. 11. </LI> <LI>Richard McWhannell, ‘Allen Maddox: Painter’, in <EM>Allen Maddox</EM>, p. 33. </LI> <LI>Tony Story, ‘Allen Maddox: Paradox of the not yet famous’, <EM>Hawke’s Bay Today</EM>, August 31, 2010, <A href="http://www.nzherald.co.nz">www.nzherald.co.nz</A>, accessed 22 March 2015. </LI> <LI>Abby Cunnane, ‘New Revised Edition: An Introduction’, in <EM>New Revised Edition</EM>, exhibition catalogue, City Gallery Wellington, Ilam Press, 2013, p. 10.<BR><BR></FONT></LI></FONT></OL> <P>&nbsp;</P>
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Fiona Connor, Can do academy #3, 2014, sheet rock, plastic, ceramic sink, plumbing, timber and paint,
Purchased 2015.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Gretchen Albrecht, In a shower of gold, 2011, acrylic on canvas,
Purchased 2013.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Allen Maddox, Wanker, 1979, oil on canvas,
Purchased 2012.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Andrew Barber, Dromorne Rd -- Putiki Street, 2012, patchwork cotton, polycotton,
Purchased 2013.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz