Don Driver’s large-scale banner works are, like most of his output, complex, hybrid entities. Like all of Driver’s mature works, they display a compositional rigour derived from modernism’s radical fracturing of the picture plane, but also venture outside of these strictures, drawing in elements of the outside world through an assemblage process derived from the explorations of Robert Rauschenberg and, before him, Kurt Schwitters.
Vexillology is made up of six examples of Driver’s banner work. These pieces reflect Driver’s ongoing interest in the potential of wall-hanging works, building on the series of highly successful formalist abstractions produced during the 1960s and early ‘70s. Driver’s move towards soft materials and assemblage was perhaps borne out of frustration at the logistical issues surrounding the transport and handling of highly polished, technically precise modernist works, which are prone to damage and whose conceptual integrity is reliant on presenting a seamless, unbroken front to the viewer. However, choosing to transfer the methodology of his rigid, painted relief works into a medium that could be rolled and folded has the effect of completely changing the way the works are read. Suddenly, they are objects that hang, and that speak in the language of banners, flags or tapestries: objects that are traditionally carriers for meaning, signifiers of a group identity or a hegemonic power.
Patchwork is a significant example of Driver’s mastery of abstract composition, in which overlapping, painterly fields of colour are balanced by the inclusion of a cow’s skull with a ballcock and chain attached. These totems of agrarian New Zealand are reconfigured here, functioning both as a compositional element that draws the eye upwards and offsets the forceful central fields of red and yellow with a linear element, and as a wry Taranaki momento mori.
Elsewhere, Skin and Bone represents a different aspect of Driver’s practice, working much more sculpturally and giving precedence to the assemblage of found objects. This process tends to create works that tip the balance towards narrative and atmosphere and away from structure and composition, although Driver’s mastery of modernist image-making remains evident. Skin and Bones, as the title suggests, plays with the interaction between hard and soft, and between supporting, internal structures and flexible coverings. The bicycle tyre, which Driver would return to almost a decade later in 1991’s Mellow Yellow, frames a cow’s skull and jawbone, as well as a spade, a symbol of manual labour and, in this context, a rigid, inflexible “bone”—perhaps also evoking the idea of digging, exposing the “bones” of the country. Alongside these objects, an empty tubular sack hangs like a ghostly presence, its contents (bodily or otherwise) long since departed.
There is tension between the formal elements of Driver’s work—his knack for finding balanced combinations of forms and colours that create harmonious modernist compositions—and the symbolic readings inherent in his choice of materials, namely the discarded and found by-products of late twentieth-century material culture. However, this tension never works to distract or confuse the viewer, but rather opens new, fertile avenues of thought to be explored. In this respect, the questions posed by Driver’s work remain resonant and challenging today.