Realists ... You have to start right at the beginning. When you look at the illustrations, when you see the artists' names, there is already that much information checked. You have to start by saying that these are not the painters who are the diviners of reality that 'reality' is a many-splencloured thing (even if familiarity with the sound of such a notion has relaxed it of any real meaning). You have to come down to the idea that all that is holding these artists together is a shared alphabet: images that are commonly accepted as the stuff of life, the shapes the world has. Other than that, they share - and acknowledge sharing - few affirmations. But you have to start off here so that you can come at these artists and their work over obstacles that are really there - not those set up under some vague umbrella.
Realism in the visual arts implies that the eye sees what is real. What has happened over the last hundred years is that the camera has, almost silently, taken up lodgings between the eye and that 'reality': straining the latter out, shaping it up with a hard and fast objectivity. Like it or not, we now learn to see the world from and through the camera. It makes seeing easier: cut and dried, not just allowing a universally shared language of visual information to take on a correspondingly universal form, but shaping the semantics of that language as well.
There is always change. It can make you nervous - show up the tenuousness of your standpoint. Maybe there is an element of fear, frailty, even greed in our desire to hold on to images of 'reality', to freeze them and claim them as our own. Certainly the advent of the photographic media has extended our ability to hold the world down on our own terms. Through the TV, the movies, newspapers, magazines and photographs in general, the world has been brought down to a simple, two-dimensional expanse of objective images - one that suggests the 'extra dimension' while effectively denying it. Painters and draughtsmen, of course, have the benefit of working at 'reality' more slowly, of producing images learnt through their own eyes. It is telling, perhaps, (reminding you of both the pervasiveness of the photographic consciousness and the ambiguity of the term 'realist') that, of the four painters assembled here, only Richard McWhannell doesn't use the camera - indeed he shuns it. Ironically, he is also alone in querying the title 'realist', asking to be called a 'representational' painter.
|RICHARD McWHANNELL Cityscape 1980
oil on canvas, 1220 mm x 1220 mm (Collection of the artist)
RICHARD McWHANNELL is after a qualitatively different notion of seeing from that institutionalised by photography - one which allows all the senses room to work. It's a peculiar property of photography that it commonly denies all the senses but sight. You seldom hear, smell, taste or feel an object in a photograph; it is locked away behind, indeed within a perspex-like veil or curtain untouchable. Even sight is affected by this. You see something that recalls, that reminds, that is referential: you are seeking its objectivity as a basis for communication.
Human sight apprehends 'reality' differently, given unhampered eyes. The process of visual experience happens quickly, beginning with a first impression, then slowly over a period of time until it gels behind the eyes in familiarity. Maybe it is an obtuse comparison: but that is the way McWhannell paints, and the way in which his paintings unfold themselves to their viewers once completed. From the drawing on the canvas McWhannell works away with (rather than at) the painting over a period of up to three months, always open to the turns it may take, continually aware of the notion, the feeling, of what it is he is after.
|RICHARD McWHANNELL Room (in an Attic Flat) 1980
oil on canvas, 990 mm x 720 mm (Collection of the artist)
Over this time, he has the remembrance of the painting's basis in sight, the depth of 'emotion' triggered off, but he has to learn, to teach himself, its translation as he works. There's something of a private battle going on, building up an image layer by layer, always working on the brink of controlling the painting and being controlled by it. He has to keep his eye on what he is achieving, to keep 'measuring' that against what he knows, so that he might equate the world in his control of form; at the same time seeking to bring about the atmosphere whereby the emotion deep-seated in his intentions, in his vision of the image, may be allowed clear expression. Because the two belong together back in his initial consciousness, there is the degree of inevitability of them coming together, especially as McWhannell so determinedly has an eye to that ideal throughout the process. It's a slow, quiet process; and before the painting is finished, every square inch must be playing its role in the scheme of things. It's almost as if the paintings decide for themselves that they are 'finished', without the final brushstroke ever being made: one stage of the process suddenly declaring itself as the last.
