Hotere’s Brolite Works

by Andrew Paul Wood first published in Auction N˚3 catalogue, 3rd August 2016

Ralph Hotere’s brolite-lacquered, thinly-incised circle paintings say quite a lot about him as a formalist. As enigmatic as the artist himself, concrete readings have a habit of skittering off those immaculate surfaces.

Circles have a long history in art as a symbol of eternity, the universe, and in delineating inside from outside. To the artist, the circle represents a demonstration of skill. In Zen Buddhism, the ensō is a circle drawn in a single calligraphic stroke, signalling that the body can create uninhibited by the mind. Vasari tells a similar story of Giotto impressing Pope Boniface VIII by drawing a perfect circle in a single motion. Perhaps there is also a suggestion of Renaissance tondo. Circles appear in several of Hotere’s Black paintings of the 1960s, in most of the Malady works of the early 1970s inspired by the Bill Manhire poem, and in the Godwit/Kūaka mural (Auckland Art Gallery, 1977), commissioned for Auckland International Airport. There are Jasper Johns’ encaustic targets, and Kenneth Noland’s circle paintings, but Hotere was going for something altogether more perfectly finished, as precise as the grooves in a vinyl LP, and as polished as a sports car.

The high gloss finish of these works reflects Hotere’s fascination with cars, their finishing and detailing. Brolite nitrocellulose lacquer made luxury cars shiny and gives their paintjobs such luxurious depth. The circles were created using the same line-roller used to paint racing stripes, but attached to a compass (one must imagine the process looking a little like William Blake’s fantasy portraits of Isaac Newton and Urizen riffing off medieval depictions of a patriarchal God creating the universe).

Pīpīwharauroa, was painted in Port Chalmers in 1977. The title, blazoned as a framing device at the top and bottom of the image, is the Māori name for the Shining Cuckoo, whose call was believed to herald the arrival of spring. The title and the rich walnut and tiger-eye browns and honeyed golds connect it a handful of non-circle, highly linear paintings from the 1970s like Te Tangi o Te Pīpīwharauroa (Hocken Library, 1976) and Test Piece: Pīpīwharauroa (1977, formerly of the collection of Dame Judith Binney and Sebastian Black). The title of the Hocken Library work is the same as a waiata by Hotere’s father, Tangirau Hotere (1898-1982), which also inspired Colin McCahon’s 1974 painting of the same name, one of McCahon’s “answering harks” to a poem or another artist’s work, also in the Hocken collection. In much the same way as the Godwit/Kūaka mural was inspired by a Te Aupōuri Māori waiata also passed on along with his catechism by Hotere’s devoutly Roman Catholic father, and celebrates the long-distance migratory patterns of the Bar Tail Godwit, the circle in Pīpīwharauroa may represent the wheel of the seasons and ever-returning spring, but also the eternal human path from birth to death paced out against eternity. Part of the Godwit waiata also appears in another briolite circle work, Ruia Ruia, Opea Opea, Tahia Tahia (1977), indicative of the overlapping, rhizomatic whakapapa within Hotere’s oeuvre.

It was the Pīpīwharauroa waiata that Francis Pound suggested Hotere perform in the 2004 McCahon documentary Victory Over Death, describing the departed soul in the form of a shining cuckoo flying along Ninety Mile Beach to leap from Cape Reinga into the underworld beneath the sea. In effect the cuckoo is the equivalent of the dove of the Holy Spirit of Hotere’s Catholic upbringing, psycopomp and paraclete, suggesting the painting is a visual tangi and requiem, a meditation on death in the vanitas tradition. The flight of the cuckoo was also supposed to have inspired the first Polynesian pioneers to set forth from Hawaiki, following the bird all the way to Aotearoa New Zealand.

The square work is clearly of the same period as the portrait format work, perhaps a dry run, but the shape suggests a possible segue between Pīpīwharauroa and the earlier square Black and Requiem works. The formal aesthetic properties of square and circle are ancient and universal, the superimposition of the circular vault heavens on square earth with a faint Biblical echo: “And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth,” (Revelation 7:1) and a hint of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. It demonstrates how articulate Hotere’s austere formalism could be even without the addition of words; its deceptive simplicity rooted deeply and cryptically in two rich cultural traditions.

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