Voyages into the unknown

By Greg O'Brien

An auction of four major Pat Hanly works is a reminder of how he was always questioning identity, writes Greg O'Brien

Pat Hanly: Becalmed Off Rangitoto: Pat and friends paddle home (early 80s).
Pat Hanly: Becalmed Off Rangitoto: Pat and friends paddle home (early 80s).

Sometimes a millpond, sometimes a maelstrom - and often both at the same time - the surface of Pat Hanly's paintings embody a number of voyages into the known as well as the unknown.

Fuelled by the artist's restless nature, his inquisitive mind and a constantly evolving technique, his paintings, from the 1960s onwards, set about expanding the territory of New Zealand art.

From the time of his first mature works, produced in London, Hanly's art was at once single-minded and freewheeling, often bringing together contradictory elements: lessons learnt from abstraction add from figuration, from Europe and from his early experiences in New Zealand.

Pat Hanly: Escape to Paradise (1960)
Pat Hanly: Escape to Paradise (1960)

In Escape to Paradise (1960) the painterly approach is surprisingly lyrical and muted, given the subject: pending nuclear apocalypse (and the faint possibility of salvation). In this allegorical work, painted at the height of the Cold War, the ark of Biblical tradition sails beneath a layer of anthropomorphic cloud-forms, atop which grows a Tree of Life (referencing Judeo-Christian tradition; also Chagall's well-known painting of 1948).

In Hanly's version, this is also the tree of knowledge - the fruits of which might lead humanity towards redemption or, more likely as it seemed at the time, its opposite.

An important work within the seminal Fire series, Escape to Paradise is uncharacteristically icy in colour and tone, referencing not only London in December but also the threat of a nuclear winter, which was never far from the artist's mind. In contrast, the other paintings in the series are cauldrons of blood-red, orange and blue-black, evoking hellfire and annihilation while, again paradoxically, also summoning the fires of poetic inspiration and imaginative rebirth.

The 1973 painting Golden Age is in a different key altogether. Here, Hanly is channelling and exploring another kind of fire - that of earthly passion, of hot-blooded, amorous youth. With a composition that might have been lifted from Playboy and visual effects courtesy of Scientific American, Golden Age sings a song of its time - the liberal, libidinous 1970s - while hinting at perennial states/subjects of love, desire and languor.

By the early 1970s, Hanly was looking to Warhol and Lichtenstein (with a backward glance to Pollock) for a new visual language. His burgeoning interest in screen-printing and graphic design was another factor in his evolving repertoire of discontinuous planes, flat-colour areas and bold outlines. The manner in which the enamels and oils were applied - dripped, poured, brushed and scraped back - was part of the ecstatic equation that lay at the heart of these sexually charged compositions.

Golden Age and Embrace (B) fizz and spark with the social as well as the artistic energies of the era.

Inspired by D.H. Lawrence, Tantric Buddhism and popular psychology, Hanly considered the sexual act a means of entering not only into the processes but the very structure of the universe.

With that in mind, his paintings of lovemaking explore binary principles of male and female, yin and yang. In Embrace (B), the embrace is not only between two lovers but also between order and chaos, the flatness of the painterly plane and deep, supernova-dappled space, between reality and illusion, between here and far away; now and forever.

The white outlines which, like ring-roads, define the boundaries of the human forms, also resemble auras. Hanly thought of them as halos, underlining his revisionist notion of the sacred within the physical, carnal realm.

For Hanly, a painting was always a stage upon which questions of identity were played out. "Who am I?" he asked in a number of self-portraits from the late 1960s. He explored that question in his imaginings of lovers surrendering their individualism to one another.

Pat Hanly: Golden Age (1973); enamel and oil on board.
Pat Hanly: Golden Age (1973); enamel and oil on board.

Later, in the 1970s, the Golden Age series became dominated by larger ensembles of characters: children, as well as men and women, all inhabiting wide-open, public spaces, rather than the bedrooms or gardens of his earlier utopian evocations. His vision of interpersonal and family relations had, by then, expanded into a far-reaching social vision of late 20th-century New Zealand.

Hanly's lifelong exploration of the hidden nature of things included many depictions of trees, flowers and inanimate objects such as chairs, telephones and vases. The 1973 painting Still 'Life', from the aptly titled Energy Series, is a hyper-still life, a teeming, electrically charged core-sample of the quotidian, lifted from the domestic environment. In this strangely nocturnal composition, cosmic power and vitality infuse the contents of a tabletop: a cabbage (reminiscent of Hanly's frizzy Einstein-hairstyle), apples, beans and a pepper.

Depending on which line of thought you follow, Hanly is either summoning forth the inner life of these objects or is projecting his own dynamism upon them. Either way, he unearths a maelstrom of psychic energies from his cast of unsuspecting vegetables, bringing them to a state of heightened, unprecedented life.

I was recently reminded how, when Hanly's drawing students sought his opinion on their work, he would nearly always remain silent, seemingly distracted. Then he would whistle softly through his teeth, a lackadaisical, tuneless sound. That was the only response they received. While that anecdote may imply a lack of generosity, the opposite was the case. Hanly was leaving the student - as, I would add, he leaves any viewer of his art - to make their own judgment.

Hanly's paintings are the most open of creations, invitations to experience new sensations, visions of here and now, and intimations of beyond. Whether evoking an amorous couple or vegetables from a Mt Eden garden, they explore perennial questions: how it is we exist in our own skins, and how in the world.

This essay was reproduced with permission from the Art+Object catalogue.


Auction

What: Important paintings and contemporary art auction

Where and when: Art+Object, 3 Abbey St, Newton, Tuesday November 26 at 7.30pm; viewings today and tomorrow, 11am to 4pm; Monday, 9am to 5.30pm; Tuesday, 9am to 2pm

- NZ Herald

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