Megan Dunn – 14 January, 2012
Leonard began by examining NZ art pre and post-McCahon, taking us through the intellectual tussles between the head and the heart, the battle between the nationalists and the internationalists. Ultimately it's the journey from NZ art, made by New Zealanders for New Zealand audiences, to the phase we're in now, a phase Leonard likes to call ‘The end of New Zealand art.'
Robert Leonard Lecture
Love is a Battlefield: Nostalgia for Intimacy
Sat, 26 Nov 2011, 5:30 pm
I came to the tenth Gordon H Brown lecture at City Gallery to hear Robert Leonard address the theme: Love is a battlefield: Nostalgia for Intimacy. I expected it was going to be a good lecture and it was. What I didn’t expect was that I’d feel inadvertently exposed by it. I wouldn’t have gone to this lecture if I had not met Robert and been influenced by him, and I certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of writing about this lecture if I hadn’t felt this connection. Funnily enough this was yet another illustration of the ‘intimacy’ in New Zealand art and its accompanying social scene.
The auditorium quickly filled up with an audience mainly on the wrong side of forty - at first it seemed an entirely different crowd to the gallery goers at the Prospect opening the night before, but then the curators poured in, all figures of stature in their own right. Up on the screen was an aptly ‘paranoid’ cartoon by Michael Stevenson about the infrastructure and control of the art world. The introduction from Tina Barton was touching, especially the description of Leonard as precocious. And he still is precocious. A definer of our thoughts; the prodigal curator who once told me, ‘You can’t force an epiphany’.
Leonard introduced the notion of intimacy - both the good and bad sides of the force. Twenty years ago he was working on the Headlands exhibition alongside Bernice Murphy who linked the concepts of distance, isolation and smallness when describing the intimacy of the NZ art scene. This was a perception that Leonard did not share or relate to at that time. He later realized that was because he was operating inside it. Leonard talked about the fact that intimacy is hard to measure and has emotional connotations. ‘…it explains a lot about the past - rather than the present or the future - of NZ art.’
He held this thematic lens up to the work of Colin McCahon, Billy Apple, Julian Daspher, and the Headlands exhibition. I’m not sure if these were the names I expected to hear him discuss or not. A friend pointed out later that there was a distinct lack of focus on female artists, but I forgave him! (The lecture was intimate enough.) Leonard stated his case clearly and was transparent about the fact that he was referring to a period of New Zealand art he had lived through. It was plain that he was pursing a subjective concept - but one that effects the way we internalize our experiences of the art scene.
Leonard began by examining NZ art pre and post-McCahon, taking us through the intellectual (and sometimes literal) tussles between the head and the heart, the battle between the nationalists and the internationalists who wanted to break the rusty cage of the gallery - or at least touch up the skirting boards and relocate the windows. Ultimately it’s the journey from NZ art, made by New Zealanders for New Zealand audiences, to the phase we’re in now, a phase Leonard likes to call ‘The end of New Zealand art.’
Curnow has obviously been an influence, or at least a mind that Leonard has had to address. Love is a Battlefield contained several key references to Curnow, including his 1973 essay High Culture in a small province. What NZ artists originally suffered from was a lack of psychic insulation - or in Leonard’s words, ‘bad intimacy.’ The public was too close. Joe Bloggs needed to back off. In Curnow’s pyramid of the art world the critics and the curators were the middle men - ‘intellectual’ bodyguards who should be providing distance between the artist and the audience. I felt a trifle out of my depth here, ever aware that I have not read any of these seminal texts by Curnow. At art school I realized I was blissfully uninterested in theory and one of my biggest catchphrases in life remains, ‘Don’t over think it.’ I wasn’t even aware that Curnow was in the audience. Leonard later told me it would have been easier if he hadn’t been! (NZ: it’s still more intimate than you think.)
The lecture initially focused soley on McCahon. I guess that’s inevitable. For me McCahon is like a placemat, I don’t even think about the level of infrastructure his work provides. Yet, when I was a teenager I painted dense dark abstracts with rollers that were clearly influenced by McCahon - who else? Leonard notes McCahon was an impasse for artists: everywhere they went he’d been before. ‘He’d been all things for all people: nationalist, internationalist, primitive and modernist (and ultimately post-modernist), a landscape painter, an abstractionist, a conceptual artist, an abstract artist. Starting as a white man laying claim to a silent land, and going on to embrace all things Maori.’
McCahon of course forms the context for subsequent generations, recognized in Barton’s 1989 exhibition After McCahon. Van Hout’s McCahon-esque works were an example of the impossibility of being McCahon now. ‘By the post-modern late -1980s quotation had become ‘appropriation’. You repeated things not to identify with them, but to express your difference.’ Artists like van Hout were not producing homage; they were making a fundamentally different type of work. These were especially relevant points for me to consider, as I was once a youngster making appropriated video works. (By the time I arrived at Elam, any pretensions of becoming McCahon were completely knocked out of me!)
The lynchpin in Leonard’s examination of intimacy is an event he’d dismissed when he first heard about it as ‘insignificant.’ In time however it has become emblematic of the war between the head and the heart. In 1982 Billy Apple produced an exhibition in the private home of Francis Pound and Sue Crockford. Apple had painted a red manhole cover in the ceiling, slating it for removal and also drew red lines marking where the windows should be moved to. Pat Hanly was one of the ‘friends’ invited over to see this show: Private View: Demonstration/Critique of the Given. Irked by this overly brainy work Hanly’s response was to paint two huge eye in heart tags on the gallery walls. An act of art terrorism!
