Refusing to do the frangipani thing
Residencies are a good way for artists to take stock of where they are in their career, tackle major projects, or just get down to the business of making art with fewer day-to-day distractions.
They are also an affirmation that the life the artist has chosen has been recognised as valuable by others.
Andy Leleisi'uao has strung together three residencies over the past year or so - at Beachcomber Contemporary Art in Rarotonga, as Taipei Village artist in residence in Taiwan, and over the winter the McCahon residency in Titirangi.
He says they allowed him to pursue a line of exploration, or rather explore the potential of a linear type of composition. Limiting his palette to black on white with touches of red, he divided each canvas by horizontal lines, like the pages of a school exercise book, and painted small figures and scenes along each line.
The figures seem to be engaged in work or play or ritual or conflict. The newspaper-strip format suggests storytelling and narrative, or even a multi-perspective view of village life.
En masse the paintings can be seen as an even field, broken up by the red highlights, like zooming out of Google Earth.
The work on show at Whitespace reads as one large work although it is in fact 12 individual paintings which can be hung separately or combined in a range of formats.
When the Taiwan works were shown in July at COCA, the Christchurch Centre of Contemporary Art, as Wandering through Pandemonium Quiet, they were hung in a line down the spine of the gallery. "This is the final part of the line work. I don't think I'll do any more. You sort of know when to stop," he says.
Leleisi'uao says he has worked with the idea of multiple interchangeable panels since painting a mural for the Mangere Community Arts Centre, which was rejected.
"They hated the idea. They hated the concept. They hated the images. They hated the artist," he says. "They ended up having a ballot about it, and some of the comments that came out: 'Go back to working in the factories,' or 'You're not a real artist.' Well, f*** you ... They don't get it out this way [in Mangere]."
Leleisi'uao sees his place as in the wider art world, not in some corner labelled Polynesia, even if much of his subject matter in the past has been about fa'a Samoa, social problems like suicide, the greed and corruption of churches and politicians, and the conflicts between immigrants and the New Zealand-born.
For him, art is not some feel-good manifestation of culture, but the creation of culture stroke by stroke.
He remembers going through school during the period when educationists incorporated Fatu Feu'u's frangipani patterns into the curriculum as a way to engage Pasifika students.
It was part of a trend by the Education Ministry to over-prescribe art education, which led to identikit portfolios of work rolling out of the school system.
"I refused to do the frangipani thing because it was too easy, just coloured patterns. I was more interested in what painters like Clairmont and Fomison were doing. Those kids who did were getting 80s and 90s, working to a system. But they had no interest in it, there was no soul in their work, and if they got into art school, they didn't last a year," he says.
He still sees a very short career span for young Polynesian artists, who show briefly before fleeing to the safety of a regular job. "I'd rather have the freedom to do my work. I have not had a proper job for years. That allows me to do what I do."
The main room at Whitespace is taken up by drawing produced by New South Wales-based expatriate Locust Jones during a residency in Seoul, South Korea. Like Leleisi'uao, there's a cartoony, calligraphic feel to his lines, and a sense that information is piled up on the viewer.
And while it was Leleisi'uao who had the McCahon Residency, it's Jones who is exhibiting the text-based works. Jones, who crossed the Tasman in 1990 when he couldn't get into art school in his native Christchurch, says his response to the media-soaked environment he was in was to pull images and texts out of television and newspaper photos and headlines.
"I was making my own poetry from the headlines. By the end of the residency, I was just making text. I preferred writing them to drawing."
Jones has always worked on paper, and being in Korea allowed him to learn more about the Korean hanji papermaking tradition. "These are made of mulberry bark, so it's the same material as tapa," he says.
He got local conservators to splice together some of the large sheets so he could have a continuous roll to work on, generating the large drawing which fills the gallery's long wall.
Korean colleagues also taught him traditional ways to dilute the inks, giving him a greater tonal range.
He works with bamboo sticks rather than brushes, filling in the outlines with eyedroppers or syringes of ink. In some works he uses sticks of graphite to scribble freely.
Recycling media images can be a way of the artist withdrawing from the work, a charge Jones accepts. "If I was to put myself in there, the personal, it would be a mess," he says. But with 16 million people living in a small space in Korea, there is a constant noise that made its way into the work.
In the Whitespace window, for those walking round Ponsonby at night, there is a video installation by Janet Lilo from 6pm to midnight of a group of dancers who perform at nights by closed storefronts and shop windows in Sapporo, Japan.
Who: Andy Leleisi'uao, Locust Jones and Janet Lilo
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to November 27
Published November 13