Books (2)

by Guy Somerset / 24 May, 2008

Art appreciation for young New Zealanders has come a long way from when Gregory O'Brien was a schoolboy in the 1970s. "I went to Sacred Heart College in Auckland, which I guess you could say was a school that really liked its rugby. Really, really liked its rugby," says the poet, writer, curator and - easy to forget after all the preceding - painter. "The art room - I'm sure it's moved now, but in that era it was right next to the toilets. It had a concrete floor, it had a bad odour. It wasn't treated with any respect."

Art is treated with much more respect these days, both in schools and in New Zealand as a whole. But it could still benefit from a nudge, and O'Brien's book Welcome to the South Seas: Contemporary Art for Young People (AUP) was just such a nudge when it was published in 2004, going on to win the prize for nonfiction at the following year's New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children & Young Adults and to be reprinted three times.

The success of Welcome to the South Seas has enabled O'Brien to make a farther-reaching survey of our art history with the publication this month of Back & Beyond: New Zealand Painting for the Young & Curious.

The book is written in the same chatty tone as its predecessor, with the same favouring of respectful playfulness over piety. "I guess the whole thing is saying relax, really. You don't have to have some overly informed, intellectual response to art. If you think it looks like a balloon, it looks like a balloon!"

O'Brien guides his young - and older (the only requirement being, as the title indicates, curiosity) - readers through more than 200 years of painting, making connections ("kids love making connections - there's a lot of little threads going through this book"), making juxtapositions.

"With Welcome to the South Seas, I wanted to open up the whole idea that contemporary art could be anything. To get people used to the idea that art could be Tupperware on the floor. I wanted the book to be a hymn and praise to the New Zealand imagination as it's going in all directions now.

"The job of Back & Beyond is to get rid of another kind of myth, that all New Zealanders used to be dull and pragmatic and practical, and to go back through the last couple of hundred years and actually find the pictures that are quite imaginative, quite strange, quite outside the ordinary, breaking the rules.

"I like to think that if these books do anything, they lift the lid off art and make you realise that it is a force for positive energy, in the Len Lye sense, and for new possibilities and new ways of seeing, more complicated ways, enriched ways of living where we live."

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