Arguing with Ted Bracey
A couple of months have gone by since the Christchurch-based Garage Collective declared war on New Zealand's arts community , whom they accuse of propping up capitalism and creating a breeding ground for fascism. According to the Garage Collective, artists who do not go 'onto the barricades' - ie, produce instantly comprehensible statements advocating the 'abolishment (sic) of the capitalist system' - deserve to 'die'.
Garage Collective member 'Jared', who seems to have followed the lead of Kylie Minogue and jettisoned his surname as a bourgeois encumbrance, took the trouble to visit this site and explain the nuances of his group's statement to the enemies of the working class who lurk here. When I timidly suggested that Jared might like to visit an art gallery to find out more about the painters he professes to hate, the stern young foe of bourgeois ideology informed me that galleries were the haunts of 'elitists' who oppose the 'full participation' of the masses in art. Visiting an art gallery, according to Jared, is like 'voting once every three years' - that is, an exercise in 'sham democracy'. Because they merely 'contemplate' artworks, and do not participate in the creation of these works, the poor souls who visit Te Papa to look at Rita Angus or the Gus Fisher to view Milan Mrkusich are accomplices in their own oppression.
What the Garage Collective advocates is the obliteration of the distinction between the producer and the viewer of art. In the ideal world of Jared and his comrades, the 'masses' would spent a proportion of their time painting enormous colourful murals expressing their democratically-formulated viewpoint on walls expropriated from the bourgeoisie. Resolute slogans about the 'abolishment of capitalism' and heroic images of muscle-bound workers manning the blazing barricades would be the order of the day. Though Jared would indignantly protest the comparison, the aesthetic credo advanced by the Garage Collective has much in common with the 'socialist realist' dogma which saw Stalin-era Soviet artists forced to paint smiling peasants harvesting wheat with shining sickles, in front of tableaux of soaring, smoke-capped steel mills built to fulfil the requirements of the latest five year plan.
To be fair, Jared and his chums seem to have developed their aesthetic through a flawed thought process, not out of a desire to damage art. On paper, or on an obscure anarcho-Situationist website at three o'clock in the morning, the demand for the removal of the division between producers and viewers of art might seem admirable, and even workable. The demand lends itself to snappy slogans, and threatens to put the hustlers making a fortune from an out of control art market out of business.
In the cold light of the offline day, though, it should be apparent that the destruction of the distinction between artist and audience is neither practicable nor sensible. Good art is usually a dialogue between its maker and its audience - a dialogue that depends on their differences, as their similarities.
When we look at a painting or read a poem, we encounter a different view of the world, and we are forced to open a part of ourselves up to this different weltanschaung. At the same time, we interpret the work we are encountering in terms of our own experiences, and the world that created them. We enjoy a dialogue or, as Hans-Georg Gadamer called it, a 'fusion of horizons', with the work and the person we are encountering. And one of the great joys of art is the way that it allows us some insight into the ways that people from very different eras and cultures felt and thought. We are enriched when we experience ancient Greece through the poems of Theognis, or nineteenth century France through the paintings of Cezanne, or the history of the Tainui people through the sculpture of Brett Graham.
Sometimes the dialogue between artist and viewer can be difficult, or even ill-tempered. For the past month, for instance, I have been having a series of rather fraught conversations with a man I never met and had barely heard of before he died early this year.
Ted Bracey was born and raised in Britain, but in the sixties he emigrated first to the United States and then to New Zealand. Disgusted by the violent, dog-eat-dog society he found in the large cities of the States, Bracey settled down happily in the Waikato, where he soon found work teaching art. Bracey was a painter as well as a teacher, and he was soon at work on a series of canvases inspired by his new home. Bracey moved to Christchurch at the beginning of the seventies and stopped painting, but his bold, semi-abstract depictions of the Waikato landscape are still celebrated by critics and curators.
The Waikato Museum and Art Gallery has decided to mark Bracey's death by exhibiting three of his paintings: a bright, furious abstract composition created during the artist's unhappy sojourn in North America, and two of his tributes to the Waikato landscape. All three works are worth seeing, but the canvases that have obsessed me for the last month are Winter Land Signals No. 8, which was apparently inspired by the landscape around the little Waikato town of Cambridge, and Tuatuamoana 2, which refers to an ancient, partially drained swamp in the eastern Waikato.
