Most guests at the opening of an exhibition in Whangārei didn't have the stomach for an astonishingly brutal statement made by artist Douglas Chowns on the night.
Chowns quipped that he doesn't have any stomach at all so didn't share the sensation evoked when he took a knife and made deep cuts in every canvas in his exhibition, 1994 Enduring of Suffering.
In fact, it was while he was in hospital and later in recovery for months after having his stomach removed 18 months ago that Chowns came up with the plan to make a ''social realist'' statement about his social realism artworks.
Don't call it a symbolic act, Chowns insists, it was real act.
While no canvas was left unravaged by the knife, this was not a frenzied attack. Every cut, every placement, was carefully executed and had been planned well in advance.
Chowns did not run amok with a knife, as initial reports suggested. In a dignified, leisurely but purposeful manner he led the guests from painting to painting, adding the ''finishing touches'', those cuts.
''There are no accidents here,'' he said.
One of the slashes, a perfect arc across the belly of a nude male, is placed at the exact site as the incision for Chowns' gastrectomy.
''I am left with a great sense of one thing ending and another starting,'' he told the Advocate. ''This is rebirth, a new beginning.''
1994 Enduring of Suffering possibly needed closure. It features 10 paintings Chowns originally finished and showed in 1994 in an exhibition of the same title. That original opened 25 years ago to the day and even the hour of the Reyburn House opening on Wednesday, May 1. May Day, or "Beltaine", is the beginning of the Celtic calendar, a new beginning.
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At an address to a small audience at Reyburn House earlier this week, Chowns spoke of his career as a ''creative artist'' - art school, then the heady, obscenely decadent advertising art world of the 1960s. Charles Saatchi, one of two brothers who founded the world famous agency of the same name, ''was still a barrow boy'' when Chowns was already an art director, he said.
''Advertising was a very creative scene, where the new art was happening. It was not marketing which is what you get these days, mainly following the American style.''
In his teens, he was heavily influenced by the famed Bushey Artists School, whose mentors included Vincent van Gogh and painter, film director and composer Sir Hubert von Herkomer. Herkomer was also the founder of the Bushey Museum, in which hangs a drawing by Chowns.
Commercial art was at the cutting edge of design when the young man who "grew up in the shadow of the Royal Caledonian School in North West London'' entered the world of advertising.
Flared pants, pink shirts and floral ties, promoting the fashions and brands behind the rich, famous, glamorous, bohemian, decadent — in Spain, Portugal, Caribbean, New York and London's too, too, toney Mayfair — Chowns flew nearly 10,000km a week, trouble shooting for agencies.
But, at only 35 years old, he had been creative director at several elite international ad agencies and was over the novelty of flying to Switzerland for lunch and back to the office for afternoon beaujolais.
"I was at the top of my game when I threw it all away and we [he and his late wife Meg] moved to New Zealand.''
Here life was slower, and wide open. Chowns worked in several artistic fields, including textile design and screen printing, while continuing his painting and drawing.
The audience with Douglas Chowns was titillated to hear about several famous and infamous associates from the past.
''I don't like to name-drop but sometimes you can't talk about the orchard without mentioning the apples.''
One of the apples was beautiful, fiery Assia Wevill, who once worked as a copywriter in the ad agency where Chowns was art director. Wevill later became the wife of British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes whose first wife, the acclaimed poet Sylvia Plath, committed suicide by gassing herself.
Wevill, for whom Hughes was a fourth husband, also killed herself and her sleeping 6-year-old daughter by the same method six years later.
Chowns is one of the people who knew Wevill who are quoted in the biography, A Lover Of Unreason: The Life And Tragic Death Of Assia Wevill, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.
It's one of many places Chowns' name turns up in print. British writer, poet, art critic, curator, broadcaster and author of exhibition catalogues Edward Lucie-Smith even dedicated his book Race, Sex and Gender to Chowns - which, due to some art world sexism actually, Chowns now considers akin to being damned with faint praise.
