Full Circle
Paintings by Melvin Day

RAY THORBURN

Walking into Melvin Day's recent survey exhibition at the Wellington City Art Gallery was like taking a long, cool, refreshing drink. Long, because the work in the show represented fifty years of consistent development. Cool, because of his low-keyed, uncluttered vision and economy of means. Refreshing, because his approach is very much a contemporary overview of past traditions.

Day is an academic painter in the truest sense. In 1934, while still at primary school, he began attending Saturday morning art classes at Elam School of Art. From the outset he had to conform to stylistic conventions that aimed at drawing still life with the tonal precision of Rembrandt and Titian, and ended with more of the same, with intermittent breaks to study anatomy and perspective in the mode of Leonardo.

MELVIN DAY Maori Meeting C. 1947
tempera on card, 450 x 355 mm.

Elam Art School during A.J.C Fisher's regime was founded on draughtsmanship. All Day's teachers were passionate disciples of drawing and modelling. From John Weeks he discovered Cézanne and learned about simplified form and cubic structure. Tonal modulation was also emphasised by Ida Eise, who was a student with Weeks at Elam. Likewise Lois White (another ex-Elam student) further instilled a respect for the discipline of painting - but also stressed that art ought to have a social conscience. All of these influences were later to manifest themselves in Day's own painting. That early training at Elam, far from proving restrictive, paved the way for a particularly fertile career that, while not deviating much from its genesis, never foundered or became repetitive. Each series was a new development built on old ground. It has produced a body of work firmly grounded in the academic tradition that sometimes paused to reflect, but never stood still. Melvin Day's work is characterised by five qualities: consistency, economy, control, growth and vision.

Because his work has been so faithful to its roots, it is necessary to sketch a background. Following art school and war service, the young artist settled in Rotorua and in 1946 met Dr W. S. Wallis, a keen amateur painter. They became firm friends, shared a studio and discovered a common admiration for the modernist views of John Weeks, which in post-war Rotorua amounted to heresy. At that time cubism did not exist in New Zealand; nevertheless under Weeks's spell, Day's imagination was fueled.

MELVIN DAY Still Life with Lamp c. 1938
oil on canvas, 525 x 350 mm.

As a consequence, his work between 1946-49 was directly influenced by the cubist style - sharply angular shapes enclosing a busy network of patterns that, because of their severely restricted sense of space, looked strikingly like a patchwork design. Titles were even more confusing: for example, Maori Meeting (c. 1947), which has a vaguely discernible resemblance to traditional Maori weaving patterns. Almost forty years later, the Courtyard series (c. 1984) with their similar angular divisions and delineated structure attest to Day's single-minded purpose. In 1949, starved of first-hand contact with modern art, the artist left for a year in Britain and Europe - a trek many other young New Zealand artists were to do for the same reasons. For Day this was a milestone in his career. The Cézanne exhibition in London fulfilled his wildest expectations and cemented his interest in that painter's analytical approach to form. Surprisingly however, the colour of Gauguin and Matisse, on exhibition in Paris, had little effect; although a visit to Spain did.

For a while on his return to New Zealand, Day flirted with Spanish subject - matter: but it was the earthy sun-scorched textures of Spain that emerged in the form of a series of heavily-encrusted textural paintings based on the close observation and analysis of decomposing matter. This exploration in the 'fifties corresponded with the explosion of post-war abstract expressionism in America. Day was seduced by the wriggling, darting calligraphy of Mark Tobey, with whom he exchanged letters. The late 'fifties produced a series of works titled Microscopic, in which subject and content were heavily encrusted abstract shapes that, although outrageously flamboyant (for Day), nevertheless were always well contained within a darker edge that surrounded the texture like an extra frame. Hence the expressive action was always tied to a compositional anchor. This exploration was inexorably leading towards a coming together of a number of strands: his sense of form and structure; rejection of depth as a spatial device; a limited palette; and his new interest in surface treatment.

MELVIN DAY Still Life with Fish and Figs 1983
oil on canvas, 1190 x 1500 mm.

Degree studies, firstly at Victoria University (1955-61), and a return visit to London in 1963 to study art history at the Courtauld Institute, were important growth points. On the one hand, formal study reaffirmed his long-standing interest in modernism, which in turn led to a reappraisal of the academic convention of painting, first learned at Elam, A final link was that the Courtauld experience kindled an interest in the past, particularly in the writings of ancient scribes on the walls of tombs and in manuscripts. When woven together with the other strands, the tapestry of ideas was complete. This interface of ideas and experience defined the parameters of Day's aesthetic vocabulary, and provided a language which for the next twenty years was constantly to reveal a hidden world of relationships and a personal vision that created new meaning within established conventions. If (judging from this exhibition) the pre-Courtauld years were Day's formative years, then the post-Courtauld period, including his return to New Zealand in 1968, signalled a new confidence introduced by the Uccello series, which synthesised all the strands into a single version.

