Posts Tagged ‘Curnow’

A constant flow of light

I have been mulling over this post for some time. I got thinking when I read this in Jack Ross’s post on the Rita Angus Symposium.

Wystan [Curnow] just doesn’t think the Goddess paintings are any “good” (whatever that means), but more to the point, he doesn’t think that the exploration of personal symbolism is a valid way of explicating pictures.” (my emphasis)

You see I have this theory. Its not original or unique and probably quite ill-informed and I have written about it before. I feel that any artwork is multilayered. It is composed of the artists intent and of our own personal reading. There are also layers of critique and academic deconstruction if the work has undergone such scrutiny, or if the viewer has that set of skills. So on one hand I don’t think you can discount what the artist is/was trying to say, but on the other maybe we can read too much into that as well and that impedes our own interpretations.

So let me, an “enthusiastic amateur“, run though this idea with an example. Let’s choose a BIG one.

Victory Over Death 2 (1970) from Collection of National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

There is nothing I can write about this painting that hasn’t already been covered beautifully by Justin Paton in the chapter “One Big Painting” in his book “How to Look at a Painting” (which has just been put out in a hardback edition). I found some cool little audio clips of Paton talking about this painting and reading from his book here.  As Paton says, McCahon is the subject of “hectares of written commentary” but I haven’t read too much of it. I know a little of McCahon’s existential struggles and questioning of faith, for example the academic, Peter James Smith writes that Victory Over Death 2 is a prophetic attempt to annihilate self-doubt“. But when I look at this painting I simply think “what’s he saying, what am I seeing/hearing?”

You see, to me, the woman on the street, there are two keys to this painting. Firstly, Paton writes: “…and several places where it is possible to see painted out words – including, looming in the darkness, an enormous version of the bright white AM that appears later in the painting. The effect is subtle and simple: it turns what looks like a proclamation into an engulfing question: AM I?” (which I guess could be what Smith was saying). The I AM refers to the biblical quotation “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”which is the spiritual Victory over Death. But the “AM I?” puts a different spin on it – the doubt creeps in…Initially my thoughts were that there is no physical victory over death, only the spiritual victory offered by Christianity and some other religions, but in some respects McCahon proves there is. While pondering this post someone pointed me to an article in the latest Landfall (215) “Practical Religion: On the after-life of Colin McCahon” by Butler and Simmonds. McCahon’s victory over death is his legacy, his art, the many words written about him, his students – the fact that I’m even bothering with this post (although everyone’s writing about McCahon these days). So maybe we can answer his “AM I?” with “I AM”. But what about the rest of us, who aren’t a great artists or writers or anyone of “significance”, can we say I AM? Of course. Its all here. For me this is, as John Wheelwright said, “art which is at once a benediction and a judgement“.

But there is another thing I like to take from this painting, and here is where I diverge from what I imagine McCahon was trying to tell us. It’s from another biblical passage -“I AM the light“. Because like it or not (and it’s a hugely debatable point) McCahon wasthe light. He was doing something different for his time and in an era when the theory of the special quality of our light’s impact on New Zealand art was prominent. The light is my second key and is pointed to in a phrase repeated in many words, including another huge, “I AM” painting Gate IIIas there is a constant flow of light we are born into a pure land“. The light is constant, but we are not.

And now I will crawl back into my un-educated corner.

EDIT: Please note this is a very personal viewpoint – I am not sermonising.

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An odd Saturday, one played out to the theme of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life“, (although I much prefer “Passenger“). Still it prompted me to think of the quote from Trainspotting, “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career…” Click here for the rest of this excellent rant.

Oddly I don’t remember choosing or signing up for the suburbs, yet here I am with 3 kids in a street of beige 1970’s split levels. :-)

Choose Life by Marie Oudkerk

So to cheer myself up I splashed out and bought another older Landfall (207) from a great, yet somewhat expensive, second hand book store a few blocks away. I am behind the times as this copy is from 2004, but it contains some amazing items.

For example, James Brown writes Communities are made up of stories and literary communities are no exception. In New Zealand everybody has a James K. Baxter story or a Denis Glover story or an Alan Brunton story, just as everybody in Montreal has a Leonard Cohen story. This then is my Allen Curnow story.”

Which is funny because recently I heard two more Allen Curnow stories and while I’ve been doing this blog I have had very generous correspondences with several artists and writers (correspondence being the subject of Brown’s piece).

Peter Wells also writes of when the Listener stood for something and the arts and books editor held reputations in his hands as “a power broker, a gatekeeper, and in a very important position in the New Zealand arts“. I do wonder that this magazine carries any such weight these days – actually I doubt it (but I am happy to be corrected).

