Erin Driessen – 10 January, 2012
Yet, Hotere is nowhere. His works are never about him. They may express an opinion, a reaction to cultural happenings or a personal literary interest, but they are never about him. Over four decades, Hotere's work has developed with a sophistication and cultural awareness that is more about place than persona.
Zero to Infinity
Curated by Natalie Poland
9 July 2011 - 18 February 2012
Ralph Hotere is represented by every major art gallery in the country. He is constantly deemed New Zealand’s most significant living artist. He has recently been made a Member of the Order of New Zealand. Ralph Hotere is everywhere.
Yet, he is nowhere. His works are never about him. They may express an opinion, a reaction to cultural happenings or a personal literary interest, but they are never about him. Over four decades, Hotere’s work has developed with a sophistication and cultural awareness that is more about place than persona. These works are consistent in style and treatment, but individually are unequivocally of their own time. Their contribution to the visual and social history of New Zealand is clear.
In honour of Hotere’s 80th birthday last year, many national galleries staged celebratory exhibitions of his work. The Hocken Gallery in Dunedin currently displays Zero to Infinity, curated by Natalie Poland. The exhibition was due to come down in October 2011, but has been extended to February this year. The title Zero to Infinity refers respectively to Hotere’s Zero series of 1966-7, and the recurring infinity symbol visible in his work.
I often find the Hocken Gallery space disruptive to large exhibitions, but Poland has used it particularly well here. The fifty works are not arranged chronologically but more thematically. One end room houses four large red and black works, each made from different materials like board, corrugated steel, plywood and cardboard. Zero Beginning (1966-7) is also hung in this room. Visually, it is a sore thumb, with its bright green square more an assault to than a break in all the black.
Upon leaving the red and black room, the viewer is confronted with White Drip To Mr Paul Holmes (2003). It is a large vertical strip of black corrugated iron, with a white line running down the middle ending at a red X. A witty and pointed retort to the broadcaster’s “cheeky darkie” comment, the work is a prime example of Hotere’s principled conviction in expressing his own (and others’) views on social events.
The lesser-known, or lesser-seen, works are a treat. Especially fine among these are Hotere’s designs and illustrations for programmes of poetry readings and performances. Created in watercolour and ink, the female figure drawn for the ‘Anatomy of a dance’ poster (1975) is Picasso-esque in its simplicity. Seemingly quickly sketched, the figure is drawn with just enough weight and space so that on its own, line becomes form.
The room at the other end of the space houses these kinds of smaller and more delicate works. Among these hang the two large works Black Painting (1969) and Black Painting XII from “Malady” (1970). They do not detract from the delicacy of the paper works, but rather add to the literary presence with their poetic subject matter. Black Painting repeats the word “SUNRISE,” a reference to “Dawn/Water”, a poem by Bill Manhire, while Black Painting XII repeats “MALADY” in a cross shape against a darker background.
A beautiful etching also hangs in this room, and the path I’d taken through the exhibition meant this was the last work I encountered. Below a heavy black square, an excerpt from Bill Manhire’s poem “The Wind” is scrawled in Hotere’s handwriting, one line of which reads:
What is this distance?
This question resonated as I read the words twice more before leaving the gallery. It stayed with me during my drive home. Now it still seems a pertinent one to try to answer, if only with more questions.
During my undergraduate years I purposefully avoided, or tried to avoid, writing about Ralph Hotere (as well as Colin McCahon and Frances Hodgkins). I felt there was nothing I could add, that I would only perpetuate misunderstandings or myths surrounding these big names (also, I probably didn’t have the guts to confront their work from my own point of view). Needless to say upon confronting Hotere’s work in this exhibition, I was relieved that I liked it. I couldn’t imagine rocking up to my computer to say, and say well, how and why I did not like the work of New Zealand’s most significant living artist.
But why not? It’s because Ralph Hotere is everywhere. We are constantly told and shown how great he is. I personally don’t dispute this opinion - I think the expressive sophistication and style of his art, his work on Observation Point and collaborations with New Zealand poets, among other achievements, all earn him the honour of Order of New Zealand Member - but it’s worth asking I think, what is the distance between Hotere’s work and the New Zealand art viewer? Is his work immediately accessible and understandable? Does it speak for the majority of New Zealanders? Do we automatically like him because we are told to, because he is everywhere?
Two photographs of Hotere, taken by Marti Friedlander in 1979 and 2000 respectively, hang beside the entrance to the gallery. The former shows Hotere outside, on the property of his Flagstaff Studio in Port Chalmers; in the latter, the artist peers into the camera from inside FHE Galleries in Auckland. Over time and throughout the country, Ralph Hotere has clearly become a revered figure not only in the art world, but in New Zealand social history. His status as such should not deter audiences, but actively encourage them to view his work from their own perspective and ask why is this so?
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