Vivian Lynn


Towards the end of 1980 a comprehensive exhibition of Vivian Lynn's drawings, collages and prints, together with a large hand-produced book and a three-dimensional construction was shown in the New Vision Gallery, Auckland. This represented a concise survey of Ms Lynn's work following her experiences during 1972 in New York City where she had studied at the Pratt Graphic Centre and observed established print studios such as Tamarind in action.

While her American prints were not represented in the survey, impressions from these lithographs and colour etchings were visible as elements in her 1977 collages. The total display gave one the chance to examine her artistic achievements over the past eight years.

She Listens, He Listens
Collage, 780 x 630 mm.

In some exhibitions the total effect minimises the communicative power of each single piece. But with Vivian Lynn's selection of forty-three works, each one was enhanced in relation to the others. There was consistency in quality and conceptual approach as well as variety of technique and thematic imagery. There is an element of technical dazzle about Lynn's work that attracts some and deters others. It is deliberate and carefully crafted, with an impression of great detail, although this aspect is often confined to the background accessories rather than the dominant imagery. At times this patterned detailing has a tendency to make some works appear rather busy or crowded. Nevertheless, such lapses into self-indulgence are part of Vivian Lynn's controlled use of the technical and pictorial resources on which she is able to call.

In her use of imagery there is a fine precision of definition. if there is an element of ambiguity in a work, the viewer can be sure that this is intended. One such work is the oil pastel drawing ICHTHUS (Jesus Hominum Salvator -Saviour of Men). In this the images of a nude woman and a fish combine with the double image of the fish's mouth and woman's vagina. The combination carries with it implications of the ancient fish symbol for 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour' derived from the Greek word for fish, Ichthus. The significance of these implications in the context of the drawing, I leave to the reader to define.

Lynn's flexibility in the use of images is matched by her handling of the several media used for the works of this eight year period: graphite and colour pencils, inks, pastel, gouache, oil pastel, silk screen, collaged lithographs, etchings, photoprints and mechanical reproductions: as well as the mixed media of the Iron Maiden and Large Medal constructions. Work in each medium evinces the artist's general stylistic tendencies, while each is exploited for its own particular nuances.

When it comes to considering Lynn's imagery, then it is best to approach her work gradually.

There is no better work to turn to than the Book of Forty Images if a grasp of what Vivian Lynn is concerned with in a subjective sense is desired. Concentrated in its pages is much of her basic philosophy, as well as the basis of the imagery which she has developed over the past eight years. Although the edition of ten books was not completed until 1980, the images appearing in it were conceived and silkscreened within two years of her return from America. The final selection for the text took longer to evolve.

VIVIAN LYNN Iron Maiden 1978
Mixed media, 450 x 450 x 900 mm. (Collection of the artist)

The printed pages of the book are less sumptuous than the artist's individual silk-screen prints: but each completed page carries a far weightier intellectual message than that expected from an individual print. An isolated print would be artistically submerged by the excessive weight of meaning that is devoted to a single page. However, on the page this is not a hindrance for such a complex content is one of the characteristics appropriate to a book.

Each page treats one broad theme that develops the artist's concern for the society in which she exists; and points to the underlying cultural attitudes which, (like the cultural shock that accompanied her return from overseas) 'jumped into focus, alarmed and threatened' her. With particularized images and quotations, she examines the pressures of society on the individual, the norms that dictate our behaviour, the attitudes that direct our thoughts, and the clichés that shape our beliefs. She picks on such aspects as the place of women in the work force, the propaganda of the beauty industry or our indifference to the environment.

Among the quotations chosen by the artist is Margaret Sanger's cry of sixty years ago: 'No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body'. But, important as this and similar statements are to the artist, it is too easy to concentrate on them at the expense of the larger view of society that the Book of Forty Images presents. Man the oppressor may be there, but so is man the victim of conformity and socialized fears.

In a quotation from George Orwell's diaries we find the passage: 'Unofficial education forced people into a fallacious conception of their role in society. They were taught to master a ceaseless competitive rush for earth's natural resources and consider money the sole measuring rod of success'. Again, this is one of several similar facets dealt with in the book. Over a landscape of rebuilt central Wellington the artist has placed the words: 'We value our individual rights and freedom to vulgarise, pollute and destroy the environment for our material profit'. It is against the context of such values that the product of Vivian Lynn's recent output should be read.

