Monday, November 01, 2010

Artists @ Work

Review by Peter Simpson, New Zealand Herald, 29 October, 2010
Artists @ Work: New Zealand Painters & Sculptors in their Studios by Richard Wolfe & Stephen Robinson
Penguin Books $72

This book updates a concept - artists in their studios - first tried here 30 years ago in Contemporary New Zealand Painters A-M, published by Alistair Taylor with photographs by Marti Friedlander and text by Jim and Mary Barr. Unfortunately the second volume, N-Z, never saw the light of day. It's interesting to note that of the 24 artists in the new book, four are survivors from 1980 - Nigel Brown, Dick Frizzell, Richard Killeen and Jeffrey Harris.

Richard Wolfe (on whose interviews the text is based) and Stephen Robinson (who took the photographs) had a lot more artists to choose from than was the case 30 years ago. There is no pretence that the 24 artists included here are the "best" or the "A list". Their catchment is therefore some artists: some well known, some not; some veterans, some up-and-comers; some from down south, others from up north (about half are Aucklanders), and so on.

Each artist gets at least eight pages. Typically a chapter will include about a dozen photographs, some full-page (in a few cases double-page), others half-page or smaller. The chapter on Richard McWhannell, to take a random instance, has full-page shots of the painter looking at his work through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars (a practice explained in the text), another of him working at a portrait with the clothed and seated female model also in the shot, inviting an interesting comparison of one with the other, while smaller photographs show various angles on the studio, paintings on the walls, and the artist at his easel or drinking tea; others focus on details such as a palette, a pile of brushes, a tray of paint tubes, even a cigarette in an ashtray.

All give the impression of being taken within a few minutes of one another. Each chapter adds up to a lively impression of artists in their working environment. I doubt if many of these photographs will become classics as some of Marti Friedlander's from 1980 have, but the sense of a spontaneously recorded time and place is strong.

Richard Wolfe's texts run to around 1500 words in each chapter, based on a studio visit and recorded conversation, parts of which are quoted in the artist's words, others feed into the author's narrative.

There is no set formula but all chapters include a description of the physical location and character of the highly individual spaces, some account of the artists' career profiles, and a good deal about their methodology and working practices. Wolfe clearly has an ability to set his subjects at ease because all speak in a relaxed and informative manner.

In the chapter on sculptor Elizabeth Thomson, for example, he starts with an account of her early print-making activities, then focuses on the role of museum collections and display in her insect and plant studies.

In reply to questions about her working methods, she says, "There's no set way of working. Things evolve as you work. You draw on everything, all your experiences."

Similar statements come from several of the artists, one of the recurrent themes of the book being the way that the process of making art is continuously transformative and self-generating.

Wolfe's questioning is often precise and detailed, as when he pins Thomson down about how she achieves the eye-fooling colour with which she paints her bronze pohutukawa and lancewood leaves.

Sara Hughes, Stephen Bambury, John Reynolds and Heather Straka are some whose eloquence stands out, but it is probably invidious to single them out because, thanks to Wolfe's skills as an interviewer and the close knowledge of history and practice he brings to the task, all give a lively and often insightful account of themselves, making this a thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile book.

- Peter Simpson is an Auckland author, publisher and reviewer.
This review was first published in the New Zealand Herald, Saturday, 30 October.

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