Robert Ellis, Georgie Hill and Laurie Steer offer three disparate approaches to artmaking, but their works share a comment theme, in that they comment on change and uncertainty. Together, these artists offer a vibrant picture of the way New Zealand art has changed and adapted over the past half-century, and the way our artistic heritage continues to inform contemporary practice.
Georgie Hill’s abstract works are executed partly through a process of incising grooves and channels into the paper that direct and contain paint, leading to works that are in equal parts paintings and constructions. According to the artist, “my titles suggest predictions or approximations of future events … patterns and systems, trends and prophecies … channelling both a collective anxiety for and a reimagining of the future." These works are about the way rational systems are imposed on complex, chaotic realities, and the gaps that can arise between map and territory, projected outcome and subjective experience. Blending references to art history, science fiction and technical diagrams, Hill’s works function in part as instruments, dream-world diagnostics for transcendent systems of thinking and seeing that resist interpretation.
In Adaptation Sequence, a verdant green background of luminous watercolour serves as a background to a luminous array of red, yellow and blue incised lines. The lines change colour as they cross the seemingly-random boundaries of the watercolour forms, suggesting a kind of responsiveness or reflexivity, forming an adaptive system. Indeed, Hill’s work seems to comment on the way many aspects of contemporary life are conceptualised in terms of systems, not objects or ideologies: processes designed to achieve desired outcomes that are at best inscrutable to those who they are theoretically designed to serve. This is perhaps the “collective anxiety” that Hill refers to—a creeping dread that the future’s form, already latent in the present, will be beyond understanding, or even comprehension.
Robert Ellis’ large work Pleiades VIII represents similar anxieties about change and lack of human agency, but dates from 1974. His work is a direct comment on the decision made around that time to update the Royal New Zealand Air Force via the purchase of several Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fighter-bombers, the primary aircraft used by the American forces during the first part of the Vietnam War. Ellis was uneasy about the militaristic implications of these planes coming to New Zealand. In his painting, the Skyhawk, decked out in camouflage that disrupts its profile against the blood-red sky and black clouds of the background, hangs over a tangled map-like view of tangled city streets and motorways. In Ellis’ words, this image “represented the mysterious forces of power, which can crush.” The work’s title refers to the seven stars of the Matariki/Pleiades constellation, seen in the lower right area of the painting, accompanied by a stylised rainbow form. For Ellis, these stars are a “symbol of rejuvenation,” due to the stars’ rise heralding the beginning of a new year, and their connection to concepts of fertility and successful harvests in Māoritanga.
Also on display are a suite of drawings by Ellis, showing his characteristic “motorway” forms, which he began painting as a response to the redevelopment of Auckland’s urban centre and the subdivision of the central suburbs by the motorway system. Just as happened in Los Angeles in the 1950s, the city was divided into discrete segments by the motorways during the 1970s, impassable barriers to pedestrians that dramatically changed the texture of the city. Ellis’ works speak eloquently about both the poetic possibilities and the potential dangers he foresaw in the emerging Auckland landscape, and also include elements of Māori iconography, derived from his connection to tangata whenua through his 1966 marriage to Elizabeth Aroha Mountain (Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou).
In addition to the above works, a series of ceramic sculptures by Laurie Steer complete the exhibition. In these new works, Steer expands on his previous vocabulary with brightly coloured glazes, creating finishes that are startling and vaguely uncanny. Through these imaginative and whimsical forms, Steer engages with the problem of how to integrate craft and tradition into a contemporary discourse that privileges the disposable and the immediate. Steer’s works can be read as props, objects that work backwards to manufacture their own imagined histories, but they also function as commentary on the real history of ceramics, their deformities and idiosyncrasies revolting against the intellectual, political and aesthetic agendas that have been attached to the medium.