The New Image Painters

FRANCIS POUND

Starting about June, 1982, there's going to be a big show at the Auckland City Art Gallery. It will deal with some New Zealand artists of the 'seventies. These will not be the grand old men and women of New Zealand art: but a new generation. It will probably be the biggest show of New Zealand art yet held. Even its catalogue will be a full-scale book.

DICK FRIZZELL The Dancing Chicken 1980
enamel on board 865 x 915 mm.
(collection of the National Gallery, Wellington)

One section of that show will be titled New Image. The painters so catalogued make figurative images - images that mostly look different from those made before abstraction. So, in America, such painting has been labelled not just 'New Image', but 'Post-Abstraction'. Some have claimed it was the coming thing after abstraction's demise.

Well: There's no need to think abstraction is done for. But, like it or not, there is no doubt that in the 'seventies in America the image was back, an image that everywhere bore traces of the abstraction through which it had come. Some of these image makers - Suston for example - has even been abstractionists themselves. This image art didn't pretend abstraction never had happened. So that it was not, necessarily, retrogressive.

DENYS WATKINS Human Bondage
watercolour and ink, 610 x 460 mm.

In New Zealand in the 'seventies a similar thing happened. Young painters appeared for whom the image was important, a different kind of image from previous New Zealand images: such very diverse painters as Killeen, Hartigan, Chilcott, Frizzell, Watkins and Wong Sing Tai.

Of these painters, Frizzell most gladly accepts the title 'New Image', and all the anti-abstractionist paraphenalis it has carried with it in America (see his anti-formalist advert in this issue); and Killeen least happily takes it.

Certainly the painters here articled as 'New Image' are not a group after the fashion, say, of the Cubists, or the Impressionists. They do not share one style, or use the same imagery. But (without straining too much) they do all have some things in common.

DICK FRIZZELL Holy Mackerel 1978
enamel on board

First, obviously, they all use images. You could call them all 'figurative' rather than 'abstract' painters. But such labels only uneasily fit them. 'Figurative' forgets the abstract elements in their work (and, in some cases, the abstract works in their work). 'Abstract' denies the appearance of familiar images. For they all use images that swing from abstract to figurative. Recognisable things in their work don't look as they do in the world: they are removed from their normal context, abbreviated, exaggerated; offering only their identifying signs - like dictionary definitions. In the passage to art, their images endure a drastic transformation - in placement, scale, material, colour.

Second, they all make art about art. Their art is hardly naturalistic. Naturalism is the style which pretends to be no style at all - just nature. These artists make works that flagrantly declare themselves art. Colour may be presented flat, unmodulated by light and' shade; images may be isolated from all natural context; or outlined in black; brushwork may be so assertively visible as to declare: 'You are looking at a surface, not through it, at an opaque picture plane, not, not at all, through a window transparent to the world.' So purely artistic conventions are stressed: there is not, in nature, colour uncircled by light and shade, nor image without context, nor black outline, nor such flatness, nor brushwork.

GAVIN CHILCOTT African Brothers 1981

Another gambit by which art may flaunt the fact that it is 'art' is by a constant reference to other artworks. All may suffice. Watkins's Real Estate (reproduced Art New Zealand 11) has Lichtenstein's brushstroke, itself an expressionist stroke done in comic-book style, now an art-image three ways removed from the world; he is always depicting the materials of art; his Morris Louis Staining Device teases abstraction. Chilcott paints Meet you in the sculpture garden at 4: Museum Piece; Rejects; Venice Biennale: and Laocoon Revisited. Harry Wong, in Temple of Apollo, refers to Lichtenstein's image of the same, again now an image three times removed; when copying a Mondrian he ruffles one of its edges. Frizzell takes off Goldie in Golden Oldie, a portrait of an old Maori chief, remakes a Stubbs lion, has a parrot declare 'Now that's what I call painting' - his painting praising itself. Hartigan's Dictionary summarises the images of some years of his own painting, and in Untitled - Nail Polish, he shows the process of painting, cosmetics being, like all arts, an improvement on nature. He titles a whole show 'Picturesque'. The picturesque is that which in nature or art reminds us of pictures. let it stand, then, for all of these works: they are artworks that look like artworks.

