The unpretentious post-punk artwork of Tony de Lautour

by Sally Blundell / 28 August, 2018
Tony de Lautour in his studio in 2015. Photo/Holly Best

Tony de Lautour in his studio in 2015. Photo/Holly Best

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The collegial works of Christchurch artist Tony de Lautour get a gallery and print retrospective.

“I’m not trying to produce great operas on canvas,” said Tony de Lautour in an interview in 1995. “I don’t want the work to be pretentious in that way. Paintings used to be made for people who couldn’t read.”

For close to 30 years, the Christchurch artist has followed a path that is explorative, funny, insightful, restive – never pretentious. As Christchurch Art Gallery curator Peter Vangioni writes, he is not one to “rest on his laurels or seek to be embraced by the art market”.

Straddling six large rooms in the gallery, the current retrospective of his work, curated by Vangioni, is a big, sharp, capacious exhibition, a must-see mid-career reckoning that many would say is long overdue. Us V Them (the title is taken from an LCD Soundsystem song) traces a restless trajectory beginning in the 1990s with paintings of brawling kiwis, mangy lions, snakes, skinheads and the love-hate and lightning-bolt argot of prison tattoos. This is the b-side of identity politics, a lowbrow, snarling subculture translated through the fine art tradition of oil painting.

Many of these figures are evident in the later revisionist works – extant landscape paintings re-visioned to include the snakes, smoking mountains and truncated forests of a debased Arcadian dream. In his stylised mountain landscapes, subsumed into the shape of corporate logos, he targets another deceptive dream, that of global capitalism.

Leave Her and Us V Them.

De Lautour’s Us V Them and Leave Her.

From around 2006, he moved towards abstraction: unstable towers of colour, shape and geometric typographies are given extra resonance as de Lautour, now a parent, watches his young daughter corral lines and shapes into letters.

This is, of course, an over-simplified arc. One of the strengths of the book accompanying the exhibition, is its identification of the ongoing themes and motifs that continue to reappear in de Lautour’s work. It has a strong collegial feel. Vangioni places the artist in the post-punk garage-band scene of Christchurch in the 1990s, in an I-was-there catalogue of second-hand shops, bars, artist studios and rehearsal spaces. “This was a seedy neighbourhood,” he writes. “You wanted to watch yourself at night.”

Giovanni Intra’s essay Journalism, from the catalogue for de Lautour’s Bad White Art exhibition in 1994, is included in the book and places the artist in the context of the author’s doctoral research – American white trash art, relayed in an endlessly self-referencing and disjunctive analysis of the artist as an impressionist “in tune with a very pongy world”.

De Lautour’s Pink Eye.

De Lautour’s Pink Eye.

Curators Lara Strongman, Alice Tappenden and Zara Stanhope attend to more analytical concerns in Us V Them. Strongman records de Lautour’s “stockpile of cultural materials” – the objects and motifs that repeatedly colonise his work. Tappenden deconstructs the overplayed figurative/abstract pre-earthquake/post-earthquakes binaries that have become attached to his career as she writes, “de Lautour’s early works were tinged with a sarcastic, slapstick, boyish sense of humour, which has not disappeared overnight.” Stanhope draws lines of influence to the cartoonish renderings of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Philip Guston and the clean lines of abstract artists Kazimir Malevich and Theo van Doesburg.

The final chapter is a transcript of an email conversation between de Lautour and fellow artist Peter Robinson. It is an excellent and enlightening finale in which two graduates of the Ilam School of Fine Arts mull over art-school tutors, cult B-movies, post-punk bands and gallery curators.

Although the Japanese-style stab binding does not make for easy viewing of the images, Us V Them is an idiosyncratic but important line in the sand, charting almost three decades of de Lautour’s work.

US V THEM: TONY DE LAUTOUR (Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, $39.99). The exhibition is on until September 16 at Christchurch Art Gallery.

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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