|RICHARD McWHANNELL Double Portrait with Prison Bars 1980
oil on canvas board, 356 mm x 458 mm (Collection of the artist)
Coming to terms with a painting such as McWhannell's large Cityscape is like those times you actually see what you're looking at. Beyond its initial impression, the painting involves you in the experience of getting to know 'reality'; you can see, and feel seeing. It's a divining of the scary majesty of sight, holding itself together just one step over the threshold; the signs of the struggle that has taken place still showing. There is a 'frailty' involved here something that gives McWhannell's work a compelling edge. You get the feeling that you are witnessing the confrontation between a man and the world. Nothing is cut and dried; everything is unanswered and shown to be so.
|RICHARD McWHANNELL The Big Tower 1980
oil on canvas, 1120 mm x 1473 mm (Collection of the artist)
The emotions deep-seated in McWhannell's work are those on the periphery, indicators of a humanity for which we in turn know no universal indicator. The emotions we can never be sure we share - some vague base, conditioned through contact with the world, especially through sight. Thus McWhannell is working away at some goal hard to attain: but in his awareness of that difficulty, he achieves its measure. Certainly he leaves the field open for the viewer (and for himself) allowing them to take, as much as he is willing to give. A dialogue can take place and you can leave with something other than any absolute, intended 'emotion'.
In his figures McWhannell achieves a similar subjective end, although through differently suggestive means. You are caught staring at, and into, emotions expressed through utter passivity; suggesting they are of something other than 'personality'. His heads are bathed in a distorting light, as if in this 'new light' some specific emotional weight is drawn from their form.
|RICHARD McWHANNELL Portrait of a Black Man 1980
oil on canvas, 1222 mm x 1473 mm (Collection of the artist)
McWhannell talks of wanting all his paintings to be 'populated'. Certainly it is the base population of 'humanity' that is there, that gives his work the strength of frailty. It is in this that his paintings gain their compelling nature: the work of a man looking into and out from himself in search of a 'real' perspective. His latest paintings show him to be moving towards a continually more encompassing 'grasp' of that perspective, and of the means by which he can translate it. As he can watch his painting grow, so too can we 'watch' it, for it is as much about seeing as of it. McWhannell can slow down (and tone up) our experience of that seeing, to the degree whereby we can come to terms with its subjectivity something that is all too often left to a distant subconscious, out there in the world.
|MARTIN BALL Waiting for Saturday Night 1977
graphite pencil, 365 mm x 525 mm (Peter Webb Galleries)
MARTIN BALL works in a singularly curious manner, reconstituting 'found' photographic images in the form of pencil drawings. Such is the degree of skill he brings to his task that it is difficult to tell his drawings apart from the real thing: especially given that he retains the scale, tonal qualities and surface properties of the original. On close inspection they are, however, surprisingly free; drawn with a host of rough and often loose techniques. Although the graphite is variously scraped, scratched, rubbed and erased into shape, the significance it plays in the viewing of the work is (due perhaps to its small scale) secondary to the image it supports.
|MARTIN BALL Young Girl 1980
graphite pencil, 178 mm x 154 mm (Collection of Mr and Mrs L. Ball, Auckland)
Ball's medium and his choice of images obviously has its roots in American Pop; in artists such as Wesselmann via the West Coast Photo-realists. That said, it soon becomes apparent that Ball's interest lies more wholeheartedly in the images he is reconstituting than in any implications that may be drawn from the manner in which that reconstitution takes' place. This is somewhat perplexing in that his technique, far from being straightforward, inevitably raises questions of its own perversity: the most important and nagging being a big fat WHY?
Side-stepping such pivotal notions, his works function awkwardly in interacting with the spectator. What happens is that the concerns of the artist have to speak over the unacknowledged (and therefore frustratingly loud) properties of his means. The result can be confusing. The viewer is left in mid air and the artist's concerns are compromised. Through not covering the odds, he loses control of his images.
|MARTIN BALL Disco Boy 1978
graphite pencil, 300 mm x 215 mm (Collection of Neil and Jean Smith, Auckland)
Thus, Ball's best work, such as the excellent Worn-out Rocker, is that in which there seems to be a positive, and acknowledged, correlation between means and end. Indeed, in a work such as this Ball seems to have allowed his concerns, as suggested to him by the image, to work away between image and title. The image speaks for itself: but is given positive context and direction from the title, which Ball himself imposed. In reconstituting all this he is aware that he is working from an already transposed motif, and captures the nuances of a printed, weathered image; using those qualities to further draw out the 'worn out' aspect suggested in the title.