Some of my in-laws reside in Hamilton, and I have found myself repeatedly taking long walks from their suburban neighbourhood to the art gallery, just to view Bracey's work. I've mysteriously vanished from a couple of family shopping expeditions to the central city to view the paintings, and I even left the test match between India and the Black Caps at Seddon Park early so that I could get in a quarter hour at the gallery. What, you might ask, am I getting so excited about? I can only begin to answer this question by reconstructing my first experience of Winter Land Signals No.8 and Tuatuamoana 2, the second of which is reproduced above. Bracey's canvases are an exercise in simplification, but that does not make then simplistic. He has taken some of the distinguishing forms and colours of the landscape around his adopted home, and eliminated what he considers inessential. Bracey's limited range of colours and repetitive forms give both paintings an 'all-over' effect that instantly reminded me, when I first set eyes on them, of the flatness of the Waikato landscape. It seemed to me that Bracey was taking a pilot's, or a bird's, or a God's-eye view of the land.
Some of the paintings' forms - the dark, raggedly triangular shape in the upper left corner of Tuatuamoana 2, for instance - suggested the volcanic hills and mountains that punctuate the Waikato plain. Others, like the smaller, lighter-coloured triangles, might have represented human imprints on the land - they made me think of church steeples, of the arched backs of old farmhouses, and of old-fashioned TV aerials. But it was not possible for me to 'read' the shapes in Bracey's composition in a straightforward manner - he had provided just enough detail to stimulate my memories of the Waikato landscape. The rest, it seemed, was up to me. The colours in Winter Land Signals No.8 and Tuatuamoana 2 seemed similarly mysterious and liminal: somehow, they managed to be both sombre and bright. Bracey had applied his paint thickly, in rough, almost sensual brushstrokes, and even his dark greens seemed to emanate light.
It is difficult for me to describe Bracey's canvases in this way, because they appeared to me not as assemblages of forms and colours but as complete, perfect objects. In fact, Winter Land Signals and Tuatuamoana 2 seemed so complete and so devoid of superfluity that I had difficulty imagining a time when they did not exist. Like the landscape which they so elegantly depict, they seemed utterly incontrovertible.
There is no doubt that Ted Bracey loved the Waikato. In a tribute reproduced at the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery, he called the place 'generous on the one hand yet sheltered and intimate on the other', and compared residing there to 'living a long rich evening'. In a piece published in Art News last year, John Hurrell revealed that the Waikato reminded Bracey of the Hampshire Downs, where the artist had spent a happy childhood.
It was not hard for me to assent to Bracey's picture of the Waikato as a rural paradise. The evening after I saw Winter Land Signals No.8and Tuatuamoana 2 for the first time, I spent several hours helping Skyler's mother rid her garden of a number of massive palms. We dug the palms out of the cool, dark soil of her backyard, and threw their sharp-edged fronds and thick, rubbery trunks over her fence, into one of the deep volcanic gullies that course dryly through the outer suburbs of Hamilton. As the sun slowly set, a mist from the Waikato River spread over the fields and subdivisions on the far side of the gully, and blurred the view of Maungakawa, Maungatautari, and the Pukeatua Hills. The far-off hum of Hamilton's only motorway only added to the peaceful feel of the Saturday evening. My head was full of the gorgeous shades of green and enigmatic, obscurely welcoming shapes I had found on Ted Bracey's canvases. As I walked toward the edge of Skyler's parents' yard to retrieve a palm frond which had failed to fall all the way into the gully, I slipped in the semi-darkness, and felt the heel of my shoe scrape something just beneath the lawn. I looked down, squinted, and saw a pile of small, bone-white shells. A midden. A pile of coins, their faces worn smooth with age. A pile of rubbish, which might one day become a small treasure, if a Masters student ever got around to excavating this small corner of the Waikato's immense plain. I carefully laid the green skein of turf back over the shells, and hurried off to the safety of a well-lit living room.
My discovery had not been particularly remarkable - there are middens scattered all over the Waikato, and over most of the rest of North Island - but it did make me think again of Ted Bracey's canvases in the gallery down the road. Bracey found the Waikato idyllic, and drew comfort and sustenance from its landscape and light. How aware was he of the region's history? Did he know about the hundreds of years Tainui spent settling the area, fighting their way north from their base in Kawhia Harbour, defeating ragtag bands of maero, or wild men, planting stone mauri in the soil, to make it fertile, raising kainga and marae, and burying placenta close to the places where their children were born? Did Bracey know the names of great Tainui leaders like Hotunui and Te Whereowhero?