RICHARD KILLEEN New Zealand Landscape Painting Tradition 1971
oil

Also, they keep referring to non-art images - comics, posters, labels, logos, camouflages, patterns on lino or cloth - to all sorts of signs and symbols. They refer as much to the world of images as to the world to which these images refer. Look at that Frizzell fish - caught, not from the sea, but from a label on a tin. Their images refer as much to other images as to the world: their art is as much about ways of seeing the world as about the world.

DICK FRIZZELL Back Yard Detail 1981
oil pastel (collection of the artist)

The third 'thing such artists have in common is this: an international idiom. They are not self-consciously New Zealand painters. (Compare them to the New Zealand regional realists.) The title of Killeen's early painting The New Zealand landscape painting tradition- made this a matter for explicit remark. And the plants, insects, animals, artifacts of Killeen's cut-outs . . . as many are exotic as are native. Frizzell, Hartigan, Chilcott - they are as liable to paint a cactus as a kauri. Harry Wong's only landscapes are moonscapes, or of the Californian Badlands - chosen to symbolise states of mind, not as symbols of place. As Killeen nicely puts it: Is there a New Zealand physics? Well why should there be a New Zealand painting?

WONG SING TAI Temple of Apollo 1979
screenprint, 485 x 540 mm.

In the New Zealand of the 'forties, 'fifties and 'sixties, artists, writers, critics all proclaimed a self-conscious search for a New Zealand style, a New Zealand content, a New Zealand identity in art. (The painters and critics of those generations are still calling for it.) It seemed as if there was a kind of critical conspiracy to deny or suppress 'overseas' influence, a pathetic sort of patriotism. Was this a critical climate somewhat akin to the political in its fear of the infiltration of overseas agitators, or to the South Island's building of vast fences to keep out such foreign vermin as the rabbit? In such a climate, painters might be rebuked, as was Rhona Hazard, 'for experimenting in a direction which is peculiar to a foreign people'.

DICK FRIZZELL Tyre Doctor 1981
enamel on board, 1 metre square

The new generation of painters, the painters of the 'seventies, couldn't care less about all that. A New Zealand identity in art, for them, now, is a dead question. They freely look to America. England, Mexico, the moon - elsewhere.

A fourth thing, you might say, that such painters have in common is this: urban imagery.

Most people, today, live in cities. 'Nature, today, is the city.' It takes a selective vision to make it seem not so: either the sketching trip to the country (that nineteenth century performance), or the abandonment of the city (home of art) to actually live in the country. And even there you have to strain to keep that pylon or Beazley bach outside of the frame.

PAUL HARTIGAN Little Lies 1979
screenprint

A younger generation of artists feels perfectly at home in the city. They actually like surburbia. Interestingly enough this is as true of the young 'abstract' painters as it is of the figurative. lan Scott, for instance, has declared in this magazine: I happen to like surburban landscape, with its neatness, bright colours, clean edges

Denis Watkins displays (as did Killeen and Scott in their hard-edge realist works) a kind of ironic affection for surburbia. As for the billboards, posters, neon, the effusive glitter of the city, all its amorous sparkle: painters like Hartigan, Chilcott, Frizzell and Wong Sing Tai enthusiastically accept it.

This urbanism relates to the internationalist idiom. There are no dead trees, Kauris, dark hills, in New York. But like Auckland, New York has strip club facades, ads., TV., neon, etc - a trash conglomerate of image piled upon image: that international idiom of signs.

PAUL HARTIGAN Drawing 1975

Fifth, their art is not neurotic or anguished. 'A total paucity of angst' Chilcott says this of his work. 'It's all light and inconsequential', he says. 'No jars of blood or bottles of angst', declares Frizzell in a recent manifesto. 'Not the dead baby school', says another. As for Killeen, let one of his titles speak - 'At last a happy, normal painting'.

Frizzell declares himself a 'light weight': referring (presumably) not to his work's aesthetic worth but to the weight of its content: no profundity, a light hearted art, the mock-heroic only. (in his Self Portrait as Serious Artiste, note that deflating 'e'.) And, with Chilcott, if some of his titles might suggest some painful performance, all anguish is contained, never allowed to escape its quote always deflected by irony. Similarly, what the rumpled unframedness of Chilcott's painting is saying is this: 'Look, I'm not really all that precious'.