Similarly, in Waiting for Saturday Night Ball accentuates the particular tonal qualities of the original printed image to help it towards its intended effect. Here he has cropped the head off Rolling Stone Keith Richards, turning the star into a symbol of the very lifestyle that he has, through the pervasive nature of the mass media, done so much to perpetuate. It is a measure of the sublime degree to which we internalise the information fed to us through such media, that we can recognise Richards even without his face. It is in works such as these that Ball shows us his ability to create tight, intelligent and powerful drawings: ones which speak with clear, level-headed intent.
|MARTIN BALL Wornout Rocker 1977
graphite pencil, 1060 mm x 210 mm (Auckland City Art Gallery)
Wornout Rocker and Waiting for Saturday Night were done in 1977 and 1978 respectively, and it is unfortunate that in the erratic course Ball's work has since followed he has rarely equalled their power. For an artist who relies so heavily on the nature of the 'found' image Ball is all too often well off target. The soft-porn, girlie magazine drawings of 1979, in particular, are far more than 'in danger' of appearing sexist, and do nothing to consolidate his reputation in most circles.
While this tendency to cheap and trivial material (in which any 'comment' is necessarily hackneyed) marks a minority of his work, it tends to cast a shadow of doubt over many of the rest of his images: especially when the articulation of their intentions is as confused as I have suggested it at times is. Young Girl from 1980 seems to suggest that Ball is still developing, and capable of producing strong, coherent works. It is to be hoped that his direction will in the coming years become a little more concerted.
|GLENDA RANDERSON Persimmons 1979
oil on canvas, 1015 mm x 1020 mm (Auckland City Art Gallery)
Of the four artists that I discuss here GLENDA RANDERSON is probably the closest to the tradition of Realism in New Zealand painting. Her immaculately detailed canvases reflect an interest in largely localised, often domestic, seeing; her style is clear, her works finely finished. To many she may thus appear as a 'safe' painter: accomplished but offering little that is new or of vital interest. Certainly her work is self-consciously uninterested in being progressive; and her subject matter, and the way it is handled, appears to tread little ground not trodden many times before. All of which goes to show that things are not always as they appear, that an artist who is willing to invest as much time and trouble in painting as accomplished as hers, deserves slow, and careful, consideration.
Randerson claims her chief interest lies in the form-giving play of light on objects, within rooms. At first suspicious of using the camera, her slow method of working (and the organic nature of much of her subject matter) finally convinced her she should enlist its help, and now she uses it fairly extensively to capture various parts of a projected painting. One of the more interesting things to have come out of this is her recognition of colours in the photographs that she was unaware of from seeing the 'real thing'. These colours, mainly cold tones of red and green, have since become very much a pivotal part of her 'vision.'
Still Life with Egg Carton 1978
Oil on canvas, 515 mm x 515 mm.
(Collection of Mr and Mrs J. L. & J. E. Mansfield, Auckland)
In a work such as Persimmons you find a certain stillness: but not one of peace, calm or order as is often suggested. That stillness is heavy and has a biting edge; the atmosphere is tense and dense and tight. Randerson herself is unsure of the atmosphere she achieves in her work, noting only that it always finds its way in, and that it is continually of the same nature. With the solid, light filled atmosphere that inhabits these quiet spaces there is a feeling that it is, in its saturation, rubbing against every pore on the surface of everything in the room, and on the inside of the room too. That space has the stillness not of peace but of death - the period interiors are not the nostalgic containers of a more ordered time: they are images of places that are lost, that have lost life. The persimmons, painted in a heavy red, push their way into that thick air, which in turn is held, its density captive, within the walls of the room: the space between.
Even in the composition of Persimmons perhaps Randerson's most accomplished work to date there is something of that nervous edge that comes from treading the fine line between peace and tension a line so fine that it is hard to pin down. The basic composition relies heavily on carefully ordered horizontal and vertical elements: but it is the intrusion of the clutching diagonals in the bentwood chairs that opens up the composition and the mood of the painting as a whole into an area perhaps removed from the conscious aims of the artist. Together with the 'dead' tones she has learnt from the camera and the lack of figures in her paintings, the enervating effect of a compositional device such as this bentwood chair builds up a distinct emotion, one which runs through the body of her work.
|GLENDA RANDERSON Eggs in White Bowl 1979
oil on canvas, 455 mm x 380 mm (Collection of Mr and Mrs B. N. P. and L. G. Corban, Auckland)
Randerson, interestingly enough, feels a close affinity with the paintings of Milan Mrkusich, citing his ability to paint 'a solid light' as the basis for her admiration.