A seminal example is The Attempt to Destroy the Host (large version) (c. 1969). This painting clearly illustrates the artist's predilection for the laws of compositional analysis. Many Renaissance artists were deeply interested in geometric principles. Day found in Uccello and other Renaissance painters a structural reference which provided a means to include words with pictorial images. The architectonic 'U' shape, although dominant, is an excuse it seems to expose the compositional proportions. The 'U' is really only a coat-hanger on which to drape the alphabet. The Uccello series are an important confluence of ideas in the exhibition that in 1971 lead to a further exploration of word, picture and proportion in the Piero della Francesca series.

MELVIN DAY Tabula (Microscopic Series) 1959
oil on canvas, 560 x 680 mm.

The mathematics of the Uccello and Piero series in turn became a referent for Triumph, a series of works that originate from an analysis of the rhythmic tension in Mantegna's paintings of crowd scenes. The feet belong to topless people marching from right to left across the picture-plane but doomed to getting nowhere it would seem because they are imprisoned within a strong box, which metaphorically cuts them off from the land. The more I looked, the more I was ensnared by a sense of foreboding violence. The Triumph series was painted in 1980.

The Triumph series however is about universal suffering. Titles like Bearers of Power; The Action; The Triumph the Land are painted on the picture and serve to heighten the sense of horror. Yet, like all Day's paintings, the Triumph works are timeless. The words are Shakespeare's - spoken by Marcus in Titus Adronicus - but the imagery is as much about today as it is of Caesar's time.

MELVIN DAY The Attempt to Destroy the Host (large version - Uccello Series) 1969
oil on canvas

An earlier painting that is a pivotal work critical to the artist's growth is Sky, Land, Sea (c. 1974). Unfortunately it was tucked away to one side, crowded under a canopy of stairs. Consequently its significance is not obvious in relation to the rest of the exhibition. However, this small work commanded a presence that belied its scale. Obvious were the classical proportions overlayed by a band of earthy texture that separated the upper and lower elements into three horizontal planes, with the words, Sky, Land and Sea demarking the areas. Without the words the painting is completely abstract, almost naively simple, an ingenuous understatement that in a tiny area sums up the past and introduces the representational landscape series to follow. Sky, Land, Sea is a visual metaphor that brings the painter's sense of classical and modern together. Nobody can live in Wellington and escape the dramatic interplay between land, sea and sky. It is an intimate exchange between elements - sometimes violent, more often than not calm and gentle, yet always seductive. After returning from overseas, Pat and Oroya Day settled in Seatoun, a stone's-throw from the beach. Across the harbour, framed against the sky, are the Orongoronga Ranges, a band of hills that sit on top of each other as in a Chinese watercolour.

If the works in this survey exhibition are any guide, then it was the move to Seatoun that completed the artistic cycle - a cycle that began at Elam, found true meaning in Europe, and developed into a detached yet unmistakably New Zealand landscape. Abstraction gave way to literal form; crusty textures became land surfaces; the carefully modulated ochres and prussians captured the mood of the harbour. Yet, although the painting is representational, the order and scheme of events remain true to Cézanne's dictum that true meaning is exposed only once you have stripped the landscape of superfluous detail.

MELVIN DAY Wellington Harbour (Nga Rerengo) 1980
oil on canvas, 1520 x 2440 mm. (Collection of T. Bellette, Wellington)

In Day's Wellington Harbour paintings, which he began in 1972 and developed into a series in 1980, it is as if he had cut through the land like a knife through a layer cake. Again, we get a reaffirmation of his interest in structure. The monumentality of these landscapes is due not to their content, or even their large scale, but is dependent on what is not there. They are classical examples of understating detail in order to maximise the effect of form.

The final series in the chronology was a return to still life painting - which is where Day began. The latest series marks a return to cubic structure and the geometry of Cézanne's still lifes, where the objects are reduced to signposts that map out the composition.

MELVIN DAY The Triumph the Land (Triumphs of Caesar: Mantegna Series) 1980
oil on canvas, 1515 x 1215 mm.

Melvin Day's career has never wandered away from his academic roots: he has remained true to his training in the theory and practice of art. His art is a natural outcome of his experience. There is an abundance of evidence in the Full Circle survey to show that this artist's work has constantly moved forward. His direction has been mapped by his continual searching and analysis of past eras. The outcomes are unique and evolutionary and this exhibition has unlocked ancient doors and provided fresh insights for those who cared to savour them.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 32 Spring 1984