Where danger always lurks
Publishd NZ Herald April 2, 2011
What is sometimes labelled southern gothic is a persistent mystery - why is it so many Christchurch artists and musicians mine feelings of darkness and disquiet?
The earthquakes which turned much of the city's gothic revival architecture into heaps of dust and rubble show the artists may have been tapping into some deeper premonitions of stress below.
Their landscape turned upside down as the faults hidden beneath the moraine ripped and tore, and in the battle between the swamp and the Anglicans, the swamp proved stronger.
At Ivan Anthony Gallery are two artists from over the hill in Lyttelton whose work fits in the gothic vault.
Bill Hammond's response to the September earthquake was to start work on a large canvas. Wishboneash: Urns and Burners was finished (or work ended) on February 22, the day of the second quake.
It was rescued from the damaged studio.
The view is from a cave, propped up in the centre by a Doric column, looking out at a harbour and low hills.
Bird figures, in red or yellow shifts, stand or levitate, holding smoking burners. More smoke comes from a volcano across the harbour or depicted in large funerary urns. A grey pallor hangs over the picture.
It's an extraordinary distillation or processing of experience. Over the past 20 or so years Hammond has re-imagined the New Zealand landscape, moving beyond McCahon's unpeopled hills to fill it with bird archetypes, a mythology from here we did not know existed until it sprang into being from his subconscious.
His Arcadia is untameable, a place where danger always lurks.
That willingness by southern artists to trust the tenets of surrealism and surrender themselves to the activity of art making, rather than trying to think everything through beforehand, gives their work its dark power.
Hammond is also showing smaller paintings on paper, birds and urns. Some are merely decorative, some step over into mystery.
Jason Greig makes monoprints, rolling, smearing or painting ink on to formica or hard plastic, then rolling off a single impression.
Trained as a printmaker, he says he hated doing monoprints while at Ilam art school, but discovered the technique again while showing it to students a decade later.
"They're all one-offs, so you don't have to print editions, and you can use the same block over and over for different images. You get the idea down and then go on to a new one," he says.
It's also a much cheaper way of working for an artist who has been at various times "down to the bones of my arse" and unable to afford zinc plates. "You can be painterly, and as the years went on I found I could make them as tight or loose as I wanted, even make them look like an engraving."
Greig bristles a bit at the southern gothic label. "I'm a printmaker. I was brought up on medieval images, that's the tradition. Durer, The Temptation of St Anthony by Martin Schongauer, Goya, when you see his work you've got this whole social commentary."
Then he concedes he wonders why he is drawn to darkness.
"Perhaps repressed guilt and bullshit and hypocrisy. I'm as uncomfortable with the label as the works make people uncomfortable."
It's hard for him to deny a gothic label when his last show in Dunedin was a suite of works based on Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
"I made it a personal story so I plugged myself into the characters. I was sitting drawing myself screaming with a mirror on my shoulder and another on the table, so I was getting cramps and needed to draw fast.
"I found I clicked on to overdrive and was doing an hour's worth of sketching in five minutes, the drawings coming very swift and pared down but holding all the information I needed to flesh out the monoprints."
The series came out of his recovery from alcoholism, something he said took him "two weeks away from dying" and took away his ability to draw before he checked into a three-month residential rehabilitation programme.
"I cleaned up my act and now I'm doing what I love doing," he says.
Phantogram draws inspiration from a Vampirella comic Greig found in a Sumner junk shop one wet Sunday.
Some of the images stick closely to the Frank Frazetta/Jose Gonzalez model, others go somewhere else.
"I make images I want to see. It makes me happy when I pull off some of these prints. I'm glad I'm here. I want to see things creeping out."
There are boats on storm-tossed seas, bridges over dark gorges and a lone figure stranded on an asteroid, which bubbled out of his subconscious after the February quake.
Greig says the quake shook his house around like a rubber band, causing its two chimneys to implode, coating everything in the house with brick dust, but surprisingly leaving the pictures just swaying on the wall.
"When they come it's like a pneumatic drill. One aftershock - it must have been right underneath - it felt as if someone had picked up the house and slammed it down."
Fortunately the 115-year old cottage survived, and Greig was back working within days. "The porch is a bit munted though."
During the clean-up he found an obituary for Hurricane Higgins, the George Best of snooker, so turned out a couple of small prints of the star as Franciscan monk and in skeletal form.
"I take love, life and death and squish it through a press. Half the time you are working on something and the ink takes over and takes you on a wee drive of its own."
What: Phantogram by Jason Greig and Wishboneash: Urns & Burners by Bill Hammond
Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, cnr East St-Karangahape Rd, to April 23