The recent Oakfield Interior seems to mark a pulling back, out of the density of Randerson's interiors, allowing the clear view of a passage from such a space to the outside world. The painting shows clearly the constant pleasure she takes in formal problems, her articulation of this difficult space being quite remarkable. The 'opening up' that has gone on here seems to suggest that this is a work that holds out clues to Randerson's subsequent development.
|GLENDA RANDERSON Oakfield Interior 1979
oil on canvas, 1695 mm x 915 mm (Collection of the artist)
Because of the time it takes her to complete paintings, and perhaps because her subject matter comes from such a local and familiar stamping ground as the home, the evolution of her work is necessarily slow. It will be interesting to see if Glenda Randerson's work becomes more consciously subjective, or if her projected move towards paintings of figures in interiors marks a fundamental change in the nature of that subjectivity.
|GEORGE BALOGHY Royal Garage 1979
oil and acrylic on canvas, 610 mm x 910 mm (Collection of Sharon Ellis, Auckland)
GEORGE BALOGHY is a prime example of a 'Realist' working through the eye of the camera: indeed he relies on the notion of objective seeing that the camera allows. He accepts the universal language of objective images as a basis for a similarly universal means of communication in a characteristically no-nonsense manner. He is completely clear headed and sober minded about his aims, his ideas, his art. He comes to (and therefore 'at') painting from photography something that still shares his interest, the act of painting being regarded as a purely necessary link in his desire to communicate ideas to an audience. Painting, for Baloghy, allows a degree of manipulation in its images of 'reality' not allowed by the camera; that manipulation being an inherent part of his work. For it is only through his offbeat juxtapositioning of parts of our shared objective seeing that he can show up just how unobjective we can be in our observation of the world.
He puts it best when he says he wants to show New Zealanders the 'reality' a tourist sees in our country: some one with fresh eyes in a new hunting ground. An East European by birth, but now an 'ordinary bloke', Baloghy can still remember, and see, that 'first' New Zealand - as well as the one internalised through familiarity. He can thus function as an objective observer and illustrator. He says he's something of a cartoonist, when you think about it.
|GEORGE BALOGHY End of an Era 1980
Acrylic & enamel on canvas, 400 x 400 mm. (Collection of the artist)
In a painting such as Sculptural Proposition: Car Park Baloghy is obviously producing an image that has anything but a single point to make. It is typical of his best work in its ability to keep providing new levels of thought just as you work the last one through. You can drive, live, eat, sit, do what you like in the city and chances are you won't see the parking meters: you somehow overlook them. There's no way you are going to let them pass you by here though. Although Baloghy thus purposefully puts that to rights, there seems to be little discussion, either implicit or explicit, as to why such blind spots do, in fact, occur. In this particular image such a notion is no shortcoming, given that the work takes off into other, equally provocative areas of discussion. However, over a number of works, the repeated implication that we miss some of the world wears thin. Baloghy of course prevents any suggestion of dullness or staleness entering his work purely by virtue of having concurrent ideas and bastions to storm.
Sculptural Proposition: Car Park 1979
Acrylic & enamel on canvas, 775 x 775 mm. (Rodney Kirk Smith Art)
Baloghy can also be a 'straight' realist, some images, such as Royal Garage, revealing an interest in seeing things (especially urban commercial buildings) and attempting to get them across in all their glory. While he makes good use of the fact that we tend to look longer at a painting of a common object than at a photograph of the same, the working of the surfaces here has something in common with the sense-denying properties of the camera. The clouds in End of an Era have been formed out of the fortuitous running of the paint on the ground - pointing to the fact that Baloghy is indeed more interested in the objective qualities of seeing and 'reality'. it is probable that this is very much tied up with his mistrust of the use of ambiguities and superlatives: things that have too often been abused in the past in art and in its critical 'reviewing'.
Originally published in Art New Zealand 19 Autumn 1981