The Grid
Lattice & Network


As a defining form, no-one should find the grid unfamiliar. Most pictures, prints and photographs we see are rectangular or square and therefore defined by the basic unit of a grid: the rectangle. That in itself is distinctly 'abstract', since our eyes don't actually give what we look at a neat rectangular frame at all. So between what we see and the conventions of Western pictorial art there is a conceptual leap - namely that it 'makes sense' to depict what we see within a rectangular frame, which if extended inwards or outwards becomes part of a grid. The grid as a device for framing, organising, delimiting, is thus of natural interest to artists.

Not that this observation is intended to justify 'grid' paintings - it merely shows how natural and obvious they are. Yet, as Cheryll Sotheran, Wystan Curnow and others are keen on pointing out, abstract art is still not well received in New Zealand - generally being regarded as alien, impersonal, 'difficult'. So the Auckland City Gallery's exhibition entitled Tbe Grid: Lattice & Network, which is the second in its series Aspects of Recent New Zealand Art, is especially welcome - not only for the quality of the works but also as an act of historical identification (all exhibits fall within a fifteen-year span, 1967-82) and as a demonstration of the actual accomplishments of abstract art. Many viewers will be surprised at how popular grids were with artists in the 'seventies, and at how they elicited such various and imaginative responses. For, rather than mathematical or visual banality, most works in this show offer ingenious and subtle variations on the grid form; and certainly justify its recognition as a significant 'Aspect' of recent New Zealand Art.

watercolour on paper, 152 x 127 mm. (Collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

The overall series was devised so that the gallery could present current New Zealand artists in some depth, offering an instructive approach to each one's work, and also contributing to an ongoing view of New Zealand art. As Director Rodney Wilson explains, it doesn't claim to add up to 'a complete story of New Zealand art' in the 'seventies, or even to be an exhaustive summary of each aspect selected. But the proposed shows (New Image and The Grid to date, Anxious Image next, and more next year) do promise insights into how artists of different ages temper merit and background have been attracted to similar themes and modes - with intriguingly different results.

In choosing the theme of The Grid curator Andrew Bogie had several factors in mind. He recounts in the exhibition catalogue how a remark by a visiting Australian colleague about the number of grids in New Zealand painting sparked a detailed consideration of the subject which in turn led to this exhibition. Taking up a remark by another friend that our art could be split broadly into two schools, the 'grid' school and the 'dead baby' school, Bogie decided he would prefer to focus on the grid - mainly because he feels more disposed towards abstraction than expressionism and other figurative styles. It also provides some interesting counterpoints to his main interest of chance in art. And by restricting the show purely to non-figurative works 'incorporating non-mimetic grids as a formal compositional device', he focuses our attention on issues provoked by the essentially abstract nature of grids.

With a bit of luck, by demonstrating the inventiveness and proficiency with which the ten selected artists approached these issues, some of the prejudice and mystification surrounding abstraction in this country can be overcome. This didactic element is greatly enhanced by the informative and elegant catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. Bogle's introductory commentary on figurative works by such artists as Angus and McCahon who use the grid as a compositional device, and on the various ways individual artists came up with and then worked their way through the grid and lattice forms. But in particular he points us towards two aspects of the grid-as-subject which provide a good basis for approaching the paintings themselves.

IAN SCOTT Lattice No. 78 1978
acrylic on canvas, 1829 x 1829 mm

The first takes note of the grid's many correspondences outside of abstract art. In nature, for instance, they appear in honeycombs, spiders' webs and corncobs: but there is little evidence that the artists here have taken inspiration from such organic forms. Less functionally, grid and lattice patterns appear in much Polynesian and tribal art, a point well documented in the catalogue.

In intriguingly ambiguous ways, Rick Killeen and Gordon Walters both draw on these sources. Killeen's Tukutuku (1974) is one of the most delicate works on display - a small network of geometric patterns precariously 'stitched' on a canvas field. However it was not until after doing it that he consciously made the connection with tukutuku panels. Black Grid (1977) and Blue Max (1978) have the reverse effect: strong geometric designs taken from Oceanic sources are ironically executed in twentieth century industrial materials, enamel or lacquer on aluminium (the irony of Blue Max is heightened by the title and its blue/ yellow colours). Gordon Walters similarly uses strong Melanesian grid patterns but 'abstracts' them from their sources to concentrate on figure/ground and optical ambiguities. Subtler influences are at work in Mervyn Williams' Gambit I and Delta I (1978), with their echoes of the delicate tracery of near-Eastern art.

Other painters allude to more modern sources. Robert McLeod makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to his birthplace in the densely-layered Grids and Tartans (1976), which we are told 'were stimulated by a consignment of tartan table-cloths his mother sent out from Glasgow'; while Ian Scott's rigorously geometric lattices recall striped awnings, trellises and car decals seen in suburban New Zealand. Ray Thorburn's intense networks of graduated lines are suggestive of electronic circuits and laser light; while his colours unquestionably date his work in the psychedelic era of the late 'sixties.

