Great feats of strength

by Jamie Hanton / 01 October, 2015
Artist Marian Maguire’s latest work examines the psychology of difficulty – which, in the aftermath of Christchurch’s earthquakes, is all too appropriate.
Herakles Takes Up Dairy Farming
Herakles Takes Up Dairy Farming. Art/Marian Maguire

The lonely figure of Sisyphus, boulder at hand, makes his way up the hill again. As with all Greek myths, the struggle depicted is universally relatable. And in Christchurch artist Marian Maguire’s most recent series of paintings and prints, Feats, Pursuits, and Endless Toil, which recently closed at PG gallery192, Sisyphus – caught in monochrome profile – seems set to become a kind of poster boy for the two-steps forward, one-step back rebuild plaguing the city.

He joins Ajax and the burden of grief, Atlas holding the weight of the sky and Herakles wrestling the lion in a series of large paintings. An exhibition consisting of some of the same characters, Wrestling, opens at Bowen Galleries in Wellington this month.

Merging the transcendent with the local is a mode that Maguire has been developing since her 2002 series Southern Myths, a pictorial adaptation of the Iliad set in the South Island. Her highly accomplished prints of classical Greek figures mixing with characters from Aotearoa’s history have made her a favourite of European scholars of classical reception studies – that is, how the classical world has been received in post-classical societies. “They see me as a live example of how ideas around classical texts are still evolving.”

Merging black-figure painting with early scenes of New Zealand produced by some of the first European visitors, as well as toi Maori, Maguire explores the way in which cultures are written and overwritten.

Sisyphus And The Rock
Sisyphus and the Rock. Art/Marian Maguire

Her 2008 series, the Labours of Herakles, is in the midst of a four-city European tour. In the series, Herakles is depicted as a colonial pioneer attempting to single-handedly prepare Aotearoa for settlement. Maguire captures both the absurdity and poignancy of culture clash: at one moment, the lion-head-capped protagonist comically ushers a cow across the foreground of Charles Heaphy’s iconic representation of Mt Taranaki, and Herakles is surprised by Maoris who were driven off with Heavy Losses references the cold-blooded machismo of mercenary soldier and painter Gustavus von Tempsky’s glorified self-portrait, British Camp Surprised by Maoris.

The travelling exhibition marks a significant moment of circularity for Maguire. “Interacting with Europe is really valuable, as the work is fundamentally about this interaction.”

At Leeds City Museum, close to Captain Cook’s birthplace of Marton, Maori artefacts and Greek and Roman representations of Herakles were displayed alongside Maguire’s prints. At Cambridge’s Museum of Classical Archaeology, the series was displayed next to plaster casts of ancient Roman and Grecian marbles.

Maguire says it is highly likely the colonial artists who travelled to New Zealand would have used similar casts as drawing models in their artistic training. “Their experience of the scenes and people from New Zealand was based on classical forms and conventions.”

In Munich, where a mini-symposium will be held on Maguire’s work, the exhibition will be staged in the Antikensammlung’s Exekias Room – filled with some of the great ancient potter/painter’s finest attic vases.

Exhibiting her prints in this museological context introduces another set of historical relations. Maguire describes colonisation as “the destruction of another culture”, so this return of the colonised will provide new points of entry for viewers already familiar with one side of the multifarious narratives she deals with.

The museum becomes a place to look through a different lens, especially in England and Germany, which have distinct colonial histories. The provision of space for contemplation and examination is something Maguire understands from her parallel role as co-director of the recently reopened PG gallery192, formerly Papergraphica.

Founded in 2000 with partner and fellow artist Nigel Buxton, and situated in a classic Canterbury villa, Papergraphica was a mainstay of Christchurch’s arts ecology before the first earthquake struck in September 2010. It reopened five weeks after the February 2011 quake, but they found that with a deserted central city, gallery visitor numbers dropped dramatically.

“Of those who did come in, most weren’t able to completely engage with the work.” She adds that interactions all centred on the repercussions of the seismic activity. The gallery then closed for repairs and remodelling, reopening in March.

Although inextricably connected to Maguire, the gallery is completely separate from her practice and output as an artist. There is, however, no doubt that working through this ongoing trauma could be considered a feat, a pursuit and endless toil, and has contributed to her latest body of work – which examines the psychology of difficulty.

Working to counteract this, Maguire says the gallery is about the creation of a community of both artists and viewers. It is great, she says, “to be offering something to other people” that could add an extra hand to a very weighty boulder.

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