Portch versus the sentimental nationalists
My spies at the Elam School of Fine Arts tell me that Ellen Portch's recent exhibition in that venerable institution's B341 gallery was a great success. Apparently the meticulously eerie drawings which Portch gathered together under the name Wall excited a student body sick of being told that a willingness to engage with the mysteries of line and form and perspective is old-fashioned and unnecessary. Some students weary of reading Derrida and composing elegantly vacuous 'concept statements' reportedly begged Portch for a lesson or two in the ancient art of drawing.
Portch may be popular at Elam, but she has faced encountered some criticism in the comments boxes of this blog. After I posted an excerpt from the essay I wrote for the catalogue that accompanied Wall, a couple of commenters complained about the lack of references to 'local', 'New Zealand' subject-matter in Portch's work. Such complaints implicitly raise the question of what exactly constitutes properly 'local', 'New Zealand' subject matter. Fifty years ago Allen Curnow tried to answer this question in the celebrated introduction to his Penguin Anthology of New Zealand Verse. Although Curnow was dealing with literature rather than visual art, his attempt to define the 'local and special' exerted a strong influence throughout New Zealand's arts community. Curnow wanted to distance himself and the generation of poets he represented from the sentimental pseudo-nationalism of the 'Maoriland' generation of colonial versifiers, who looked lovingly back to Britain at the same time as they celebrated the 'new country' by filling their work with 'local colour' in the form of native trees, native birds, and picturesque Maori warriors and maidens. Curnow's distaste for the excesses of his predecessors did not affect his determination to proclaim the importance of the 'local and the special' to the work he and his friends were producing. The young editor's task was to reject the Maoriland generation, without rejecting cultural nationalism.
After a lengthy, baleful survey of the work produced by earlier, inferior generations of Pakeha poets, Curnow constructed an ingenious new definition of New Zealand cultural nationalism. According to Curnow, the poets who represented what was 'special' about New Zealand did so because they dealt honestly with the psychic challenges of living in this remote, strange and - for many artists and intellectuals, at least - inhospitable country. Whether their poems featured kowhai trees or oak trees, or tui or blackbirds, was of secondary import. Curnow hailed his friend RAK Mason as the first truly New Zealand poet, yet noted that Mason's poems feature relatively little explicitly local subject matter.
As feminist and post-colonial scholars have long since pointed out, Curnow's introduction to his Penguin Anthology suffers from all sorts of aesthetic and political prejudices, and fails to do justice to the complicated history of the poetry and song produced in these islands. But even if he was an unreliable guide to New Zealand's literary past, Curnow did an important service by showing up the inanity of the Maoriland writers' idea that a little 'local colour' was the same thing as an indigenous literature. His polemic helped to kill off the sentimental parlour poetry of the Maoriland generation.
It is disconcerting to find that the recent criticisms of Ellen Portch's work seem to rely upon a Maoriland-era aesthetic. Portch's critics find her guilty of a 'sterile internationalism' and pronounce her impervious to 'New Zealand reality', simply because it is not easy for them to find New Zealand subject matter in her drawings. Have Portch's detractors been asleep for the last fifty years, or have they somehow drifted back into the mists of time and sentimentality, until they have found themselves back in the fin de siecle Parnell drawing rooms of amateur versifiers and Sunday painters? I suspect that the apparent recrudescence of Maorilandism in the twenty-first century has something to do with the way that New Zealand art and government-driven marketing strategies have begun to intersect over the past decade or so. Fifty years ago the Kiwi bourgeoisie was more inclined to lock its artists up in asylums than to patronise them; today, though, it regards them, along with the All Whites and Rachel Hunter, as invaluable international sales reps for 'brand New Zealand'. Mixing a ruthlessly instrumental attitude towards the arts with an unalloyed sentimentality about Kiwi life, the Clark government's Heart of the Nation programme was an attempt to direct public funding towards parts of the 'cultural sector' that showcased New Zealand, or at least the commercial viable bits of New Zealand, on the 'international stage'. It is notable that the Key administration has hardly tampered with the substance of the policy since it shunted Clark out of the Beehive in 2008.