Back from New York in 1975, Billy was the avant-garde artist who came home to show the locals how it’s done. Leonard notes, ‘Apple’s art polarized people.’ In a funny way it still does, although I have to agree, ‘Nowadays it’s hard to imagine Billy Apple as such a threat to the future of art that a fellow artist would go to such lengths to attack his work in a private home.’
Hanly apologized the next day for his bad behavior - poor Hanly, I do empathize with him. Pound and Apple went on to submit this piece as a page work entitled ‘Attack on the White cube’ to local magazines. Leonard was originally the editor who turned it down for Midwest, but later made amends, acquiring it for the Auckland Art Gallery collection. For Leonard the work had morphed from being a side issue to a central one.
In the context of the lecture this was a highly entertaining event but it also seemed to me - ever aware of the work in Prospect - that for the moment the head has won. We’re in a brainy time for art. The other night I was talking to a young artist who was deriding the cultural status of the humble ‘steel pukeko ornament.’ These kind of conversations bring out some kind of shameful folksy yearning in me - maybe I’m channeling Pat Hanly? When Leonard read out that Pat Hanly’s interests were once listed as kite-flying, sailing and Greenpeace everyone in the lecture laughed.
Daspher’s legacy and death still felt very recent when Leonard spoke of his practice, calling him a ‘transitional artist.’ Daspher paved the way for the next generation blazing that trail into the mythical land of overseas. Leonard names him as an heir to Billy Apple. Daspher’s work made the intimacy of NZ art its subject, before rejecting it entirely. ‘Consequently we can see Daspher as ‘the last New Zealand artist’ or the first of a new generation of New Zealand artists operating internationally in a post-medium post-national art world.’ Daspher exhibited his CV and sent an invite out for a show, inviting the audience not to come to the opening, but rather to spend a couple of hours that evening in the pursuit of intimacy!
My knowledge is pretty scant around Daspher’s work, but he’s been an undeniable influence on many of my peers. It does seem staggering now that he was able to exhibit a show entitled The Drivers, exposing iconic works by Don Driver in the collection storage area of the Govett Brewster, whilst Driver himself worked there as a gallery assistant, ‘…haunting the place like the Phantom of the Opera, one hand in a glove.’ I don’t know what to make of this kind of mockumentary, but it certainly has set a precedent and it is of course a perfect illustration of the theme of ‘intimacy.’
An insistent speaker at the end of the lecture kept refusing the notion of intimacy and replacing it with ‘incest.’ Leonard blinked, at one point commenting ‘it’s all gone a bit Vigil.’ Perhaps the ‘incestuous’ angle wasn’t so off the cuff, considering Leonard had just mentioned Tessa Laird’s book Nights of our Lives featuring the dreams of artists. (I must get a copy, it sounds hilarious.) And an equally tangential project by Terrence Handscomb who published his art world sexual wish-list in Log Magazine. (Leonard was on the list of those Handscomb wouldn’t sleep with for aesthetic reasons.) I thoroughly enjoyed Leonard’s own wish-list for a show called Love Thy Neighbour - a hilarious line up of bitchy art works, from Michael Illingworth’s ‘rancid little painting The Colin McCahon Expert’ to Daniel Malone changing his name by deed poll to Billy Apple.
The lecture at turns both interesting and funny was also elegiac. Leonard admitted that Daspher was ‘his generation’, quoting Brecht who railed against nostalgia saying we should go for the bad new things rather than the good old ones. Yet, Leonard can see the twist in this too: ‘However, I wonder if this nostalgia might not be itself one of the bad new things, because it is very new to me, something I can now only name…’ He concludes finally that we can be nostalgic for something, only once it has past.
‘Our artists and curators face a different set of challenges.’ Indeed. Looking back to 2001, the year I left New Zealand, I couldn’t have imagined the Auckland Art Fair, the Walters Prize was about to surface bringing its expanded ambition, its expanded chance, Venice was just around the corner. I still remember the excitement when Ivan Anthony opened on Krd and a set of artists who couldn’t envisage their practice at Sue Crockford or Gow Langsford suddenly had dealer shows. Once upon a time Massey was in Palmerston North! There were just two main gate keepers for young contemporary artists: Greg Burke and Robert Leonard. That in itself shows how much has changed.
Perhaps subconsciously I’d been intending to write some kind of sycophantic ‘To sir with love’ response to his lecture - maybe I have - ever aware of my own increasing age and fondly recalling my terrible youth in the late 90’s art scene. The lecture ending as it did with one foot in the past, and the other looking towards the ‘green light’ of the future, couldn’t help but remind me of the last line in The Great Gatsby: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
Or if I was going to be more patriotic, be more self-consiously New Zealand (do a Pat Hanly and wear my heart on my sleeve!), I’d quote Frame ‘….From the first place of liquid darkness, within the second place of air and light, I set down the following record with its mixture of fact and truths and memories of truths and its direction toward the Third Place, where the starting point is myth.’
Love is a battlefield was a lecture about the third place: myth.
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