Outside the norm

By Adam Gifford

Award-winning artist John Reynolds talks to Adam Gifford about creativity, inspiration and how the best is yet to come
John Reynolds, pictured in his home studio August 2016, says most artists have talent, what they need is stamina.PHOTO Ted Baghurst
John Reynolds, pictured in his home studio August 2016, says most artists have talent, what they need is stamina.PHOTO Ted Baghurst

John Reynolds is tackling one of the big mysteries of New Zealand art.

What happened when Colin McCahon disappeared from the Sydney Botanical Gardens in 1984?

He's calling the project Walk With Me the title of a McCahon series, also echoing the title of Martin Edmonds' book on the same incident, Dark Night: Walking With McCahon.

He expects it to engage him for the next four or five years.

"I want to engage with those 28 hours when McCahon lost his mind. I want to describe those hours. I want to get the monkey off my back.

"I want to look at McCahon with distance. I want to look at McCahon from the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, and you can't do that unless you configure Sydney in there somewhere.

"So it's my way of having Australia, Sydney and that history looking back through the lost hours of a New Zealand artist on the cusp of his first major retrospective offshore.

"It brings together key themes for me," says Reynolds, whose own gestural mark-making and use of words can be seen to have taken licence from New Zealand's greatest painter.

Like Dark Night, it doesn't matter if his speculations differ from the facts, because McCahon's place in our culture means for many artists of Reynolds' generation he was someone who needed to be addressed.

"I am very pleased with myself for finding this point of research but it is putting me through sheer hell because I am now reading Oliver Sachs on the subject of hallucination and psychotic episodes so it is taking me in a different direction."

It's an example of the sort of strategy the artist pursues to keep his creative juices flowing and perhaps even to maintain his relevance within New Zealand culture - though that is for others to determine.


Part of it is bloodymindedness. You keep doing it, you put up with the slings and arrows. And part is selfishness. You require a lot of time to make art
John Reynolds

Reynolds has exhibited extensively both locally and internationally and has received a Laureate Award from the New Zealand Arts Foundation. When he started the project he saw it as photography, but that's changing.

"I am trying for it not to be painting but it keeps wanting to be painting and it probably will be painting," he says. "There will be the usual Reynolds' tropes but I hope it behaves differently."

Reynolds found critical success relatively young.

He left Elam at the end of the 1970s after essentially teaching himself, as was the state of the art school at that time.

After a few months looking at art in New York and elsewhere he returned to a city where studio space could be rented relatively cheaply.

"You didn't make art with any expectation you could sell it. You made art because you had to."

To pay for the studio and painting time he set up Auckland's first late-night espresso bar, John's Diner. Julian Dashper, who shared the studio, drove taxis. They held joint shows in the studio.

"At one Julian famously wouldn't let Dick Frizzell in. Dick was so pissed off," he says.

T he diner opened in July 1981. The Springboks had just landed, the heavy hand of Rob Muldoon lay across the land, and Reynolds found himself a target for police scrutiny for offering something outside the grey norm.

He remembers the palpable sense of fear of friends and patrons as they prepared to go off to protest, and sees it as a time not just of political but of cultural change, a reorganisation of the New Zealand psyche.

"The great thing and why I have great optimism about New Zealand is we are such a small culture that a moment like that was swallowed, masticated and spat out and we understood we weren't going to do that any more. Even the police culture eventually changed."

Eventually Reynolds found enough work as a photographer for magazines like The Listener and Metro to support a studio himself.

It was a far cry from what's taught now about making a career in art.

"Art in a larger sense is a speculation. We are all trying to pursue something ineffable, desperately hoping certain level of support coalesces around our particular set of enthusiasms and there is merit in what you are doing, because you literally can spend decades pursuing something the wider community sees little merit in, yet you have invested attentions and ambition in it. That is the fate of the artist."

Sharing studios early on laid the ground for a lifetime of collaborations.

"Maybe because I'm from a large family, I have never had strong sense of narcissistic self. I have always understood if you go into project with several voices it is an accelerated opportunity for discovery and innovation.
"If you pander to your own strength it tends to get repetitive and diminishing in value.
"I often watch filmmakers and musicians with both horror and jealousy, because they often so depend for their art on a collective ambition.
"I have been lucky working with printmakers, sculptors, with photographers. I have worked with a lot of people and still do."

He says making art is a constant negotiation around degrees of anxiety about performance, ambition, opportunity.

The question of success is harder - he likes to quote Chilean writer Roberto Bolano's maxim that "success is no virtue, it's just an accident."

"He doesn't mean success in business or political terms but in creativity - it is an accident if your work happens to find an audience and even if that audience happens to celebrate it in your lifetime."

He's wary of the desire in the wider community to have artists demonstrate talent.

"I think we can presuppose artists have talent. What you need is stamina.
"There are a lot of very talented people who walk away from it.
"Part of it is bloodymindedness. You keep doing it, you put up with the slings and arrows.
"And part is selfishness. You require a lot of time to make art.
"One of biggest things I discovered is when you start having children, it kicks a big hole in your ability to be selfish.
"One of the things you are charged with as an artist, one of the things the culture is prepared to keep looking for, is if you are still asking yourself certain questions, if you are challenging yourself.
"If you're just going to muck about in public, the public will move on."
Reynolds says the artist can be sensitive to public reaction but should not be bound by it - often it takes the public years to catch up, and work that was derided may be the stuff that is sought out in later years.

"There is no contract between artist and viewer, everyone is on their own. That is why it is interesting."

Reynolds turned 60 in July, and says being an artist is getting easier.

"Once a certain degree of turning up has occurred, you get a sense of what you are prepared to take on, what has value, and that it is a genuinely valuable undertaking and worth investing your time in.

"All the artists I admire hit their straps in their 70s, 80s and 90s, so all I have to do is hang on a couple of decades and I believe might be able to make a contribution."

- NZ Herald

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