All too often, bureaucrats implementing the Heart of the Nation policy have seemed to favour artworks garnished with 'local colour' over more difficult work that reflects seriously upon the peculiarities New Zealand life. The Clark government's love affair with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, a work which necessarily reduced New Zealand to a series of picturesque backdrops, symbolised its reanimation of the Maoriland aesthetic. Is it be any wonder, given the drift of official policy, that the idea that New Zealand can be defined in terms of a succession of picturesque images seems to have caught on, once again, with some Kiwi consumers of art? Rather than keep complaining about the iniquities of the world, I thought I would post another excerpt from the essay I wrote for Wall, in the hope of showing that Ellen Portch's art has a subtlety that cannot be detected by the crude critical instruments of sentimental cultural nationalism. If any neo-Maorilanders want to take the argument further, the comments box is always open for business...
[excerpt begins] Ellen Portch has taught painting technique at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Art for a decade now, and all of the art she has produced in that time has shown her fascination with the mechanics of painting and drawing. Portch's work might seem narrowly focused and almost fussily formal, but it has always been subtly autobiographical.
Portch grew up in a small village in flattest Suffolk, a short drive from East Anglia's storm-eroded coast, before settling in New Zealand with her family in her mid-teens. In the series of portraits of politicians she exhibited at the University of Auckland's Old Government House in 2006, Portch made oblique and cunning references to her status as a thirty-something Anglo-Kiwi. Her large black and white paintings gave the faces of 1980s leaders like Thatcher and Reagan complex networks of stylised lines that reminded many viewers of moko. If Portch's subject matter looked back to her childhood in the '80s, during the tense, half-forgotten era of the Brixton riots, the great miner's strike and the deployment of Cruise Missiles, then her manner called attention to the history and culture of the new homeland she gained after leaving Britain behind. In her austere new show, Portch again makes reference to her past, and to the culture of her second homeland. The thick, apparently concrete walls and almost medieval towers that appear in a number of her new drawings can be seen as memories of the military architecture that marks the ragged East Anglia coastline. As a child, Portch played in the windy towers and keeps of half-ruined castles built by obscure kings as a futile defence against the Viking raiders who pounded the shores of Norfolk and Suffolk like storms. The castles often stood close to concrete pillboxes and gun emplacements hurriedly laid out on cliff tops and headlands during World War Two, when a German invasion of Britain seemed for a while likely.
It might seem hard to find traces of Portch's second homeland in Wall. Certainly, none of the clichés that journalists use to characterise New Zealand art can be applied to these enigmatic and original drawings. The intense sunlight that Rita Angus painted does not seep into Portch's cool corridors and rooms. The hills and bush that kept Woollaston and McCahon so busy do not enter the hermetic spaces of Wall. It can be argued, though, that the loneliness and anxiety that suffuse Portch's new drawings have antecedents in the works of some of the best-known Pakeha painters and writers of the twentieth century.
In the early paintings of McCahon and the early poems of Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch, the New Zealand landscape is, despite the best efforts of generations of white settlers, an eerie, alien thing which will not let its inhabitants feel at ease, let alone at home. Cut off from the European culture which is their inheritance, guilty about the way their forefathers took possession of the land, and aware of their lack of knowledge about their surroundings, mid-century Pakeha intellectuals felt a profound anxiety when they looked at 'empty' hills and plains of New Zealand. Physical alienation breeds social alienation, and in Brasch's much-quoted poem 'The Silent Land', the tight little colonial towns which sat beside harbours and rivermouths are as inhospitable as the landscape around them:
The plains are nameless and the cities cry for meaning,
The unproved heart still seeks a vein of speech
The eerie structures and depthless vacuums of Ellen Portch's new drawings reproduce some of the existential anxiety that suffuses the landscape paintings and poems of McCahon and Brasch. Where McCahon et al struggled to understand and cope with an alien natural landscape by turning it into art, Portch makes art out of the vertiginous spaces and inscrutable details of an artificial but equally disturbing environment.