GAVIN CHILCOTT A Summer Romance, Act II, The Broken Engagement
acrylic on canvas 1000 x 915 mm. (RKS Art)

This lot then are not among those who prefer to look on the dark side of life. They keep cool in their work. They stay detached by so manipulating their images that the interest comes to be as much in formal relations as in content; or by using images of what already are well-known images, and so somewhat impersonal, even if personally liked; or by various levels and manners of irony.

Sixth, such painters have this in common: wit ' verbal and visual. It is seen in Frizzell's awful punning: Putting it All on the Lion, as he says; his A-fishil Art Exhibition; his Home is where the art is (exhibition title, 1981); in Hartigan's Little Lies (for falsies), Treasure Chest (for a big bosom); his Primary School: a school of chocolate fish, a prime food of that age, in the three primary colours; his Tell-tales of fish tales - his words and paint of all the pleasing colours of wit; in Killeen's witty juxtapositions, his sometimes self-deprecatory titles; in Chilcott's Bermuda Triangle Regatta; in Wong's dolphin flying above Rangitoto - there is a levity in all this.

DENYS WATKINS Morris Louis Staining Device
watercolour and ink, 490 x 360mm.

Sometimes the art of these painters is ironical about other art (Wong's wobbled Mondrian again). Or art conventions will be ironically treated: as with Watkins's Landscape Painter's Kit, where instead of a landscape we are offered the conventional gear to paint one; or his depicted canvases stretched before depicted landscapes, ironic about the very convention of landscape.

DENYS WATKINS Amunsden Finds the South Pole 1977
oil on canvas, 650 x 775 mm.

And may not even abstract shapes and colour seem ironical - Silly Shapes is the title of one of Hartigan's works. A lot of his shapes are shapes that don't seem to take themselves seriously, refuse to be so taken - jelly bean, Caspar the Ghost, doughnut, pillow, soft wobbly shapes, silly scatterings. While those shapes that aren't soft are made soft - cog, triangle or square. As for his colours - those of lolly scrambles or comics - they show all the happy unreality of the comic colour.

PAUL HARTIGAN Primary School
enamel on board, 471 x 460 mm.

Chilcott's colours, too, are often those of icecreams, or the pastels of a 'fifties bathroom. His lime green, say: it's hard to take it seriously, to call it profound. And Chilcott's patterns - so like 'fifties 'linoleum' (a word that feels like Hartigan's shapes) or 'fifties curtains, art moderne shapes, modernesque, as Hartigan would say - doesn't he feel for them an ironic affection?

PAUL HARTIGAN Tattoo Classique 1980
indian ink and watercolour

That brings us to the seventh and last thing: the discredited - a concern with images not normally called art, images of low art rather than high. Hartigan turns to the tattoo and graffiti (for the middle class the arts of louts and vandals); to such old girlie mags as may horrify bourgeois feminists; Chilcott and Hartigan to art moderne patterns of the 'fifties (not even then quite in 'good taste'). Frizzell celebrates the ordinary, has an affection for the banal, for comics, cartoons, the labels on tins, bubble-gum wrappers, commercials, jukeboxes, the songs on them, home-made or otherwise crudely-drawn advertisements. They offer to him, as to Hartigan, two gifts: their image and its mode of depiction at one and the same time. Hartigan turns to colouring-books; Watkins to Tin Tin books; and Wong to films, saying; 'The most potent contemporary art is not in the galleries but in the mass media'; Killeen to bookplates of tools, insects, pots, scientific illustrations, not art. For all of them, from non-art images come images of art.

PAUL HARTIGAN Landscape III 1975
enamel and mirroring on plate glass, 501 x 654 mm. (Collection of the Auckland City Art Gallery)

Nor are their materials those of (traditional) high art. Frizzell and Hartigan use enamel-house-painter's stuff, not art's; Wong paints on perspex; Killeen sprays lacquer on to metal, like a car-painter; Chilcott doesn't stretch his canvases properly, wanting them to look like 'battered side-show drop-cloths'; while even Watkins's medium of watercolour is not thought to be fit only for old ladies and children.

In summary: images; art about art; urban; an internationalist idiom; not neurotic, no anguish or angst; wit both verbal and visual; sources in the discredited - such things these artists share.

Their differences - those particularities that make them individual - will come clear in the hanging and in the catalogue of the Auckland City Art Gallery show in the coming year.

DENYS WATKINS Science 1981
gouache on paper 560 x 760 mm. (Collection of Paul Little and Tricia Scott)
 

Originally published in Art New Zealand 22 Summer 1981-2