If in the Book of Forty Images the artist's involvement in her wide ranging, basic themes, appears almost overpowering, the various series of prints, drawings and collages take single aspects and develop them as independent motifs. Sometimes the ideas are explicit in the imagery. At other times the treatment remains suggestive, or there is a combination of both approaches. Images that appear as part of the dialectic structure of the book reappear in some later works more fully developed. The clearest example of such development is the sea shell with its emerging human form in the prints Exit I and Exit II.

Lynn often constructs images from quite different organic or inorganic sources. These can be quite specific: like the consumer products cum cellular sea-creatures in Playground IV, or the erotically orientated, multi-detailed, human-body parts that form the cup in One Aspect of love, or the more suggestive metamorphosis of sexual or other anatomical features that sprout birdbeaks to form the rather grotesque creatures in drawings like The Hypocrites.

Images of play (such as a children's round-about, swings, see-saws, chair-lift, and a snakes-and-ladders board flood the Playground series. Such seemingly innocent sources of pleasure contain more sinister elements: like the motorised toy buzzy-bee or the crashed car with its mangled victim which is echoed by the dead child with its toy-like replica of the car and crash victim. Another such image is the frenzied scramble of adults to gain the pinnacle of the round-about, the genesis of which is suggested in the child playing with building-blocks.

The dualities in this series reflect the duality of 'gamesmanship' extended across biological, social, cultural and economic levels: where pleasure is nullified by the destructive possibilities and implications of its sources.

That such a polarity exists between men and women caught in the conventions of society is suggested by the seesawing couples in Playground I. However, the implications to be drawn from the prints go beyond this. In Playground IV the consumers' see-saw is manipulated by the giant fingers of big business which try to remain inconspicuous by operating at the edge of the checkered gamesboard. In Playground III the higher figure has a 'god-like' attitude as he looks from his elevated position down at the ant-like people far below. The figures portrayed in Playground VI are tied and stretched and caught in a treadmill, or form part of the flywheels and revolving cogs that grind out and condition their existence.

The other main groups of works comprising the exhibition were less structured around a consistently developing theme than the six Playground prints.

] VIVIAN LYNN Tête à tête 1976
Mixed media, 850 x 710 mm.
(Collection of the artist)

In certain respects the least resolved of these groups are the Shell drawings and Exit prints: although they do provide an illuminating insight into the artist's approach to the metamorphic process of combined and transformed imagery. The tentative architectural structure that partly isolates each evolving humanized shell takes on a more concrete manifestation in the set that includes the two Erection drawings: The Hypocrites and Tête à tête. In these the metamorphosis is seen as a fully completed transformation into basic creatures that have evolved as the result of highly motivated primeval urges. Blind searching greed and the desire to dominate seem to deny the vulnerability of these fat, priggish creatures.

It is possible to observe an oblique affinity between these drawings and the deformed babies in the construction Iron Maiden (despite the difference in the emotional tone of the two media involved). The deformities are, as both title and spiked tomb-wombs imply, afflictions created externally by an emotionally or chemically corrupt environment.

In some of the remaining drawings, as also in the other media, traditional symbols are put to renewed use. In Heraldic Symbol the attack on feminine sexuality is seen through a variation on the Leda and the Swan story.

The sense of multiple involvement and skilful collage work together with the almost surreal method of allying real and suggestive images and a use of colour which brings out additional aspects of the subject is, in the 50s Models series, further extended by the use of patterned film-overlays. Using discarded art-school antique and life drawings, some of the 50s Models collages take on a personal touch. This is true of the use of family photographs in I paid $36 for this sofa, in 1949, on a beautiful summer day.

As Vivian Lynn has indicated, behind these art school drawings there was the effect 'of grafting antique world idealism on to the pragmatism of postwar, new world values'. This aspect of the drawings is exploited in several of the collages: for example in She listens, he listens, with its collaged Victorian marble of the Three Graces and a Greek bowl.

When considering the concentration of symbolism in Vivian Lynn's work, the total impression gained is one of an artistic world in which the sensitivities, the frustrations and the metaphysic of women dominate, while a relationship to the diversity of the total cultural situation is retained.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 19 Autumn 1981