Book review: Hanly

By Peter Simpson

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Pat Hanly's moral and political stance and his preoccupation with the human figure remained themes throughout his work. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Pat Hanly's moral and political stance and his preoccupation with the human figure remained themes throughout his work. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Ron Sang's big, chunky, square-format art books are distinguished by the number and high quality of their colour reproductions. In Hanly, for instance, there are 190 full-page colour plates, 98 smaller images and 52 photographs; by far the largest selection of his work yet available.

Sang's books deliberately emphasise pictures rather than text, but in Hanly there is a rather better balance between word and image than in some earlier books. The ubiquitous Gregory O'Brien provides the main essay, with his usual intelligence, good-humour and empathetic understanding.

He is ably supported with short texts by some of Pat Hanly's closest friends and associates. John Coley writes about the early Palmerston North years when the apprentice hairdresser morphed into an artist; Quentin Macfarlane recalls art school days in Christchurch when Pat and Gil Taverner (as she was then), first got together, as part of the legendary Armagh St gang of artists and students, that included Coley, Macfarlane, Dick Ross, Bill Culbert, Trevor Moffitt, Hamish Keith and others; expatriate Kiwi film guru Ross covers the crucial five years the Hanlys spent in London and Europe.

Finally, Hanly's first Auckland dealer, Barry Lett, contributes a fascinating piece about working with the artist on some of his major mural commissions, including those for the Christchurch Town Hall and Auckland Airport (resplendent in gatefold fold-outs). Numerous photographs also leaven the mixture, including some marvellous shots of Pat and Gil from the 1960s by Marti Friedlander. A useful 16-page illustrated chronology ends the book.

Naturally talented from the start (his teacher Bill Sutton said that even as a student he could draw like an angel), Hanly developed rapidly in London with his Fire and Showgirl series, the first reflecting Cold War politics and the nuclear threat of the early 60s, the second drawing on his backstage job in a Soho strip club. Two themes that stayed with him emerged in these series: his active moral and political stance and his preoccupation with the human, especially female, figure.

Back home in 1962 the Hanlys settled in Mt Eden, attracted by a freshly vital art scene in which Colin McCahon, Peter Tomory and Hamish Keith - all associated with the City Art Gallery - were leading players.

Much activity in that zestful decade centred on the Barry Lett Galleries, opened in 1965 with Hanly's Girl Sleeping, a series preceded by the fabulous Figures in Light, which offered (along with Mrkusich and Walters) the strongest new directions in local painting since McCahon's innovations. Both series are strongly represented with both familiar and unfamiliar examples.

In 1967 Hanly endured a personal crisis that led him to destroy most of his Pacific Icons (only a couple survive in this book) and undertake the drastic experiment of painting blind in a darkened room, from which he eventually emerged as a stronger painter whose direction was now sure. The flat colours of earlier paintings gave way to Hanly's trademark pour and splatter method, in which paint application techniques related to American abstract expressionism were combined with firm outlines of figures and objects, ranging from embracing couples to common objects such as the telephone table figuring as the book's cover image.

With William Blake, Hanly believed that "Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy". Also, "everything that lives is holy". His best paintings successfully embody this creed.

Through the 70s and 80s Hanly oscillated between the scintillating organic abstraction of the Pacific Condition paintings (closely related to the vast and now dispersed airport mural, Prelude to a Journey) and the highly figurative images (man, woman, baby, star, bird, kite, etc) of the majestic Golden Age paintings - perhaps his strongest series.

A welcome feature of the book is that plenty of attention is paid to his activities outside painting, such as his stylish etchings and screenprints, on the one hand, and his collaboration with son Ben and daughter-in-law Suzanne in adapting some of his images to stained glass. This fine book enables us to see Hanly whole.

- NZ Herald

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