Painted in 1973, Kyrie Eleison is the product of a period in Hotere’s career in which he revolutionized the way that he made images and established the model which would be the foundation of his future practice. Until about 1969, the pictorial content of Hotere’s paintings had primarily been abstract in nature. The artist’s highly acclaimed Barnett Newman-esque paintings in brolite lacquer on board both preceded and overlapped with the making of this Kyrie Eleison, which includes similar pictorial elements to these works. Its sonorous background and pinstripes of black and blue mirror the imagery of the brolite paintings; however, in this work they have been applied in a looser, more painterly manner.
While stenciled text was a common element of Hotere’s practice in the early 70s, Kyrie Eleison is somewhat unique in the specific text that it features. More often than not, his paintings featured words borrowed from his contemporaries—particularly poets like Bill Manhire and Hone Tuwhare. This work however, uses text that is taken from various Roman Catholic liturgies. The most prominent phrase, Kyrie Eleison, which is used repeatedly to form a motif, is an ancient Greek phrase that translates as “Lord have mercy.” The hand-written text at the top of the painting—executed in both cursive and capital letters—is a rendition of the words Requiem aeternam, which can be translated, ‘Eternal rest unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.’
The combined use of text and concrete abstraction seen in this work became a hallmark of the way in which Hotere worked throughout the 1970s and 1980. However, in the latter part of the 1970s, his use of colour became brighter and his paintwork was populated with residual markings such as splatter and drips. In the 1980s, the way in which he applied paint became more gestural and his choice of text became politically motivated. In contrast, this painting sees Hotere approach his subject matter in a manner that is both restrained and reverent. In Kyrie Eleison, he executed both the text and concrete elements in such a way that they can only be made out through careful inspection. In doing so, Hotere ensures that reading the work has the side effect of requiring a close examination of its physical properties on the part of the viewer.
Hotere was born in Mitimiti and was of Maori descent. However, he would later receive a secondary school education at Auckland’s Hato Petera college, a catholic institution. Hotere’s knowledge of Catholic liturgy would certainly have been informed by this experience and thus the presence of such texts in this painting reflects his Euro-centric education. The dominant ochre tone of the painting’s background, on the other hand, speaks to Hotere’s Maori heritage. Ochres of a similar nature have been used throughout the course of 20th Century New Zealand art history in order to reference Maori decorative arts, for instance, in Gordon Walters’ gouaches of the 1950s and Shane Cotton’s oil paintings of the 1990s (which were made after this work). Kyrie Eleison is very much a reflection of Hotere’s upbringing and it is a testament to the society of which he was a product. It is a visual reflection of histurangawaewae and quite literally describes the spiritual grounding on which his identity was built.