Vivian Lynn: Extricating Form, 1969-1984, is an exhibition curated by Christina Barton, opening at Bowerbank Ninow in September. This exhibition brings together a selection of drawings and prints by Vivian Lynn that show her technical facility with her media and also offers an insight into the personal visual language that she has developed over the course of her seven decades as an artist.
A crucial element of Lynn’s work is her engagement with feminist ideas. Although she resists being labelled as a “feminist artist” or a “woman artist,” preferring that her status as an artist not be contingent on such labels, Lynn’s practice critiques the social and cultural constraints placed on women in Western culture. These works ably demonstrate her career-long effort to find form for her gendered subjectivity; to give free rein to her difference. Specifically, according to curator Christina Barton, Lynn’s work examines “the codes, systems, structures and hierarchies that condition women’s lives and define them in relation to male-centric norms.” Barton identifies the works included in this exhibition as demonstrating Lynn’s concept of an “ecology of the erotic,” that seeks to “unsettle and reorganise” societal and institutional taxonomies. In this regard, the feminist language Lynn developed in her works decades ago has a particular resonance now, especially in the context of contemporary debates about the politics of gender.
The works included in this exhibition consist of several groupings: etchings from 1969-71, her 1976 Erection series drawings and two large (over one metre square) graphite works from the 1984 Wounded Garden series. These works come from a pivotal period in Lynn’s work, after her abandonment of painting in 1968 (despite her considerable talent), which she determined was too freighted with a history dominated by patriarchal values. Her adoption of print as a primary mode of production was intended as a way of distancing herself from the male-dominated expressionist discourse associated with the “painterly” qualities of brush strokes. The prints, drawings and collages that she produced subsequently are among her most recognisable and well-known works.
In Lynn’s print Apparatus for Continuous Culture, the artist appropriates a scene from the Edo period scroll Heiji Monogatari emaki, or the Tale of Heiji, showing the “Night attack on the Sanjo Palace.” The section of the scroll that Lynn refers to here, held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows a chaotic riot of soldiers armed with swords and bows, horses, overturned carriages and palanquins and, in the central portion, the Sanjo palace itself engulfed in billowing flames and smoke. Lynn recreates this scene as a tangle of biomorphic body-forms, placed in tension with one another as a way of critiquing the patriarchal celebration of war. By rendering this heroic narrative of battle and masculine strength into an abstracted tapestry of pattern and line, Lynn reconfigures and neutralises its violent nature.
In this and other works, Lynn seeks to move away from the canonical formats of landscape and portraiture, inherited from the academic art tradition of 19th-century Europe, intending instead to develop a visual language that addresses the body in a more universal way—in effect, treating the body itself as a landscape. The prints she produced using this methodology recall the energetic, highly charged abstractions of Stanley William Hayter, which combine elements of biomorphic surrealism with an abstract expressionist approach to form and line. For Lynn, print is a medium that, thanks to its ability to create a palimpsest of overlapping layers, offers her a way to represent what she calls the “mesh” of the world, the “whole ground of being.”
In Tête-à-Tête, the lines between landscape and figure are likewise blurred. Lynn presents a group of phallic forms perched on what appears to be a kind of cross section through a landscape, floating in a blue void that suggests the sky. Beneath these lividly coloured organs, a cluster of more softly rendered forms, reminiscent of vaginas or mouths, rest like specimens in a cabinet. These biological remnants, divorced from their bodies, take on a strange personhood of their own; discarded into this epistemological void, they generate their own obscure colloquy. Lynn’s work demands from the viewer a willingness to enter into these kinds of intellectual transactions; to look deeper, and to unpick and deconstruct the underlying assumptions of cultural norms in a way that remains fresh and compelling.
With only one monograph, published on the advent of her 2008 Adam Art Gallery retrospective exhibition I, HERE, NOW, Vivian Lynn’s practice remains under-explored and under-represented. However, engagement with this artist and her work offers rich and valuable insights into the development of contemporary art practice in New Zealand; few living artists possess a body of work that, while grounded in 1950s’ modernist principles, proceeds through the decades to incorporate (or, in some cases, prefigure) elements of conceptualism, postmodernism, installation and social practice. Lynn’s development as an artist mirrors and critiques the evolution of contemporary practice, offering a sometimes fierce, always pointed commentary on the history and culture she has inherited.