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Ralph Hotere: An intimate darkness

His work is a descent into the unknown, the mystery at the heart of both art and life.

Ralph Hotere, photo/Ross Coombes

Great artists don’t have careers; they have lives. Everything Ralph Hotere set his hand to bore the mark of the artist’s life in the fullest, deepest sense. Rather than follow a narrow, prescriptive path, his work encompassed a panoply of human experience. Sure, there were failures and misdirections along the way; this wasn’t the manicured, stage-managed trajectory of a career artist. He was in this, boots and all, and for the duration.

From the early expressionistic oils to the late minimalist iron works, Hotere’s art offers an account of his loves and dislikes, his elations and his indignations. As a painter, he is capable of great fury – witness his PolarisBlack Union Jack and Black Rainbow works. His art can smoulder and brood; it points accusingly at those who abuse power, yet often in the space of a single work can simultaneously strike an introspective or elegiac note. At other times, he can be euphorically romantic and decidedly amorous (as is demonstrated in Kriselle Baker’s 2005 book The Desire of the Line: Ralph Hotere Figurative Works). His reds can be as sensuous as they are cataclysmic.

Hotere’s art took him places. From the rural Northland of his childhood to the Education Department, where, by the late 1950s, he was a Bay of Islands-based arts adviser, producing, on the side, his own gritty, agitated landscapes, still lifes and figure studies. At the Central College of Art in London during the 1960s, he explored new approaches to painting, moving beyond the expressive brushstroke to incorporate dripping, pouring and mechanical ways of applying paint. His trajectory away from the conventional canvas would lead eventually to painting on everything from tarpaulins and corrugated iron to demolition timber and beer crates. This was never, however, simply a question of formal experimentation or boundary-pushing – for Hotere, it was a matter of life and death. Often the loss of family or friends would provide the jolt to inspire radical artistic developments – as was the case with the 1963 Sangro series, inspired by a visit to the grave of his brother Jack, who was killed in Italy during World War II, and the Requiem series he painted in memory of a friend, composer Anthony Watson (1933-73).

In the narrative of Becoming Ralph Hotere, 1969 was a watershed year. Awarded the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago, he moved from Auckland to Dunedin. Otago would prove to be his “favourable furrow” for the rest of his working life. Based at Port Chalmers and then Careys Bay, he set to filling a range of old houses, warehouses and even a deserted BNZ with finished and unfinished works.

Dawn/Water poem III (after Manhire) (1985)

Through its phases, Hotere’s work returned to the formal/conceptual question of the human being in the natural world – aka the figure-in-landscape. Increasingly, he used installation and sculptural approaches to place the viewer in the landscape: notably, in his collaborative work with Bill Culbert, Pathway to the sea, an installation that could be described as an orchestrated walk through time and space – a metaphysical set-piece constructed from paua shells and fluorescent tubes.

Artist John Reynolds was first to link Hotere’s work with his other landscape-based love, the game of golf. In both cases, Reynolds wrote, Hotere was “making parabolas” and inhabiting “a landscape with holes in it, and numbers and names”. Caddying for him at the Rotorua Golf Course in 1999, I was struck by the fluidity of Hotere’s movement as he approached the tee, swaying as if to some imagined music. Then, samurai-like, with lightning speed and precision, he advanced and struck the ball. No doubt the golfer’s arsenal of woods and irons was a natural fit for an artist who worked with all manner of wood and wood products – both recycled and purpose-built – as well as with just about any kind of iron he could lay his hands on. Hotere’s art also reflects a golfer’s acute sense of space and distance and a delight in being out in the elements, attentive to the human company as well as the physical environment. Like Reynolds, after seeing Hotere on the golf course, I felt I had just attended a painting masterclass.

As was the case with his friend Colin McCahon, Hotere’s art slowed during the last years of his life. A stroke in 2001 ended a remarkable decade in which he made such strident iron works as If and important collaborative works with Mary McFarlane and Culbert. Hotere had also had an incredibly productive decade with his printmaking, working with Marian Maguire at PaperGraphica in Christchurch.

For many viewers, Hotere’s work is memorable for its incessant darkness. It probed and interrogated the colour black, mining it for nuances, tremors of meaning. As well as alluding to the darkness of Maori and Western creation myths, the darkness in his art carries intimations of mortality; it is a descent into the unknown, the mystery at the heart of both art and life. To these associations, poet Bill Manhire once added that Hotere’s blackness was also an acknowledgement, a celebration, of the warm and intimate darknesses of his home environment and the familiar night sky.

Early in 1997, I had an encounter with another kind of domestic darkness while visiting Hotere’s house at Careys Bay. My curatorial mission was to locate a number of paintings for the Out the Black Window exhibition, which was to open shortly in Wellington. Hotere had left a note on the kitchen table asking me to call his cellphone regarding one particular work. He was on a golf course in Hawke’s Bay when he answered my call. Receiver in hand, I was instructed to head down the corridor and into the spare bedroom. The painting was, he said, somewhere under the great, duvet-laden bed; he remembered seeing it there about a year earlier.

Black Window (1983)

The fact that a few decades’ worth of art had been jammed into that dark space made matters less than straightforward. I pulled a few things out. A Black Painting. Some framed drawings. Amazing works. Revelatory. But not what I was looking for. Soon I was flat on my chest, floundering around in the dusty darkness. With telephone in hand and the artist’s voice in my ear, I pushed onwards. “You’ll find the painting,” he assured me. “It’s there somewhere.” Finally, my hands came upon an old wooden frame … a hardboard work, lacquered … I described it, blindly, to him. “That’s the one,” he said, relieved he could now resume his golf. Back in the light of day, I recognised the poem painted on the appropriately dark and dreamy work – it was Manhire’s “February, May and the birds of ice …”

Later, I came to think of my archaeological foray in the spare bedroom as a faint echo of Hotere’s working process as an artist who had spent his life extracting meanings, messages and songs from the darkness of this world. For anyone willing to grapple with it – and, like all great art, his works are seldom easy or straightforward – his art offers such an experience: a lifting of poetry from the most ordinary situations, a pulling of radiant wonders from out of the blackness.

Click here to read tributes to Ralph Hotere from many of his friends and contemporaries.