Acts Of Inclusion
The Spirit of Philippa Blair's Painting

CHRIS PARR

People get very excited by the physical part of my work, the energy and colour, but deep down it's the spirit of it that matters.
PHILIPPA BLAIR1

The bright colours and vitality of Philippa Blair's paintings are the obvious starting point for a discussion of her art. For one thing, they make for immediacy of impact - an appeal which draws the viewer very easily into the work. As important, though more likely to be overlooked or misunderstood ' is the spirit which that vitality implies.

Looking at Blair's paintings, one is struck by the abundance of colour and marks, the apparent references and sheer physical activity involved. For example: the complexity of Battlemat/Redskin is true to its compound name. The rough, unframed canvas is dyed fiery red - a 'red skin', that indicates clearly the artist's interest in Red Indian culture, and suggests such things as blood, desert-sand, sunset, ritual and sacrifice. Plenty of movement is implied in the zones of colour and arrows (themselves multiple signs); and there are such motifs as wiggle-lines for water, hearts, and the tenuous presence of a little tipi - the Indian's all-too-temporary home made itself from skin (the 'red buffalo').

PHILIPPA BLAIR Battlemat/Redskin
mixed media on canvas

Then there are calligraphic strokes, and dotted lines implying cutting marks (to destroy the painting?), stitch lines (to sew the skin/painting), or boundaries, as in an archaeological dig. To put all that together is an act of inclusion which reveals, I suggest, the essence or spirit of Philippa Blair's art.

'Spirit' is a tricky word in the contemporary context: but Philippa Blair uses it deliberately, drawing in its several meanings. Like her, I take it to refer at times to the psyche or unconscious (as when Ray Castle comments on the 'occult' feel of her Last & First Café display), its 'leaps' from the recognisable to the deeply mysterious. Also it refers to the religious impulse which she sees as being 'an affirmation of life, with the knowledge of death' (a viewpoint expressed in her insistence that 'the point of making celebratory art is the joy of still being alive when your life has been so grim'); and more simply, to the stance adopted towards actions, the 'spirit' in which they are done. The spirit of inclusion, then, is the desire to respond comprehensively to the abundance of things, sensations and relationships in life.

Yet such inclusiveness goes somewhat against the trend of dominant art movements in the last twenty years, which have increasingly concentrated on minimal form and unadorned image, attempting to cut away the superstructure of human interpretation and 'significance' to get at a naked perception of 'the thing itself'. Within their own work some of our best artists (Gretchen Albrecht, Rick Killeen, Neil Dawson) trace this sort of process. Philippa Blair remains closer to the earlier mode of Abstract Expressionism, and instead takes up another possible direction: to make discoveries, not through isolating things but by seeing them together again, by exploring their intricate associations. The themes and motifs (ladders, colours, tipis, crosses and so on) which fill her prints and paintings are forms heavy with emotional and psychic resonance as well as physical presence. By rediscovering their place or role in the world, the artist can explore the fullness as well as the fragility of life.2

PHILIPPA BLAIR A Man's Tent is like a God's Temple
acrylic on canvas

In her accompanying statement for the Packapoo exhibition Blair emphasises her focus on inter-activity, and the importance of subjective experience:
Not 'things' but psychic structures, subconscious states of feeling association buried and revealed in a state of concentrated 'performance'... Calligraphic marks, personal hieroglyphs, webs, weaving, dance... the mind seen as cosmic factor...

Such art is flexible, rather than doctrinaire. Illusion and ambiguity, playfulness, and a provisional stance which allows each painting to be modified and extended by others related to it - these are key features of her work: along with a deep respect for any art, especially (as we shall see) Rafael Ferra and Amerindian art, which manages to be both spirited and spiritual.

The strategies of Philippa Blair's art are explicitly expressionist. Its references are often autobiographical and almost always subjective, bringing particular friends, places and journeys into the works. There is also a fondness for gesture, for improvisation, and for working fast, intuitively:
I'm very interested in direct no-nonsense expression and implication by that one mark, rather than constantly building up and rubbing out.

To be successful these painterly concerns depend to a large extent on a sure handling of colour and line, and the Packapoo prints and recent tipi paintings in particular give ample evidence of both. Her paintings regularly entail broad zones of bright colours with lines or marks which the artist has 'tracked' across the painting, and her most common motifs are distinctly structural - giving her works geometric design, but rendering them as hand-made spontaneous gestures, a response to a specific occasion and not merely to formal demands.

PHILIPPA BLAIR Morning Star Tipi shown open
painted canvas and wood

The expressionist urge also underlies the importance of process in Blair's work. Many of the subjective elements and motifs are derived from drawings kept in exercise books: rapid sketches of images and events from her travels, sometimes accompanied by lists of words recording ideas and sensations she also wants to catch in her paintings. The paintings and prints are then created back in the studio, working out and compressing emotions which, as the Romantic poets put it, are 'recollected in tranquillity'. The progression from notebook sketches (and more recently photographs) to drawings and then paintings, screenprints and etchings emphasises the process, within the works, of discovery and accumulation.

The Robert Motherwell quotation which precedes her Packapoo statement indicates the importance of this process of discovery in Philippa's art:
Implicit is the feeling not that l'm going to paint something I know, but in the act of painting I'm going to find out.

Hence the untidy, spontaneous, hand-worked appearance of her paintings, with their dense surfaces and composite images. Her expressionism is itself inclusive: the act of painting reveals an accumulation of experience and response.

