John Hurrell – 18 November, 2011
So these images become in essence the storyboards of an imagined film or novel about colonialism in the Pacific, not just a bunch of bright, exuberant and funny paintings for their own sake. It is as if John Bunyan or Edmund Spenser, after watching Hone Harawira on the news, ran riot with a paintbrush.
Aotearoa: A Pictorial Allegory
9 November - 17 December 2011
Roger Boyce has exhibited before in Auckland, but not his paintings. So as a Californian HOD of painting at Ilam, a regular reviewer for Art in America, and quite a vocal personality in the Christchurch art community now strutting his stuff in Parnell, this is a chance for Aucklanders to see what sort of painting practice he stands for. With these works, his persona - the sensibility he projects - is a bit like George Baloghy meets Glen Baxter and Mark Tansey. Using colourful viscous oil paint on small wooden panels he creates socially dodgy images with elements taken from (amongst other things) dreamy love comics, risqué carnival posters or torrid paperback covers.
Boyce likes to tease, if not needle, the audience of his comparatively new home, but part of that provocation is achieved by his very specific title for the series - Aotearoa: A Pictorial Allegory. The concept of allegory, rejuvenated in the eighties by Craig Owens and October, uses narrative imagery to extend a metaphor so it becomes overarching in its embracing of symbolic, social and political meanings. It is less compact in reach, being more expansive than a simple symbolic image. So these images become in essence the storyboards of an imagined film or novel about colonialism in the Pacific, not just a bunch of bright, exuberant and funny paintings for their own sake. It is as if John Bunyan or Edmund Spenser, after watching Hone Harawira on the news, ran riot with a paintbrush.
Boyce seems to be attempting to be a cat amongst the pigeons, the fly in what might be seen as the politically correct ointment of social engineering. But there is a lot of ambivalence here, it is not that obvious - for these works are too restrained to be overtly tubthumping or offensive. They are too sly for that, having several meanings. With the titles you can key into (on some panels) issues of biculturalism, the Treaty, or related foreshore debate, but much of it is about gender wars too, or (disarmingly) the innocent sweetness of romance and travel. They oscillate, being smarty britches, acerbic, and poignantly moving, simultaneously.
Many of the twelve images feature brown hunky men and pale curvaceous women (or voluptuous dark dames and pink he-men) in straight forward narratives that become highly ambiguous through mischievous titling. Those labels are crucial.
For example, we see in Third Great Migration a bronzed man in shallow water is watching a longhaired pale woman swimming out to sea. I assume the title is about ‘white flight’ to Australia, but the image can also oddly be about desire and flirtation (two way attraction).
Another work, Utu, shows a white woman in a red dress on the left desperately fighting off an aroused, very determined native, while on the right, the same woman angrily slaps the same handsome dark fellow across the face. Never has revenge appeared so alarmingly comical. As in humorous, and like comics with their frozen poses.
Long Pig on the other hand, refers to cannibalism but this could just as easily be about rape or an orgy. Two brown women have fastened a half-naked pale man to stakes in the ground, and while he might be eaten later the mood is also sexual (white man’s fantasy?) and coercive. Somebody is exuberantly playing a bongo, and high in the sand dunes, the pinioned man’s trussed up white girlfriend awaits a similar fate.
The rape of Aotearoa is specifically mentioned in another painting, again set on a beach. A struggling black woman is having her bikini bottom forcibly removed by a wiry white man while her male native partner is restrained in the distance by another muscular villain. The metaphor here is pretty obvious.
Is Boyce making something of value with these loaded ambiguous images and baiting titles? Or is the whole project pretty silly, that of being sensational just for a laugh, but with no intellectual substance within? Perhaps the only way to tell might be to put a bunch of his paintings in a large group show surrounded by works from artists like Peter Robinson, Robert Jahnke, Nova Paul, Lonnie Hutchinson and Michael Parekowhai, and see how the conversation develops - if at all - between works that share a common theme but look at it from radically different political positions. Such a scheme might create a fascinating forum, a refreshing catalyst for debate - if some hosting art institution had the nerve.
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