The three-dimensional canvas, in its brief development from a visual trick of the 1950s, has suffered setback after setback. It has never been popular: in fact it has been widely ignored. From the number still exhibited, one would expect that they had all disappeared into private collections or, indeed, that they were no longer being produced. Sadly, that observation is not far from the truth.
Ted Bullmore had consistently been developing the contorted canvas for twenty years, with little response pr recognition: but in October of last year, Auckland's Barry Lett Galleries stuck out their necks and hung a show of this man's work. The exhibition seemed doomed to being ignored - due not only, to the inexplicably lowly status of the painted relief, but also to Ted Bullmore's lack of impact on the local scene since his return from Britain in 1969. The Lett show contained fourteen of Bullmore's canvases under the general title of Icons. The show ran for two weeks. Twelve days after Icons closed, on November the third, Ted Bullmore died.
Bullmore had championed the lost cause of the three-dimensional canvas for two decades, making it the sole object of his experimentation. And although his work was esoteric and a little inaccessible at the best of times, his death may mean yet another major setback in the popular acceptance of the third-dimension in canvas.
Ted Bullmore is one of the problem characters of New Zealand painting, consistently defying pigeon-holing. His development is outside the mainstream - which may explain the twenty year lapse in public attention. Bullmore was a product of the exciting years (1951-55) at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts; a contemporary of Hanly, MacFarlane, Culbert, Brown and Keith. He travelled to London via Italy in 1960, where he settled into a programme of work which involved painting, teaching and scene-shifting at the Royal Court Theatre. It was this last position which enabled him to glean scraps of canvas for painting. More than scraps were available: but the possibilities which fragments suggested (stitching, stretching and padding) fascinated Bullmore. So, in 1960, he began a series of experiments dealing solely with three dimensions in canvas, adding wood and fibre-glassing the fabric, which eventually led to the singular pieces on show at Barry Lett's.
Bullmore's contorted paintings earned him some recognition in Britain. He participated in a score of important exhibitions, was elected a member of the London Group, and stepped from secondary to tertiary teaching - at Sidcup, Sutton and Epsom Schools of Art and Design and the Brixton School of Building.
Bullmore returned to New Zealand in 1969, established a studio in Rotorua and began exhibiting almost immediately. Most of the shows were obscure and centred in the Rotorua, Bay of Plenty area. The rest of New Zealand, and notably Wellington and Auckland, showed little or no interest in his work. Undeterred, Bullmore persisted with his shaped canvases. His persistence will hopefully earn him a place in New Zealand painting, despite the fact that there is only one Bullmore held in a public collection in the whole country.
By the time the Barry Lett Galleries took its chances and put up fourteen Bullmores there was really something to see. Being ignored seemed to have had no negative effect on Bullmore's work. His quiet development seemed to have led somewhere pretty interesting. The works were smaller and more symmetrical than earlier, but the introduced elements of wood and fibreglassing remained. They were indeed 'Icons', symbolic works with a tentative tie to the representational: as Bullmore had said in 1967 - 'I wanted to find out how abstract I could be with the subject and still hold on to it.'
He has certainly resolved that problem (a problem nevertheless common to all the visual arts): but the supreme difficulty in the medium of the three-dimensional canvas lies in the assimilation of the elements of painting and sculpture in each piece. Here varying degrees of success and proficiency chequer Bullmore's work. The most successful Icons were those in which colour: was used merely as an explanatory adjunct to the forms rather than to decorate or enrich them. Bullmore seemed all too aware of the different way in which colour behaves on a three-dimensional support: ill times to the point-of self consciousness. And there often appears a conflict between a desire to make a statement and a pure delight in col. our and form as elements of a composition.
Another conflict, which Bullmore seems to have mastered in the Icons, is that of the opposing possibilities of subtlety and impact; landscape or sexual imagery being either explicit or subdued depending on the approach or desired response: but thankfully never appearing together in any one piece. The Icons were obviously a link in a chain leading to greater abstraction, a heavier reliance or the form to give the message, and a more scientific use of colour. Seen in context with the earlier Astroform series (1967-75) the Icons seem a genuine advance. Seen with the subsequent Plan series (begun 1976) it becomes apparent that Bullmore was in the process of accumulating a new vocabulary in approaching the three-dimensional canvas.
If Bullmore's approach may have changed his object (the three-dimensional canvas) remained the same. Whatever the success of those approaches, his singular development of the painted relief is a sizeable effort for any man to contribute to New Zealand painting. It is to be regretted that Ted Bullmore did not get the opportunity to investigate further - nor the chance to exhibit as widely as he deserved. Ironically, now that he is dead, we may see his work made more accessible by its inclusion in public collections.
Originally published in Art New Zealand 12 Winter 1979