Did Bracey know about the Waikato Kingdom, which arose in the middle of the nineteenth century to meet the challenge of the white settlers in Auckland, New Plymouth and other outposts of imperialism? Was he aware that the people of the Kingdom adapted the tools of the white man to produce and mill wheat, and to grow vegetables on a massive scale? Did Bracey realise that the Waikato Kingdom was the breadbasket of Auckland and a major exporter to Australia, before the British invasion of 1863, and the series of battles which broke the back of the Kingdom's army and ended with the retreat of the Tainui people across the Puniu River at the bottom of the Waikato, into the rugged country of the central North Island?
Did Bracey care that the Waikato were punished for their 'rebellion' against the British Crown with the confiscation of most of their land? Did he know about the speculators and absentee landlords who bought up the confiscated land at bargain prices, then sold it on to struggling settlers who paid Maori a pittance to labour on fledgling dairy and sheep farms? Did Bracey suspect that the flat, symmetrical fields, hawthorn hedges, and oak groves he loved had taken the place of stands of massive kahikatea, deep swamps where millions of eels squirmed and swam, and vast kumara plantations surrounded by crooked stone walls and gravel pits? Was Bracey aware that the very Englishness of towns like Cambridge, with their white picket fences, picture postcard Anglican churches, and gridded streets named after Victorian generals, was intended to disguise the real history of the Waikato? How, I wondered, had I succumbed to Bracey's sentimental naturalisation of a wholly contrived environment? How could I have been so gullible? In an effort to answer these questions, I sneaked away from a family trip to the Sunday morning markets in central Hamilton, and once again confronted Tuatuamoana 2 and Winter Land Signal No.8. I brought my exercise book with me, because I intended to scribble some notes toward a critique of the colonialist art Ted Bracey had inflicted on the people of Hamilton. I would bring the man to account.
What I found in the gallery's deserted exhibition room astonished me. The canvases which had yesterday shown a rich, gentle, welcoming landscape now looked coarse and claustrophic. The dark, thick brushstrokes which ran so boldly across the canvases looked like stains and cuts; the blocks of light green which had seem so lush now reminded me of gangrenous flesh. Bracey's canvases were indictments of the misuse of the rohe of Tainui, indictments of overgrazed dairy paddocks eroding into the Waikato River, of gorse and scrub clogging ancient tributaries of the great river, of urupa being over-run by blackberries...
What had happened? Had some mischevious member of the gallery staff put new paintings in place of the ones that had wowed me only a day ago? Had I misunderstood Tuatuamoana 2 and Winter Land Signal No.8 a day ago? Did I understand them then, and horribly misunderstand them now? Was Ted Bracey’s Waikato an idyllic, unspoilt place or a complex landscape marked by a long and difficult history?
I was unable to answer these questions a month ago, and I am still unable to answer them today, after viewing Bracey's work on several new occasions. If I were pushed, I would say that I feel deeply ambivalent about Winter Land Signal No.8 and Tuatuamoana 2, and that this ambivalence reflects the way I have long felt about the landscape of the Waikato and other parts of New Zealand transformed by colonisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
I did, after all, grow up on a dairy farm in the lower Waikato region, surrounded by hawthorn hedges and groves of oak and other British trees, playing cowboys and Indians in flat symmetrical paddocks laid out over secret middens. Even if I had grown up at the other end of the Great South Road, in one of Auckland’s inner city suburbs, my head would have been filled with the imagery of New Zealand’s rural heartland, thanks to the cult of the farm which is still so ubiquitous in the media and popular culture of what is, in demographic terms, a very urban country. I can neither reject nor unambiguously celebrate a landscape which has so deeply embedded itself in my life. The Garage Collective will no doubt denounce me as hopelessly bourgeois, but I will keep arguing with Ted Bracey. Note: the first painting reproduced in this post is Tuatuamoana 2; the second is a Bracey canvas from 1967 called North Island Synthesis Number 10. And no, I don't understand how the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery's photographer got such a nasty 'flash' effect on both canvases...