Never mind the Pollocks

by Andrew Paul Wood / 26 February, 2005

The CoCA exhibition Point and Line to Plane brings together a strange collection of artists linked only by medium and general formalism. Painters Philippa Blair, Simon Ogden, John Reynolds and André Hemer are stylistically quite different and it's hard to discern why they have been put together in this way.

Blair, who is based in the US, studied at Canterbury University's School of Fine Arts under the German eccentric Rudi Gopas. Gopas was also a major influence on other neo-expressionistic painters like Tony Fomison, Allen Maddox and Philip Clairmont. In the 1960s and 70s, Gopas introduced to New Zealand art the expressionist idea that the inner creative powers of expression were more important in painting than formal theory. Art was, for him, the concrete manifestation of human empathy.

Expressionism lies at the heart of the Canterbury tradition of painting. The movement matured in Germany, evolving out of post-impressionists like Cezanne and Van Gogh. The German artists emphasised emotions through the distortion of perspective, colour and shape. Then the Nazis brought their jackboots down on it because they saw it as decadent/Semitic/homosexual/etc and not at all German (ignoring that many of the principals of expressionism came from the German romantic art and literature they so adored, and the German renaissance master Grunewald). Expressionism relocated to the US where it became abstract expressionism, the dominant US style, in the hands of artists like Pollock and De Kooning. Everything else was seen to be kitsch.

Abstract expressionism sought to create a transcendental aesthetic experience independent of needing to relate to everyday human life. With that in mind, Blair is less a follower of abstract expressionism than a devotee to a kind of romantic existentialism alive with bright Californian colour and harmonic relationships. Like Richard Diebenkorn's work, there is also the ghostly hint of something figurative lurking in the blobs and swirls. The secret life of blobs is the thing; this is not an ironic postmodern pastiche from Richter or Polke, nor is it a hyper-intellectual kinesthetic exercise in recording movement through paint like Klein or Frieze. The rhythms seem almost musical or architectural.

The Royal College of Art-trained Ogden teaches painting at Canterbury. His work seems to follow one of the philosophies that came out of modernist painting in the mid-20th century: that the logical progression of painting was to unite Picasso's line and form with Matisse's rich colours. Areas of colour and line dance with occasional expressionistic bursts of vigour, although the inspiration seems founded very much in the proto-cubist still lives of Picasso and Braque - meditative yet energising work.

Hemer is a painting student at Canterbury. His is a postmodern take on the expressionist tradition. The gestural brushstroke is there, but as one copied from a painting program on a computer. This method finds its origins in Duchamp's readymades in the early part of the 20th century, mediated by pop art (particularly Lichtenstein's comic-strip parodies of Pollock's ab-ex drip).

Still, the thing that stands out like a sore thumb is the Reynolds. This is definitely one of the Auckland artist's more mediocre works: one of those marker-pen-on-paper pseudo-McCahon "Stations of the Cross" things. In general I like Reynolds, particularly the philosophical and grid-based works, but this piece seems tokenistic compared to the visceral and intellectual effort apparent in work by the other participants.

Curatorially, this show is well intentioned, but not well thought-out. There is no real relationship between any of the artists or their works. Like all human beings, I like to be told a good story, and that should be a curator's job.

POINT AND LINE TO PLANE, Centre of Contemporary Art, Christchurch.

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