Back in the late nineties, when I was busy missing lectures on subjects like Historiography and Art Criticism and Image and Text in the University of Auckland's Art History Department, I was informed by a more punctilious student that painting and drawing were 'beyond obsolete'. Over an enormous cup of coffee at the Wynyard Street Cafe, which was the place where students who abstained from lectures would rendezvous with their nerdier colleagues, my friend informed me that she had destroyed the tremulous watercolour canvases she had been creating ever since she had escaped from her parents' home in deepest Howick to the Bohemian inner city.
I wasn't too unhappy to hear about the demise of the watercolours, which had been burdened with names like Vibrating Intensity and Beyond Within, but I did feel sad when I learned my friend had also destroyed her volume of Hieronymous Bosch prints, with its glossy cover and explanatory essay in French. I'd secretly coveted the book, but it had been casualty of my friend's sudden realisation that installation and conceptual art were the only properly 'contemporary' forms of artistic expression. 'I'm embarrassed I ever painted', she told me, stirring her latte energetically. 'Duchamp made painting obsolete eighty years ago. The stuffed coal sacks, the urinal. He went beyond.'
I've had a soft spot for conceptual art ever since I used it as an excuse to abstain from drawing lessons at high school. After learning about conceptual artists like the Art and Language Group, whose famous 'Air Show' consisted of 'an unspecified volume of air in an unspecified place for an unspecified length of time', I convinced my compassionate art teacher that I would be better off sitting quietly and creating works in my head than painting the stick figures that earned me ridicule from my more gifted peers. With its emphasis on ideas over craft, installation art also seems to me like a good bolt-hole for painters who can't, well, paint.
Even in the late nineties, though, I found it hard to believe that painting and drawing were actually 'obsolete'. Postmodernism may have been all the rage amongst faculty and students in departments like Art History, and Derrida may have been treated like a conquering hero when he dropped into Auckland to give a lecture, but the claim that the austere installations of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Merylyn Tweedy constituted the whole future of art seemed, at best, rather bold. Were works like Tweedy's braying toilet and Emin's messy bed really rich and suggestive enough to act as prototypes for generations of artists? Where was the Giotto or the Cezanne of the installation and conceptual art crowds?
I wondered, too, whether the sheer antiquity of painting and drawing might count in favour of these forms, rather than against them. As the galleries of Lascaux and Arnhem Land show, people felt the need to make patterns on flat surfaces with paint tens of thousands of years before Giotto and Rembrandt and Van Gogh picked up their brushes. Wasn't the very longevity of painting evidence that it answered some need - a need for self-expression, perhaps, or for the transcendence of the self - innate in humans?
A decade after painting and drawing were pronounced dead in the Wynyard Street cafe both forms seem to be enjoying quite an afterlife. Although some important conceptual and installation work has graced Kiwi galleries in recent years - Brett Graham's show at Two Rooms last year deserves special mention - much of our best art continues to come from pencils and brushes, and living painters like Ralph Hotere and Shane Cotton, let alone the mighty dead like McCahon and Angus, continue to enjoy the favours of the art market. It is conceptual and installation art, those supposed harbingers of twenty-first high culture, which appear to be declining in prestige. Even Damien Hirst recently seemed to admit to boredom with his old practice, by exhibiting a series of rather tremulous paintings. The urge recorded at Lascaux seems intact.
Perhaps it is some primal, subconscious urge which leads me out of my warm, book-lined home into a storm to attend the opening of an exhibition of paintings by Emma Smith in a remote part of the dark and sprawling Unitec campus. After a bus deposits me at Point Chevalier, on the wrong side of Unitec, I lean on the gale blowing up off the Great North Road and stagger past the big brick building that once housed Robin Hyde and Maurice Duggan, along with other, less distinguished lunatics and alcoholics. The terminally sensible Victorians who designed Oakley Psychiatric Hospital made sure that the institution doubled as a dairy farm, so that the unpaid labour of its inmates could recoup the costs of iron beds, bowls of porridge and mashed potatoes, and electro-shock therapy.
