PAT HANLY Torsos
New Zealand painting has only one significant tradition: the landscape. It is a theme some two hundred years old, born of the European explorer's eagerness to chronicle the form of this new land. For two hundred years it has been the most significant theme in our painting - to the detriment of others, notably the nude. Obviously the nude as a subject is universal, and indigenous land forms are not: but when we consider that for centuries man has been able to see the analogies between landscape and the naked female form (in anthropomorphic landscapes) it would appear that our singular topography has not led our painters to produce singular nudes.
Currently showing in Auckland is a selection from Pat Hanly's latest series, Torsos: small, vivid paintings, unique in conception, which bridge that gap between our tradition in landscape and the western tradition in nudes.
It was no brain-storm which led Hanly to this juncture: rather it is one of the results of working in series and progressions as he does it was a logical step. To look back over Hanly's work it would appear that at several stages he has been ready for this step, but each time his development has led him in another direction. From Figures in Light (1964) he could have made the step to figures in landscape, or from the Garden series to nudes. Instead it is only after completing the large, abstract Auckland Airport mural that, in reaction, he has returned to the small and the figurative - the Torso series. In turn, Hanly believes, these panels will lead to other series; significantly he feels ready to approach the theme of Figures in Light again from a new angle.
Like many contemporary New Zealand (and specifically Auckland) painters, Hanly chooses to work in bright enamels straight from the can. It is an effective solution to the problems of portraying the phenomenon of 'Pacific light' - something which has fascinated Hanly since his return to New Zealand in 1962. In this new series, elements of Figures in Light and the most recent 'action painting' Pacific Condition series reappear as the painter attempts the fusion of indigenous light and indigenous land-forms into an indigenous nude - an impression ably assisted by the splattered, dribbled and brushed skins of enamel. This use of forms, line and technique with which Hanly is already familiar is one way of breaking new ground with some support. Hanly is breaking new ground: for although other New Zealand painters (notably Don Binney) have been producing anthropomorphic landscapes, none until now has made the necessary shift in thought to produce a topographic nude.
This Torsos series is less academic, or studied, than most of Hanly's earlier series. The result is a crude, primitive spontaneity and a vitality projecting through the lush profusion of colour and texture. Hanly produced only three or four drawings in preparation for the series, and all are of a woman seated in the Hanly garden at the foot of Auckland's Mount Eden crater, amid lush tropical vegetation. The Figures in Light and the Pacific Condition together have produced the singular qualities of the torsos. Some traces of much earlier series are discernible. New Order and Pacific Icon have both influenced the colour and the line in the torsos, and the Energy series the drawing. Without any of the past series as stages in a development the torsos would not have been possible
To review the last fifty years of New Zealand painting is to review the development of modern landscape painting. An occasional nude can be found in the oeuvre of Christopher Perkins and Russell Clark: but they are uninspired and firmly tied to the European originals. However fit or unfit Pat Hanly's Torsos may appear, they are a significant development in New Zealand painting, and a stepping-stone to further growth in the future, be it by Hanly or others.
Originally published in Art New Zealand 10 Winter 1978