From the lunch room windows at my work place we look down on the orange tile roof of a small brick building. From its architecture and location you might think it one of the ubiquitous Plunket rooms that were built all over New Zealand last century for women and babies (to match the war memorials and Masonic lodges built for the blokes). However, this funny little civic building with an entrance that looks like a back door facing the Cafler Park Wishing Well, is the Whangarei Art Museum.
I had the galleries to myself on Saturday afternoon (the only time I have ever seen another human other than the desk-minder at the Museum was at an opening). Until then my peripheral awareness of the travelling exhibition, Luncheon Under the Ash Tree: The Ian & Elespie Prior Collection, had stalled on the Evelyn Page paintings and her pretty, impressionistic, domestic style doesn't interest me so much these days as they would have a few years ago. That's why it's taken me two months to get round to checking out this show, despite the proximity of the Museum to the building where I spend most days. Silly, silly me.
The exhibition is diverse; an idiosyncratic showcase of mid-late 20th century New Zealand art, including lots of prints (my special interest at the moment). The collection developed in the context of a network of friends and family which includes many of the 'big names' of NZ art and literature.
The networking aspect is what hooked me actually as the first piece to catch my eye was a name and a face I thought I recognised: an Douglas McDiarmid portrait of Charles Brasch who looked uncannily like my friend Ian McDiarmid- note to self, find out if Ian is related to Charles or Douglas or both. From that moment of (imagined?) personal connection I was swept along by a series of pieces that delighted and stimulated me.
A colourful monoprint by Stanley Palmer of a windswept Southern landscape in a long narrow format that made me want to know how it was made. With my limited knowledge of printing I measured the monoprint against the various plates and presses at TKPT and realised how Palmer must have (literally) stretched the boundaries of normal processes.
Pat Hanly's 1967 drypoint, Invention of Area, was a lovely composition but looked to have been printed on acidic paper as I'm sure the surface wouldn't have been the colour of old tea bags back in the 1960s (though I could be wrong). I took it as a caution to myself creating works on paper that I would really like to look just as good in 40 years as they do when they are made. But since I am also engaged in a stimulating exploration of what it means to print and create ephemera, I appreciated Invention of Area's deterioration as an intrinsic quality of the piece, perhaps unintentional but nonetheless dynamic and interesting.
It's probably result of the intense self-imposed contemporary-art-education-reading programme I am engaged in, but I finally saw a Ralph Hotere work that I really really like. I didn't write down the name but it was something about anenomes at night with a Charles Brasch poem (him again! See what I mean about the network?). What I liked about it most was the way that Hotere wrote the poem in ink onto wet watercolour paper, so the letters seemed to glow softly like sparkler writing, which really suited the poem which compared stars in the sky with anenomes in the water. Half the page was the text on white paper and the other half was a typical Hotere field of dark dull colour but enlivened with splurts of rich red exploding in that way that watercolours do when you drop them on wet paper.
But the highlight, the absolute highlight of the exhibition for me, were two of the three works by John Drawbridge, whose name I remembered from the Mervyn E Tayl0r book. There was an abstract watercolour with stunning, rich, sumptuous colours in broad vertical stripes overdrawn with graphite on a dark background. How can I describe these colours? They weren't clear and they weren't bright but they were vivid and deep and intense and made me think of velvet curtains and red wine and autumn leaves and candlelight. And then later, I was captivated by the composition of John Drawbridge's black and white print, Big Scape which frames a mountain range in a proscenium arch, like a beautiful brain-teasing optical illusion.
So, it's a great exhibition, go see it if you are in Whangarei and you haven't been yet. Maybe you will like the pretty Page paintings more than the abstracts, or be captivated by something quite different that just didn't happen to sing to me like the ones I've described here. But there will be something, I promise, that you will be glad to have seen. Don't miss out.