Now gentrified hospital buildings and remnants of farm architecture - the high fence built around a well, the foundations of a brick milking shed - mingle with the prefab tutorial rooms and brutalist student apartment blocks thrown up over the past couple of decades. I take a shortcut across an old farm paddock too steep and rough to be built on or converted to a football field, then skirt the edge of a shabby organic garden, and find myself on a road which leads out of the Mason Clinic, the maximum security psychiatric unit which is the last living remnant of Oakley, toward the studio in Building 76 which has been made into an improvised gallery by Emma's local supporters. An overloaded datura plant shakes its sinister flowers over the clinic's high wire fence.
I'm a little late and very wet when I finally find an unlocked door on Building 76 and step into the bright noisy room where Smith has tacked up dozens of her bright noisy paintings. The almost perversely inaccessible location of this show and the short time it will run seem somehow appropriate, given the reputation Smith has accumulated in recent years. Although her work has had no shortage of admirers, it has sometimes appeared in places outside the comfort zone of the Auckland art establishment. Smith's paintings have appeared in literary as well as art journals. When she painted a cover for Jack Ross' 'postmodern sci fi porn novel' EMO, Smith seemed to be expressing an affinity with a writer who resists easy categorisation.
The violent, ludic history of Oakley Hospital, with its ice baths and electric shocks and imprisoned geniuses scribbling secret diaries and poems, also seems somehow relevant to Smith's work. The high-walled, almost windowless room in which she stands might be a cell. Her paintings, with their expressive scratches and spirals of colour and eerie captions or titles - I read Girl with a death mask, and Man in hole - might have been committed to the cell walls by some prisoner marking the hours or days that passed between appointments with a staff psychologist or supervised walks amongst the Moreton Bay figs. (Years ago, on a visit to the then recently-abandoned Kingseat Hospital, Michael Arnold and I climbed a rusted outdoor staircase, eased ourselves onto a second floor landing, and saw the words THIS IS THE DYING ROOM splashed in crimson on the inside of a serrated pane of glass. Without looking at one another, we turned and skipped quickly back down the staircase.) The power of Smith's paintings, and their ability to survive placement in an environment like this, is a matter of art history as well as artistry. The biographies of the great pioneers of abstract art often resembles lives of the saints. Obsessive, turbulent men, Mondrian, Malevich, and Pollock made a journey from ignorance, through befuddlement and experiment, to something close to an arid perfection. The great abstractionists were seekers - Mondrian was a Theosophist, Pollock was fascinated by Jung, Malevich turned Bolshevism into a species of mysticism - who became determined to pierce the everyday guises of the world and discover the deeper reality that allegedly existed behind those guises. Their oeuvres are records of their quest, and the works which record them crossing the unstable ground between figuration and abstraction, the world and the truth, are amongst their most riveting. Mondrian's Trees, which begin realistically, stiffen into formalised arrangements of lines, and finally become unrecognisable, record a journey across this strange territory; so too do the paintings Pollock made late 1930s, which began as portraits of his family and were then vandalised with strips of abstract colour until they became assemblages of mutilated, contorted figures.
Because Mondrian and Pollock were teleologists, obsessed with their journeys from realism to abstraction, they tended to discount their 'transitional' works as awkward contradictions. For a long time critics and biographers echoed the judgments of the artist-seekers, but today, when the manifestos and polemics and cosmic ambitions of modernism have moved beyond historical memory, we can appreciate the strange power of works like the Trees series and of violent Pollock canvases like Guardians of the Secret. In painting after painting, Emma Smith returns to and dwells in the territory that the likes Mondrian and Pollock crossed so eagerly. On a piece of paper tacked to the southwestern corner of her cell, a bluebird has been drawn firmly but sparely over a succession of scrawled-out images. We cannot see the images, any more than we can recognise the figures in Guardians of the Secret, but we sense their presence, under the artist's obliterating paint. By concealing them, Smith informs us of their existence. In a small painting a few feet away a girl's hair has grown down over her torso and up over her face, so that it becomes an abstract block of colour that obscures her movements and expression. In other works legs and arms emerge from clouds and spirals of paint, groping about in the chaos for the bodies they once belonged to. Smith handles paint and colour boldly and expressively, and it is hard to avoid comparing her to Philip Clairmont, the desperate improviser who saw his canvases as windows and doors leading out of the seedy forgotten rooms where he lived and painted. Clairmont's contemporary Emily Karaka, who is still turning out massive, recklessly colourful expressions of her pride in her Waikato heritage and her anger at New Zealand history, is another likely influence on Smith.
