Leo Steinberg, in his 1972 book Other Criteria, argues that the works of painters in his time—he cites specifically Jean Dubuffet and Robert Rauschenberg as examples—had since 1950 been moving away from an upright picture plane that corresponded to the vertically oriented field of human vision. Instead, he saw in Rauschenberg’s omnidirectional sprawl a new kind of “flatbed” picture plane, which was “no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes,” having completely removed itself from the realm of the natural world to that of culture.1
Steinberg goes on to say of Rauschenberg that “it seemed at times that [his] work surface stood for the mind itself—dump, reservoir, switching center, abundant with concrete references freely associated as in an internal monologue.”2 This compelling description of the linkage between the handling of a work’s surface and its descriptive or semiotic content could apply equally to the collages in this exhibition. It could be argued that the major innovation Driver introduced to New Zealand art was just this kind of reconfiguration of the picture plane from a simulacrum of the human visual experience, top corresponding to head and bottom to feet, to an informational or procedural field. In such a “flatbed” space, the relationships between the various parts of the image are as likely to be thematic or procedural as spatial and are certainly not concerned with concepts of illusion or depth.
The collages in this exhibition show Driver operating just this way. His creativity is of the combinative, connective kind, setting up dialogues and associations between the disparate elements he assembles. Likewise, his eye for structure and composition is offset by the idiosyncratic, eccentric and sometimes perverse choices he makes regarding his materials. This is especially evident in his collage works, where he samples a bewildering and obscure array of printed material, ranging from movie posters to beer advertisements, and from images cut out of glossy magazines to degraded, black-and-white photocopies drawn from unknown sources.
In these works, Driver sifts through the detritus of popular culture, a beachcomber trawling the tides of cultural ephemera as they wash ashore. A recurring theme is the extent to which mass-produced advertisements and other media are representative of essential human drives and desires; with very little manipulation, Driver draws the viewer’s attention to the primal forces of hunger, death and sexuality encoded in his source material. However, these works are far from being dour or polemic; Driver endows his creations with an idiosyncratic sense of play and exploration, lending them their own obscure spark of life. Here, as in his assemblage works, Driver shows an intense interest in how tribalism, magic and ritual simmer under the surface of the everyday and the banal; he is an archaeologist of the present, an exhumer of remnants and vestiges.
A connective theme in many of these works is a concern with the idea of sight and perception. Often, Driver presents visages with their eyes obscured, frustrating the natural human impulse to take in a face eyes-first, matching vision with vision. Denied this easy access to the celebrities, models and nameless passengers who populate these works, the viewer is forced to consider their fragmentary, flattened forms as compositional elements or semiotic units. This is a key feature of Steinberg’s reading of Rauschenberg, which I feel applies equally to Don Driver: an equivalency between what Steinberg terms “concrete references”—things that exist in the real world and point to information external to the work—and formal compositional elements that work to make up a picture plane, albeit a “flatbed” one.
The pleasure of Driver’s collage works is derived from their looseness, and the sense of freedom and possibility they embody; it is possible to watch him working through his ideas, exploring and unlocking various combinations and permutations. Although his practice was exploratory, these works are not studies or preparatory drawings, but fully-realised meditations on the fluctuating tides of cultural malaise in the late twentieth century.
1 Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (University of Chicago Press, 1972), 84.
2 Ibid., 88.