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Back to Black: the Landscape of Unease in Aotearoa

15 September 2014

Back to Black: the Landscape of Unease in Aotearoa


Curated by Scott Pothan to coincide with the touring exhibition Black Rainbow, Te Papa Tongarewa – Ralph HOTERE and Michael PAREKOWHAI



Petrus VAN DER VELDEN – Girolamo NERLI – Colin McCAHON – Ralph HOTERE- Bill HAMMOND

+Laurence ABERHART – Gretchen ALBRECHT – Alan BEKHUIS - Mark BRAUNIAS - Ben CAUCHI - Shane COTTON – Tony de LAUTOUR Thomas Louden DRUMMOND – Luise FONG – Tony FOMISON - Louise HENDERSON – Julian HOOPER – Philip TRUSTTUM – Fiona PARDINGTON – NOM*d and others.

Sam Neill in his 1995 television documentary about New Zealand film: Cinema of Unease; a Personal Journey summarises his sense of ‘a dark and brooding landscape, where bad things seem in imminent danger of being about to happen’ throughout our cinematic history. Visual arts histories in New Zealand could be said to have embraced this brooding, metaphysical landscape long before our cinematic one. Petrus van der Velden and the Marken Funeral and Otira Gorge paintings series were the artistic genesis of our very own landscape of unease traversing New Zealand art history from the 1880’s to the present day. You could say that van der Velden and Girolamo Nerli brought a newly predominant ‘black’ into the New Zealand palette. This had not been seen since the late 18th century paintings of New Zealand by William Hodges R.A. as expeditionary artist aboard Capt. James Cook’s voyage to the Pacific on HMS Resolution. Hodges’ once pristine landscape now reels with new dark forces within - climate-change; new biological threats; intensive farming and not industrialisation are the current bêtes noir of our 100% Pure NZ. Kauri dieback disease, the invasive didymo, urea runoff and methane gas emissions are our new rural demons of darkness.

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There is an art history cliché that New Zealand Regionalist painting was influenced by our vivid and extraordinary light. For a long time though, many artists in Aotearoa perceived a darker, more reflective terrain than the ‘sun-filled’ Heidelberg School artists across the Tasman. We have mined an existential landscape of unease where the darkness is not just in the vigour of the brushwork and a more sombre colouration, but also in the poetry of intent and foreboding.

Petrus van der Velden was perhaps the ‘father’ of this tradition. Both van der Velden and Nerli were extremely influential teachers and inspired Frances Hodgkins and Colin McCahon to name just two of our most exemplary artists of the 20th century.

This exhibition is notable for showcasing some of the most rarely seen artworks in New Zealand. The mural-sized oil painting After the Funeral c.1870 is one of four ‘sister works’ in New Zealand from the artist’s famous Marken Funeral Series. Three of this suite of van der Velden’s masterworks are in public collections at Te Papa Tongarewa and the Christchurch Art Gallery. This splendid painting on display at WAM has always been in private hands, and once belonged to van der Velden’s biographer Dr. Rodney Wilson. Today it remains in a private Auckland home rarely seen by the public. A major Colin McCahon painting from 1957, titled simply A Landscape has also rarely been seen publicly since it was exhibited at the Auckland Art Gallery in 1960 and comes from a Northland private collection. The painting Still Life by Girolamo Nerli is from a private trust collection, acquired in Melbourne and has never been shown publicly before, as have several other works in this exhibition from private collections in Northland.

Back to Black is an exhibition with music and poetry at its heart. The Requiem Series of paintings from 1973-5 by Ralph Hotere were an elegy to the composer Tony Watson who died in 1973 and based on Verdi’s Requiem. The title of this exhibition at WAM directly references the late lamented Amy Winehouse and her worldwide hit of the same name. In October seven further Ralph Hotere paintings all from the 1960’s- 90’s will arrive at WAM from Te Papa designed to embrace and encircle Michael Parekowhai’s magnificent carved red Steinway concert grand piano titled; He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu : story of a New Zealand River, from his Venice Biennale exhibition 2010.

In 1989 Hotere had designed a black New Zealand flag.

Black is a dress-code in Aotearoa too; the exhibition will feature a range of selected garments from the ubiquitous black singlet made famous by Fred Dagg and painter Nigel Brown, to the All Black jersey and other sports uniforms in its many manifestations over the past century; to the urban-angst coolness of NOM*d.

Black Rainbow: Ralph Hotere and Michael Parekowhai and Fiona Pardington’s concurrent exhibition from her McCahon House residency last year bring many layers of brooding blackness to heighten the luminous flashes of colour in our next three exhibitions at the art museum. There is much to see in the darkness !

Fiona Pardington: Selected photographs
from the McCahon House Artist Residency


The works that photographer Fiona Pardington produced as part of her 2013 McCahon House residency possess a sparse intensity that comes from making the images very much about the location and little homages. Pardington restricted herself to staging her still lifes on the plastic fold down tables in the studio, found objects, flowers from the McCahon family garden, water collected as rain. At the time Pardington was thinking a lot about the relationship between addiction, intoxication, and creativity – subjects that touched both her and McCahon’s life and art, and is reflected in the seeming fragility and vulnerability and relative emptiness of the photographs. As with McCahon’s paintings, in Pardington’s hands the simplest and humblest of objects take on cosmic and transcendental meanings, but like the memento mori paintings of the Old Masters there is a hint that all things are vanity.

John Foster: Transfiguration


Rediscovered Northland artist John Foster’s impressive large scale mural Transfiguration will be exclusively on display for two weeks only at the Whangarei Art Museum. Foster lived on a farm near Wellsford in Northland with his wife, sculptor Pat Foster. He studied painting with Sir Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon, and printmaking from Stanley Palmer and Pat Hanly. For 30 years Foster produced a large body of prints, paintings and murals, and exhibited extensively throughout New Zealand. Between 1971 and 1998, he constructed 14 large and intricately rendered murals, some of which were exhibited at Forum North in Whangarei in 1991.

Observing the world around him, the late John Foster distilled and amalgamated his experiences into a sometimes subtle, and sometimes confronting mosaic of images; “what is fundamental to painting for me is that it is real. I am looking at the world. I am receiving those sight sensations as through it is the very closest I can get to the world about me. Nothing else comes in between. My response is a celebration of the world I see. I am sensually aware of the moment. Painting it about life; it tells me about my relationship to the world. I have noticed all these things in a world so rich and full of images.” Returning to Whangarei for the first time in over 20 years, Transfiguration will be a preview into the fantastical and remarkable art works of this unique and highly talented Northland artist.

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