I grab a beer and wander to a corner of the room, where I find Jack Ross marking his name in the corner of a dark painting from which a child's face almost manages to emerge. 'This isn't the first she's sold tonight', he tells me. 'I want to use it on the cover of a book. I hope she sells well. She deserves to sell well. It's just that...not everyone would necessarily want these on their wall, would they? The work may be too intense for some people...'
The storm is still blowing on Wednesday night, when I wander down to Elam School of Fine Arts to claim my quota of free beer at the launch of Ellen Portch's exhibition Wall. I wrote the introduction to the catalogue which accompanies Ellen's exhibition, but as I move about the new gallery Elam has given the typically recondite name B341 I begin to regret the text. Encased in pale elegant frames that remind me of slabs of Grecian marble, Ellen's bleak yet densely detailed drawings make my asides about English and New Zealand history and my references to dead philosophers seem wholly unnecessary.
With their scrawled cancellations and amendments, Emma Smith's paintings are unashamedly contingent, fragmentary works. By contrast, Portch's drawings are so intricately constructed that it is hard to imagine them in an incomplete state. It is as though the artist has summouned them, fully formed, from some alternative dimension where they had always existed, and perhaps continue to exist.
'I'm not buying a book, sir', a genially drunk Hamish Dewe informs me, as he steps out of the white glare of the centre of B341 and sniffs at the stand Titus Books proprietor Brett Cross has erected on the edge of the exhibition, next to a rapidly-dwindling supply of booze. 'I don't need Hamilton to tell me how to look at a wall.' My pre-publication copy of the catalogue for Wall arrived at the same time as my copy of Point Omega, Don DeLillo's sixteenth novel; I may be fooling myself, but I keep seeing similarities between the drawings of the young, relatively unknown Auckland art teacher and the prose of the elderly, much-decorated novelist. Portch's drawings show a series of dim, cold-looking towers, corridors, and rooms, meagrely populated by mysterious figures; DeLillo's novel begins and ends in a cold, dark room where a slowed-down version of Hitchcock's classic movie Psycho is playing and various figures stand in the shadows, and in between visits a decaying house in the California desert, where two men and a women move about mysteriously. One of the last drawings in Portch's sequence depicts a knife lying on a floor, and shows a body sprawled nearby; near the end of Point Omega, DeLillo describes the discovery of a knife, which may have been used to murder one of the novel's characters, in a part of the desert known by the American military as the 'Impact Zone'. Wall and Point Omega resemble each other not only in their imagery but in their recalcitrance. Both writer and artist refrain from explaining the strange and sometimes violent scenes they offer their audiences. Portch's drawings and DeLillo's prose are clear in their details, but the manner in which these details relate to one another sometimes seems obscure.
The recalcitrance of DeLillo's novel has bewildered many critics, and disillusioned some of his many fans. DeLillo is famous for his surveys of contemporary American society - his 1988 novel Libra examined the tangled, contradictory lives of Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, and other figures implicated in the assassination of John F Kennedy and its aftermath, and his 1997 epic Underworld covered forty years of history and included portraits of J Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce - but Point Omega runs to only one hundred and seventeen large-print pages. The central character of the novel is a former Pentagon employee who was linked to war crimes in Iraq, yet De Lillo treats this part of the man's past only obliquely. Many reviewers of the new novel have lamented the passing of the old, expansive DeLillo.
But if some critics and fans have been upset by the recalcitrance of DeLillo's new novel, others have been excited by the same quality. At goodreads.com, a site where book lovers gather to give each other tips and start arguments, some DeLillo have reported bursting into tears after reading Point Omega, and deciding to read it all over again to try to find out why they were crying.
When I posted some images from Wall on this blog, viewers were divided in a way which reminds me of the stand-off over Point Omega. When one visitor to the blog complained that Ellen's drawings resembled a frustrating 'riddle', another visitor responded by asking an important question:
What’s wrong with riddles? The whole point of Art is that it doesn't spell things out, but leads us on a journey. Good Art acknowledges that the viewer has intelligence and brings that to the interpretation of the work. Art that spells everything out in an instant is pointless - why not just speak the idea. If you think Portch’s work is a riddle you haven’t seen much contemporary art! Her work provides plenty of signs (figuration) for the viewer to latch onto. Use your head and you never know you might be rewarded.
Those few words are the only introduction Ellen Portch's drawings need.