Art in a fortress town
Hamilton is the youngest of New Zealand's larger cities. Where Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington were the products of careful if not always skillful planning, and Auckland grew chaotically but peacefully in its early decades, Hamilton was improvised by an invading army. After pushing the forces of King Tawhiao out of their cultivations and kainga in the Waikato in 1863 and early 1864, the British commander General Cameron decided, possibly arbitrarily, to garrison some of his troops on the flood-prone stretch of the Waikato River the Tainui people had given the unprepossessing name Kirikiriroa, or long stretch of gravel.
Many of the soldier-settlers who established farms around the new centre struggled with a waterlogged landscape, with the virtual absence of roads, and with a lack of capital. For at least two decades, an invasion from the Maori-controlled land to the south of the city also remained a possibility, at least in the minds of its inhabitants, who formed themselves into militia and dug networks of new redoubts. In their study of Hamilton's Anglican cathedral, Gabrielle and Paul Day lament what they see as the city's undistinguished early history:
Conceived in armed conflict, casually and negligently nurtured by business and government bodies in faraway Auckland, Hamilton was, for the first fifteen years, a quagmire of deprivation, poverty, and natural disaster.
Hamilton, and the central Waikato in general, have often had a reputation for dullness, and for a certain moral puritanism. The struggle to impose and consolidate imperial rule over the area is perhaps reflected in the way the place has presented itself to the world. The grids of streets named after British monarchs and generals, the picket fences, the monotonous low churches, the prim poplars standing like sentries beside farms established on confiscated land - all can be seen as ways of affirming and normalising conquest.
St Peter's Cathedral is a building which reflects the violent and improvisational origins of Hamilton. The seat of Anglicanism in the city is located on Pukerangiora, a low hill close to the western shore of the Waikato. In 1863 a redoubt was established on Pukerangiora, and the Fourth Waikato Regiment was housed there. The first church raised on the site quickly burnt to the ground, and in 1881 the fledgling Hamilton City Council decided to meet two needs at once by building a town hall which could also be used for Anglican worship. The council's willingness to fuse civic and religious matters reflects the extent to which Anglicanism was intertwined with the state in the colonial Waikato. In 1863 the church's leader, Bishop Augustus Selwyn, had marched into the region with the army of General Cameron, offering his blessings and prayers to Cameron's soldiers. The churches Selwyn raised in lower Waikato hamlets like Mauku and Pokeno were given thick walls and gun slots, so that they could double as blockhouses during raids by Maori guerrillas.
In 1915, the foundations of St Peter's were laid over the deep trenches of the Fourth Regiment's old redoubt. Most of New Zealand's early Anglican cathedrals were wooden gothic constructions, but the building on Pukerangiora was made using ferro-concrete, and given a fifteenth century Norfolk style. The church has been extended and redecorated a number of times since 1915.
It is difficult not to be impressed by the complicated ugliness of St Peter's. The building lacks the flint walls, the symmetrical proportions, and the round towers which make the churches of the Norfolk countryside graceful. Its grey concrete echoes that of the much larger police station which rises from the base of Pukerangiora, and the faux-military design of the square belltower it gained in 1933 increases its oppressive feel. The stained glass windows of St Peter's lack any of the local imagery found in many far older Anglican churches. Most of them show lumbering saints and violent golden-bearded kings, but one features a Chinese, an African, and an American Indian child finding peace in the light of Christ. Each child is a stereotype: the American Indian wears a headpiece of feathers; the African is nearly naked; and the Chinese boy appears to wear a Confucian suit. The real history of ethnic conflict which created Hamilton is nowhere alluded to inside St Peter's. Like the picket fences of the town and the straight rows of exotic trees on the farms of the central Waikato, the church seems to be an attempt to impose a particular and peculiarly unstable version of reality on its visitors. Its very awkwardness and ugliness hint at its motives.
Across the road from St Peter's, at the bottom of Pukerangiora, the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery is hosting a major retrospective by Richard Lewer, an artist born and raised in Hamilton. Lewer's hometown has had a difficult relationship with some of its more artistic progeny. Frank Sargeson, for example, grew up in Hamilton, but became disgusted with the conservatism of many of its citizens, and chose to spend his adult life elsewhere. A few years ago the city returned the snub, by rejecting a proposal to put a statue of the great writer on its main street.
Lewer was raised deep in suburban Hamilton, in a rugby-mad Roman Catholic family, before leaving to attend the University of Auckland's Elam Art School. Although he has continued to live away from the Waikato, Lewer has returned to the place compulsively in his art. For Lewer, the Hamilton of his childhood, with its skidmarked playing fields, mortgaged villas, and all-knowing priests, is a place of mystery and wonder, like Chagall's Vitebsk or Stanley Spencer's Cookham.
Lewer was inspired by McCahon as a schoolboy, and he has McCahon's hankering for the mythic. Like McCahon, he often works with difficult materials - enamel paint that sets quickly and resists nuance, and surfaces like boards or pre-used canvases - and he aims to simplify his depictions of his subjects so as to bring out what is essential in them. Like McCahon, Lewer wants his myths to come with the ugliness and chaos of the real world, and is therefore often torn between realism and something more visionary. But where McCahon usually gazed away from the human world, to the hills and bush and sea, Lewer finds his subjects in the people and institutions of an unfashionable provincial town. One of the many highlights of Lewer's retrospective is a series of paintings of Andy Dalton, Richard Loe and other rugby players whose careers began in the eighties, on the edge of the sport's professional era. Lewer's players are heroic, but they often seem in pain. Sticky with mud and blood, they stand angrily, or charge across empty patches of grass like wounded bulls. The small size of the canvases they inhabit increases their pathos and their distance from us.
The small, almost delicate rugby portraits contrast with the large and messily complicated paintings about unsolved murders which Lewer has made in white on deep green cloth apparently taken from pool tables. With their meandering diagrams, sketches of apparently significant objects, and crude maps, these works are as chaotic and as paranoid as the late-night bar talk of a conspiracy theorist. They are the products of a mythographer who declines to award his myths a coherence and a beauty that the events they reflect do not possess. St Peter's Cathedral may be an exercise in distortion and evasion, but the Richard Lewer show across the road offers something very different.