ALLEN MADDOX Finer and finer and more gutless 1976
oil on cotton duck, 830 x 2060 mm (Collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

These quite recognisable correspondences implied in the New Zealand artists' grids run counter to the transcendental connotations which European modernists associated with the grid. Mondrian envisaged the grid as a form for 'pure reality'; the de Stijl painters as an ideal construct of the' intellect, freed from any naturalistic representation. By contrast the painters mentioned so far appear to see it as something immanent: a recurrent form, drawing their attention from phenomena around them, to be explored as part of their world rather than isolated from it. A quick look at the New York Pace Gallery catalogue Grids (1979) provides an interesting comparison: for the New Zealand works are generally less objective, impersonal and monoform than their American counterparts working out of the modernist tradition-though they are no less geometric.

That conspicuously personal treatment of grids is again reflected in the artists' concern with the psychological implications of that form. This is how Mervyn Williams puts it:
The grid is almost an emblem of reason. Its regularity, its predictability, its stability et cetera are all about reason and organisation and holding together. But then there is in me another impulse which is basically lyrical.' in fact it's wildly expressionistic. I want both things. It's the resolution of a dichotomy, and I've got to do it in painting.

ROBERT McLEOD Tartan Box I 1976/77
oil on canvas, 196 x 150 x 90 mm.

The tension between order and disorder, rigid form and intuitive gesture, regulation and impulse is evoked again and again in these works, its resolution pursued in numerous ways. In Williams' Study 3 (1977) and Gambit I (1978) a uniform network of thin lines is washed over by spontaneously-applied water-colours; while McLeod builds up his grids with layers of bright paint, at the same time subverting the regularity by letting the oils drip and run and himself painting over the surface repeatedly in gestures which both reinforce and obliterate each other. The Tartan Box pieces explicitly extend these thick grids into three-dimensional paintings.

Alien Maddox takes his expressionism even further. Coarse Investigation (1979) and the de Kooning-esque Untitled (1981) cling to a rough-grid shape in an apparently desperate attempt to control a furious gesturalism - the grid being horizontal and vertical slashes whose purpose is as much cancellation as creation. Finer & Finer & more gutless and Life's Hurdles (1976) are more considered, exploiting clever variations on the grid structure as symbols of their rather sardonic titles.

Formal resolutions of the regulation/ impulse conflict are favoured by other artists. Usually a regular network of lines is set up and then 'interrupted' or subverted in some way. Don Peebles in his large Untitled (1978) undercuts what is basically a series of repetitive patterns by painting freehand and then leaving the work's hanging indeterminate; while earlier pieces Painting (Linear Series 19) and Untitled (1973) are entirely regular grids, except that in some square patches of earlier layers of paint 'show through'.

Another strategy is to have intuitively selected colour variations disrupting rigid predetermined patterns - as, in Walters' Taniko and some of Scott's Lattices (eg. 98 and 91); while both Scott and Killeen deliberately provoke ambiguity between figure and ground in their works. Killeen's Frog Green appears to lay a network of diagonal bars over a complex pattern of repeated colours: but in places where the colours of the two grids coincide, that illusion of three-dimensionality is blatantly exposed.

Tapa ngatu tahina from Tonga, c. 1970
(Private collection, Auckland)

Geoffrey Thornley's engaging pieces work in this area even more mysteriously. The irregular blotches on his surface which sometimes barely admit to being a grid at all create complex but rather baffling images. Series A No. 11 (to me one of the show's masterpieces) appears to be decaying or emerging into itself (like a photograph still in emulsion):,but in fact it remains resolutely static, refusing both 'figure' and 'ground', declaring nothing more than what is there.

In his Dice painting, John Hurrell goes to another extreme, setting up a rigidly regular pattern and then determining what colours go where by throwing dice. The result is a network of paradoxes: the pattern, though rigid, is first selected subjectively by the artist whereas once the elements determined by the dice have been decided on, the random throwing of dice actually leads to a totally rigid process. However, since the painting gives few clues to this origin and is executed (like all Hurrell's pieces here) in somewhat drear colours, it is unfortunately less interesting than its conception. Chance also plays a role in other exhibits: the hanging of Peebles' long canvas Untitled and the order in which Thorburn's panels are arranged in Modular 2 Series 2 are both indeterminate for instance; while the independent activity of paint-oils are left explicit in McLeod's Lots of Little Landscapes (1977) and most Maddox works.

JOHN HURRELL Dice Piece I 1979
acrylic on canvas, 1240 x 1265 mm.

Inevitably in a collective show questions arise as to who is included and omitted. Bogle mentions a few names whom he considered but didn't include - primarily because he wanted to concentrate on artists for whom the grid form had marked a major stage in their work and who had therefore treated it in some thoroughness.

As far as the selection of the ten artists and their works presented is concerned, however there is little to complain about. Bo gle is quite right in his assess ment that some of the best painters in the country are included in this exhibition. And although most have now moved beyond grids, it does help us to appreciate their work as well as mark an impressive stage in recent New Zealand art.

Photographs by Julian Bowron courtesy of The Auckland City Art Gallery

Originally published in Art New Zealand 28 Spring 1983