Over the last ten years process has been essential, too, to the sequence Blair's work has followed, as her techniques and motifs have evolved through various painting series. For instance, the thick black bars, images of foreboding, in the John Lennon series from Travel Collages (1981) recall the black zones that appeared in Long Letters (1978), and also the black blinds and zebra crossings in the ironic Soft Ladders series a year later (not to mention a bow to Motherwell's bold black strokes). The bars, blinds and ladders then look forward to her recent Palm Trees with their long black-and-white trunks. To appreciate Blair's paintings it helps to have some idea of her past work; and to be willing to participate in this play of association, allowing the resonance between past and present images to build up.

Three points in particular have been important in her work's process. The abstracts of Hello Yellow (1978) were created at a very grim time in her personal life, and the 'convulsive' radiance of yellow, stained or painted on long dark canvases made a defiant declaration of hope. The series also involved a conversation with the act of painting as Philippa experimented with priming the canvas differently, dyeing, sewing bits on or painting stitch lines, and so on. It remains a key point to which she often returns. The 1980 Packapoo exhibition (at RKS Art) with its grids and colour zones, gaudy tones and calligraphic strokes, marked a new simplicity and confidence. The paintings, earlier and less resolved, were not fully successful, but the screenprints are luminous, majestic and quick - her most impressive examples of pure abstraction. Since then Blair has moved towards more figurative references, and the exhibitions which followed her 1981 trip to America and Europe are the third important point. Travel Collages USA were made on huge sheets of photographic backdrop paper, crammed with references to flags, 'consumer rubbish', John Lennon's murder and Reagan's inauguration, over red-white-blue-and-black splashes of paint. They convey a tumultuous energy, soaking up rather than digesting America. The Pools Mats Tents and Tipis series, although containing a couple of excellent paintings, tried to combine too many ideas at once: but it has contributed the two main directions of her newest work. Both draw on experiences of America.

PHILIPPA BLAIR Morning Star Tipi shown folded
painted canvas and wood

The first, growing out of the 'Hollywood pools' pieces in that last series, are bright pool-and-palm-tree canvases, four of which comprised her recent display/installation at Auckland's Last & First Café.3 With their exuberantly summer-yellows party-pinks and sea-green/blues decked with glitter, they are carefree, even frivolous. Zebra crossings have now become palm trees, and by extension ladders (of dreams, of status), which on canvas are soft and therefore don't work. In one corner of the display are piled broken wooden ladders, which pick up a more serious feel in the paintings: but overall it is visually playful - and quick.

The second direction, the tent and Indian paintings, originates from 1977 when, in London, Philippa was deeply affected by the Sacred Circles travelling exhibition of American Red Indian and Eskimo art. About that same time she was working on a formal demand:
I've always wanted to get the painting off the wall, and to use a structure - to make a group of things on the floor which were both painting and sculpture.

Treated in this way the canvas becomes associated with skin, fabric, and coverings, and the connection between the tent shape and the Indian tipi, which she studied carefully while in America, is easily made. For her June exhibition, however, she only had time and energy to do paintings of them firing off four 6' x 6' canvases in as many days. In the process she decided to fold the top corners like tent flaps, an innovation which allows the exhibitor to participate in the painting, altering both the shape and colours at will. And despite her reservations about them, they are remarkably rich and vivid.

PHILIPPA BLAIR Packapoo Dance Variration
screen-print

Further encouragement came from her discovery of the work of Rafael Ferra, a Puerto Rican artist who befriended Robert Morris and Leo CastelIi and then launched a spirited attack on minimalism. His coloured sculptures melding primitive and high-tech materials, and his chaotically vivid hangings, challenge with their vibrant tribal eclecticism the asceptic, compartmentalised approach of recent New York and minimalist art. Philippa's recent paintings are also increasingly combining the folded canvas with rudimentary figurative images and three-dimensional elements. Morning Star Tipi, for instance, can be hung either opened out or with the sides folded forward like a sheltering cloak or tent - its three black-and-white poles on the floor in front creating an ambiguous but resonant relationship between painted canvas and sculptural objects. She sees this piece as a summary of her painting to date. The small cross at the top left is the Red Indian symbol for the morning star: and opening, dawn, and birth are all implied in the shapes and colours of the painting; while the black triangle of the tipi's 'interior' is flecked with packapoo calligraphy, expressing what Philippa calls 'the personality of marks (in Chinese, characters have characters)'. Though more subdued and contemplative than usual, Morning Star Tipi is certainly one of Philippa Blair's most complex and remarkable paintings. It also demonstrates that the attraction of Red Indian culture has to do directly with the spirit of inclusion, drawing together complex and disparate elements of life.
I am really interested in the world of ideas, which is an international thing ... And the wholeness of the Indians' absorption with the elements is what interests me ... What moved me the most about Indian and Eskimo art was the intensity of their images, and the beauty and the care, and the respect they gave their raw materials.
The real influence of the Indian is that to them a person is a whole person, not just material - they're spirit and body and mind, as a whole thing, a unity.

1. This and all following statements by Philippa Blair are taken, unless otherwise indicated, from a series of taped interviews between artist and writer during November and December 1982.
2. Charles Altieri in his study of post-modern American poetry Enlarging the Temple has coined the phrase 'Process as Plenitude' to characterise the positive sense of the abundance of life found in that poetry: this also encapsulates the expressionist, inclusive and affirmative spirit of Philippa Blair's art.
3. The title Blair was originally going to give this installation, It's The Spirit That Really Matters, is in fact more suited to the Indian paintings. In the end she chose a title more in keeping with the playfulness of these images: Spot the Palm.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 26 Autumn 1983