Philip Trusttrum's Paintings of the 'Seventies


The painter Philip Trusttum first became known in Auckland through his many one-man exhibitions at the New Vision Gallery under the keen and supportive sponsorship of Kees and Tina Hos (though his first paintings had appeared in Auckland in 1964-1965, in those interesting yearly anthologies at the Auckland City Art Gallery, selected by Peter Tomory and Colin McCahon, among others).

oil on board (The Bosshard Galleries)

The works Trusttum put into these earlier exhibitions were unlike anything else being produced in New Zealand at the time. They were large, uncompromisingly expressionist, and very numerous (Trusttum's first exhibition at the New Vision Gallery in 1965 numbered 110 items).

Following the 'tactile' paint of the early paintings, Trusttum moved toward quieter, more obviously patterned surfaces. The subject matter for such works, as for almost all of Trusttum's output, are events that directly relate to his personal world: whether they are his children's toys (as in some of the more recent works) or (as in earlier years) the birth of his son Martin.

oil on board, 181 x 121 cm. (New Vision Gallery)

Trusttum's painting method to date has been cyclical. From the earlier expressionist works with their interest in thickly-applied paint, he developed his art into quieter, more abstract modes, using a chalkier paint surface. In the earlier 'seventies he experimented with constructions. Their concern with 'making processes' and the nature of perception itself mark the furthest point he has strayed from the representation of the visible world - no matter how oblique the reference sometimes appears to be. The relative failure of these works to do all that Trusttum wanted precipitated his return to a more traditional form of painting.

Trusttum's visit to Europe and the United States in 1973 saw a renewal of his love affair with the qualities of oil paint, and of his interest in what may loosely be termed the natural world: but within a-year-and-a-half of his return he began to reach out into abstract areas again.

Philip Trusttrum
photograph by Murray Hedwig

Now, after yet another visit overseas, Trusttum is working through a new set of concerns. The method is organic. From initial semi-realist feelers he begins a process of poeticising, working through to an abstraction that always refers back to the initial stimulus.

Trusttum's expressionism is an important component of his art. At times this expressionism is held in rein, allowing a semi-naturalistic space to dominate: at other times it is rampant almost to incoherency. For Trusttum this cyclic activity is an important, if unconscious, corner-stone of his output to date.

PHILIP TRUSTTRUM Christchurch 1974
oil on board (Peter Webb Galleries)

As I have already said, in the more recent work dating from after his 1973 trip overseas, the most obvious factors are a return to a more sumptuous use of oil paint and a renewed interest in a subject matter more stringently concerned with the patterns of the real world. The paintings refer to his intimate landscape viewed through the studio window or over the fence. They celebrate the effects of light through foliage, the colour of shrubs against sky, the changing patterns of drapery and leaves. Within these works we see Trusttum's drawing with the brush take on a new authority that testifies to his close study in Europe of Van Gogh.

The four small paintings shown in the Artist's Garden group at New Vision in mid-1974 were among the most successful of these works. A prodigious worker, Trusttum quickly left behind the paintings' original creative source: and in many of the larger works the colour combinations reach a pitch of intensity that marks them as a high point in his production.

acrylic on canvas (The Bosshard Galleries)

However, as soon as Trusttum has solved one set of painterly problems, he will move on to the next - as often as not using ideas for more abstract paintings from solutions discovered in his earlier, semi-realist probings. Although these works begin by employing what may be termed a naturalistic space, Trusttum gradually becomes interested in attempting to portray a more complicated inner/outer space. Take for example the many small works that feature the Christchurch landscape with construction cranes: in later paintings these cranes are taken out of their position within the landscape and used in a work such as Over Christchurch (Collection, New Vision Gallery) as a grid-like element with which to divide up the painting surface.

oil on jute, 122 x 97 cm. (New Vision Gallery

In America in 1973 Trusttum saw works by Hans Hoffman and Paul Klee - both of whom can be seen to exert an influence in his art. Hoffman's slab-like areas of knife-applied paint appear in several works which, in terms of their hard, brutal paint application, startle those used to the colour and attractive subject matter of only months before.

