T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Birth of a nation

A collection of powerful works provides an insight into the transformation of New Zealand art late last century.

Michael Illingworth, A man and a woman, 1986. Photo / Supplied
Michael Illingworth, A man and a woman, 1986. Photo / Supplied

From the 1960s onwards there was not so much a renaissance of art in New Zealand but a true naissance, a sudden birth of confidence and brilliant achievement in painting and sculpture.

Once this cultural movement was under way a number of corporations, public and private, added to their prestige by gathering collections of paintings. Fine collections were made. Some are now dispersed. Some lie forgotten in bank vaults.

One collection, the Rutherford Trust Collection, excellent of its kind, is on show at Pah Homestead in Hillsborough. It was established in 1988 as part of the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand's (ECNZ) commitment to "encourage and enhance New Zealand's cultural life and heritage".

The trust was named after Rutherford House, the headquarters of the ECNZ for many years. The ECNZ was broken up by the Government in 1999 and the last addition to the collection was made in 1997.

Pah Homestead is showing 60 works selected from the 140 or so that made up the total in the trust.

A few are pre-war paintings but most make a worthwhile guide to the history of New Zealand art in the last decades of the 20th century. The quality is outstandingly even and the great gain is that many of the paintings, often familiar from books, can be seen in their real size with their unique qualities of texture and colour.

A typical group is in the lobby at the top of the stairs. The huge Looks Good, by Philip Trusttum, remains as energetic as ever, with a faultless sense of colour. Nearby, Buck Nin, whose work was inspired by the Waikato Heads, shows a dark underground; above are the comings and goings of the world under a vast sky. Like many of his works it divides into past, present and future. Nin was an outstanding painter whose work has somewhat slipped from view since his death.

A vigorous abstract by Don Driver uses simple materials in a diagonal, decisive way to divide sky and earth, space and substance. In 1969 such a plain yet strong abstract work was almost unprecedented here. The show also includes a heavily textured, intensely coloured work by Robert McLeod, long before he began to paint his twisting, satirical figures.

The largest part of the collection spreads through all the downstairs rooms. All the big names are there. One of two paintings by Colin McCahon showing Muriwai reminds us he was not all black and white but used colour superbly to reinforce his symbolism. One is a watercolour where we sense enlightenment falling from a turbulent sky. A very early painting of Dunedin by Don Binney shows houses, something he seldom did later, and the familiar birds do not just hover over the landscape but meld with the land and the harbour in a remarkable way.

As well as surprises there are reminders. A screen by Robert Ellis has the same motifs incorporating both Maori and Pakeha beliefs found in his grand design of the tapestry that graces the foyer of Aotea Centre.

The painted screen has the added expressiveness of the rich handling of paint. Wildly expressionistic handling transforms something as ordinary as an occasional table with vase and flowers into an emotional statement in the hands of Phillip Clairmont. Expressive, direct handling gives a rugged strength to the hills and the windy sky in Toss Woollaston's Kina, from Harleys Road, a painting much more tightly organised than is usual in his work.

Almost everywhere you can sense a great feeling of confidence. Some of the earliest work - the painting showing floods in Hawke's Bay by Rita Angus and a charming work by Frances Hodgkins of empty drums and a barrel - for all their quality, seem very quiet by comparison.

For sheer attack nothing quite parallels the huge painting by Max Gimblett. Its quatrefoil shape is so large it could only be hung on the stairs. Its rhythmic, arching forms are done with authority; underlying colours add extra life. Combining energy with an evocative, meditative shape, it is a high point of his style.

The cafe is home to a walloping big work by Mark Braunias titled Black that shows two All Blacks and a big area of pure black. A big passionate work by Allen Maddox is tucked away by the back stairs, perhaps because it still scares curators even now by its sheer audacity.

A wonderful painting by the very special talent of Pat Hanly of a bride dancing for joy and a quiet husband waiting is a special source of delight.

The most emotionally touching of the show is a small piece by Tony Fomison that brings white and brown, adults and children, together in Holy Families.

On the whole, the works from this period are more joyous, though perhaps more purely decorative, than the work being done in this new century but it is also without the unease, disillusion and biting irony that characterise a lot of art today.


At the galleries:

What: Selected works from the Rutherford Trust Collection
Where and when: Pah Homestead, TSB Wallace Arts Centre, 72 Hillsborough Rd, to June 23
TJ says: A corporate collection that comprehensively shows the surge of confidence and the grand achievements of painting in New Zealand in the final decades of last century.

- NZ Herald

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