In other news Dave Cauchi says the NZ art scene is too cosy – “a nice comfy chair and cup of milky milo.” which has got me thinking…

And Peter Peryer’s wonderful blog is just making me too homesick for Central Otago – even with the -10 C frosts.

Oh – and just as a random piece of information, I actually can hypnotise chickens you know.

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So yesterday I got all “who am I kidding?” -suburban housewife writes about art- what a joke, but then I don’t profess to know what I am talking about so that’s ok….. I got onto this partly because I was considering going to a new gallery/studio “Manky Chops” and realised that it was probably not my best idea and that I have the street cred of a potato.

However that and other conversations did get me exploring the idea of how different art impacts differently on you and how part of this is being “of it” or not.

Examples – yesterday I read a story that I immediately identified with and it resonated (I think due to it being beautifully written). At the same time I was looking over some poetry that did not have the same resonance (a different frequency perhaps) but spoke sharp, cutting truths. Both works were wonderful but for completely different reasons. Also others who read the story just didn’t like it AT ALL. It made me look further and I found this great article by James Brown (the poet), who makes these comments.

The two most revered New Zealand poets are probably Baxter and Curnow, and people tend to prefer one over the other. I used to be firmly in the Curnow camp…but the truth is in recent years I’ve found myself reading Curnow less and less, and now I think I’ve moved toward the Baxter camp…I don’t think Curnow’s poetry has aged as well as Baxter’s. Curnow is a high modernist, and his poetry seems trapped in that period, whereas Baxter’s later voice resonates better today…Curnow is probably New Zealand’s foremost technical practitioner…brutal, tactile and also deeply philosophical, this is not poetry for the people.”

Diversity it beautiful. I have no expectation that what I like (which is a pretty mixed bag) and what others like will be the same. We might connect in some areas, even be a similar ‘tribe’ but our views on occasion can be diametrically opposed.

Which is why some people like/buy Monet and some Duchamp. And why you don’t need to sound apologetic to say an artist “is not really to my taste” and also ok to understand a work and appreciate it on an academic and technical basis but hate it on a gut level. And why a “pick and mix” approach to life is probably ok too. 

So to end today’s lecture some more stuff I like.

Industrial Decay

by Flox

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A small life

Today a friend came round and we watched some of the Lovely Rita ‘extras’ – Betty’s Blouse and the piece on the Angus House and Dane Mitchell’s ‘Thresholds’ work. Mitchell’s work was not really ‘up our alley’ even though the subject matter held potential. I looked up some of his other stuff and found “In past works he has collaborated with mediums and psychics to explore the phantom inhabitants of art galleries and museums. In his meddling with the unknown, Mitchell has commissioned witches to curse Starkwhite Gallery, Auckland; created a portal to the spirit world in the Auckland Art Gallery; and summoned the spirit of famous New Zealand painter Rita Angus, interviewing her via a medium.” Hmmmmm – while the idea of cursing Starkwhite has promise, is it really art?? :-) I guess it is, as I read Mitchell has just been awarded a one-year residency at the international DAAD artists-in-Berlin programme.

My friend and I were saying that we felt our interest in Bette’s Blouse is female reaction though, as perhaps was that lovely huge curtain of Anna Miles’ installation The style of address, (1994). Wystan Curnow says “My mother fashioned this jacket out of two identical aprons she bought at Woolworths.” Maybe because we are both have an interest in ‘homely arts’? It just intrigues me that someone like Rita Angus, a woman but not other/homemaker/50s housewife blah blah blah – in fact possibly the antithesis – painted in such detail and with such care this wonderful portrait of Betty with the centre piece being this rather flamboyant homemade blouse. Such a dichotomy (maybe not the correct word?)

Portrait of Betty Curnow (1942) Rita Angus

It got me thinking about the maleness and femaleness of some art and how we identify with some things/images (more on this in another post methinks).

I was reading a blog recently which said the author was living a small life just now and I think that’s a very good description of mine too. The internet (and this blog) is a window to the world for me and some days there just isn’t much ‘art in my life’. And so I was thinking how it might be nice to join one of those ‘blogger get-togethers’ in Wellington sometime, but none of them are really ‘a fit’ for me (you know – too old, too young, too hip, etc etc) Well I guess I might bump into people at the City Gallery this weekend – must organise that T-shirt….

Lastly – how do NZ Blog ratings actually work and why do they only rate political and news sites? Not that I care too much about ratings, as I note that some of the highest ratings site can be rather tiresome rather than informative and that’s not what this blog is about anyway. Mind you, I’ve apparently stepped on few toes already – not intentionally but probably via ignorance and clumsiness.

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