Paul Klee has a more important role to play in Trusttum's work - and indeed is still playing it. As an artist Trusttum has ruthlessly scavenged the work of other artists for clues on how to enliven his brushwork, as well as for forms to carry his ideas. The technique of paintings like Xylophone (Collection, New Vision Gallery) and Bumble-bee (Collection, New Vision Gallery) patently point to Klee. The former with its large disc shapes and all-over patterning of staccato brush-marks is incredibly resonant with the maniacal drumming of children's percussive toys: whilst Bumble-bee sums up all our feelings about that clacking pull-toy.

Philip Trusttrum
photograph by Murray Hedwig

These paintings are about sensory perceptions in as real a fashion as the earlier 'garden' paintings: but they are perceptions that have been neglected by other artists - sound, fear, pain - all on the domestic level of children's play and daily family activities. Trusttum's life is welded inseparably into his painting. His children, the garden, appear in his paintings not as quaint biographical detail but a part of a greater world view.

It was these paintings that Trusttum left behind when he and his family went overseas in 1975 to spend a year in France and Switzerland. In Switzerland he saw the important collections of the work of Paul Klee. From this trip all the recent works stem - the papier-collé collages, the large paintings on unstretched canvas and the smaller works on rough jute canvas.

oil on board, 120 x 105 cm. (New Vision Gallery)

The collages were seen at the New Vision Gallery in November of last year and immediately recalled to mind the illustrations by Henri Matisse for Jazz. These Cutouts range in size up to 1 m. x 1.5m. and are inhabited by a surreal band of anthropomorphs, who with great gusto activate the inner space of the works. Crisp, 'cut out' shapes bounce across flat brightly-coloured surfaces, paper is perforated, colour glinting; sometimes through three levels.

The Cutout idea enables Trusttum to contain colour within sharp discrete areas. Shape and line play the major role within the collages, with the idea of the elements' re-arrangeability contributing much to the casualness of approach and giving these works a higher success rate than some of the smaller paintings on jute that accompany them. These use dry, crusty paint on a raw jute canvas, resulting in paint surfaces with much of the jute ground appearing through. The images range from Klee-like fantasy landscapes to strange representations of alphabetical symbols, like some newly-discovered coda.

A more cohesive exploration of these images was presented at the Bosshard Galleries in Dunedin in March of this year. In this exhibition, entitled Banners, all the documentation that accompanies world travel has been used as the launching platform. Tickets, passports, reservations have all been reorganised by the artist into a new and mysterious language. Numbers and letters appear in the paintings, sometimes as arcane formulae, at other times as immediately recognisable sign-posts (as for instance in the three works that use Avis Car Hire as a foundation).

Papercut (New Vision Gallery)

The Banners are a further departure for Trusttum in as much as they use acrylic paint on raw or stained canvas, left unstretched and pinned informally to the wall.

Any attempt to categorise or search for consistency in a painter such as Philip Trusttum is doomed to failure. In fact, it does a disservice to his immense creativity. His wife (whose support has been important to him both critically and financially) has, in a letter, given a valuable insight into the credo behind Trusttum's work:

Trusttum at thirty-six is a young painter. He anticipates at least another thirty-six years of painting ahead. Therefore, he regards himself as a student - not only of painting but also of life. He has plunged into both: creating children and the full domestic commitment that they demand on the one hand, whilst also creating paintings at an average of five a week. He would expect perhaps ten or twenty of these to be successful in a year; of these some are obviously more successful than others, but whether they succeed in global terms time alone will tell. The important thing is to get the spadework done while he is still young enough to be bold and energetic.

Later will come, with luck, a period of maturity when a purely personal style should emerge. In the meantime it is essential to look beyond New Zealand and set one's sights as high as possible. To specialise and refine at this stage would be dangerous, leading maybe to painting oneself - feeding off oneself.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 6 June/July 1977