Even though he's slightly reluctant to be labelled a scholar and intellectual, Chowns has had his own papers in print many times, has featured as an artist or writer 30 times at least in New Zealand Art magazine, and been the subject of a radio programme.
The Bushey "social realism'' influence has always pushed his creative boundaries, and he also relates to, aligns himself with, social realists philosophers from long ago, such as Denis Diderot, from the French 18th century Enlightenment period.
Nine days after Chowns cut his paintings open to expose the pain, and in a way free them from their own enshrinement in Art, Chowns wrote: ''Since the opening of my exhibition and some serious fantastic reactions from people, press and friends, I am yet riding a big wave. Many were shocked, stunned or overwhelmed.
''Myself, I know that Denis Diderot would have approved of me. Hopefully my works transcended and are now 'something else'. At this later stage, 68 years since becoming a professional artist, that is very important to me.
''I assure you my decision to finish these works dramatically was decided almost a year ago in hospital after experiencing a total gastrectomy. My entire stomach was taken out, the cancer that would have killed me by last May removed, hence rebirth!
''This body of work is not about money, it is a homage to my Meg and to those who suffer, and will continue to suffer. It is about hope. Life is too short to waste or abuse.''
As for that night, Beltaine, a significant date for a man who expresses his life and art through his own Celtic heritage and scholarship, there was more ritual at play than the artist's careful knifework.
In accordance with Celtic tradition to retire tools used on a special project, as with, for example, the chisels used in the making of the Whangārei Library plaza's Celtic pou which Chowns oversaw, he set about ensuring the end of craft knife used to ''finish'' 1994 Enduring of Suffering.
Chowns sat on the floor of the Reyburn House gallery and broke the knife, then walked across the lawn to the Hatea River and threw the parts in the water.
''Few saw the lovely woman's hand and arm rise from the black Hatea river to catch the broken knife blades as I threw them immediately after the ritual slashing,'' he joked.
An extract from an essay by Kenneth Adams, a graduate of the Elam School of Fine Arts (Honours), art, graphic design and photography teacher for more than 40 years, and retired to Whangārei.
I am a long term, artist friend of Dougie Chownes.
Perhaps a brief explanation may help others to understand what lies behind the violent, emotionally disturbing actions taken by the artist. I attended the opening but I had no forewarning of the events that evening.
Like others of his generation, World War II shaped the person and the artist. After the war, time spent as an art director in Portugal and Spain acquainted Douglas with the trials and tribulations of local people and the immense suffering they experienced from wars with France, Germany and a Civil War in Spain.
The Endurance of Suffering works were originally gathered together for an exhibition in Northtec's Geoff Wilson Gallery. Douglas' late wife Meg Mairhead McDairmid Chowns wrote in 1994: "Douglas wishes to reach so far that people will say of [his] work - he feels deeply, he feels tenderly - not withstanding so-called roughness, perhaps even because of this."
Following the exhibition, the paintings lay virtually unnoticed in the artist's studio in Mckenzie Bay, but the wars have continued. Since WWII, the American military alone have been responsible for the deaths of between 20 to 30 million people in 37 countries.
Listening to the artist talk, these last few years there has been a growing sense of helplessness, despondence, that he and other artists had been unable to prevent the ongoing slaughter, the art entirely impotent.
As he wrestled with the issues of a wasted creative life, his Celtic heritage appeared to offer a possible solution. At the opening, understandably, I too recoiled from the violence before my eyes. Like everybody else I have been told countless times to respect and stand back from artworks, absolutely NO TOUCHING.
In dismay, as I watched, the artist's slashes began to form a pattern I knew to be linked to him, the slight curve of a smile mirrors a large scar on his torso from recent surgery, other slashes referenced specific motifs in the paintings and I began to understand that, unbeknown to me, I was a participant in finishing his lifetime's creative work. It all started to make sense.
Reflecting on years of frustration and repressed anger, Douglas completed the process according to Celtic tradition, by smashing his tools and then throwing them into the sea. The artist could finally find the peace he had sought for so many years, job done, job finished, period.