Surface Exploration | Art New Zealand Spring #167 2018
Adrienne Martyn Photographer
The painter sits to one side of the image. At the other side, two paintings are stacked against and facing the wall - just one stretcher bar of the foremost painting is visible where the canvas is applied to the back, and part of the cross-brace; the same section of the other painting protrudes from behind it, but wrapped. Milan Mrkusich was, as obituaries have emphasised, a private person. Adrienne Martyn's portrait photograph, commissioned in 1987 by the then National Gallery along with portraits of other New Zealand artists, does not breach but rather projects privacy. Mrkusich's arms are folded in a way that at first seems typical but then seems more arranged; they are not folded sternly in front of his torso, but languidly across the thighs. His face face bears no particular expression (when I think I can detect an attitude or feeling, I immediately doubt that it is there). He wears pale-coloured trousers and a white short-sleeved shirt, reminiscent, in Martyn's black and white photograph, of the beautiful colours of raw canvas and gesso respectively. Mrkusich's left shoulder and arm make a dramatically clean white curve through the black void between the artist and his paintings. A wooden shelf extends, almost uncomfortably, from Mrkusich's neck to the edges of the paintings where it abuts just above the horizontal stretcher bars. Regardless of a move from analogue to digital photography, it is easy to fin parallels between this portrait from more than thirty years ago and Martyn's recent photographs at Anderson House in Invercargill, particularly those that show the edges of paintings in close-up, such as 'Shift #4' and 'Shift #5'. There is the same blankness and detachment, but at the same time a gentle lingering on tones and textures and surfaces. These qualities not only connect photographs by Martyn from different stages of her career, but also set up a more surprising affinity with the work of her one-time subject, Mrkusich.
Martyn was born in Wellington in 1950, pursued her photography career in Sydney, then Dunedin, and now resides in Wellington, but her formative years were spent in Invercargill. Anderson House was built in lovely park-like gardens on the outskirts of the southern city in 1925 for Robert and Elizabeth Anderson, a wealthy couple who stipulated that their residence (which reminds me of those mansions in the American South) be donated to the city as an art gallery, ultimately named the Invercargill Public Art Gallery. Unfortunately it does not meet the latest earthquake standards, so the collection built up over the last sixty years has been put in storage while work on the building commences. When I had a weekend away in Invercargill recently, with a view to seeing Martyn's exhibition of photographs of Anderson House, I was surprised to discover that the Invercargill Public Art Gallery is now located in a small central-city shop and is closed on weekends. after a couple of phone calls, I gained access and had another, more pleasant surprise. Martyn's photographic prints, like Mrkusich's paintings, have all sorts of nuances and details that can only be seen in the flesh.
The exhibition 'Shift' in consists of three sets of images. 'Interiors' shows the rooms of Anderson House stripped of their artworks. In 'Objects', the artworks emerge, but covered with blankets for removal and/or with their imagery blacked out. Fuller and more vivid, 'View' is a video sequence of 13 images of the garden seen through the textured glass of the Anderson House windows.
All but one of the 'Interiors' are frontal shots of the walls with narrow strips of floor and ceiling. The exception is 'Husband Gallery', one of the emptiest images, featuring an angled wall with picture rails, a closed door with the label 'Dickison Room' above it, and part of a chandelier. The holes at regular intervals along the picture rail are small but telling. Apart from registering the absence of artworks, they tell of how Martyn's photographs themselves make their mark. The images appear empty and severe at first, certainly in reproduction, and can be mistaken for architectural photographs of the kind that are primarily concerned wth structure and neutrality. Then, when you are up-close with the prints in the gallery, you can see that Martyn plays up all manner of details - things, enigmas, shifts of light and shadow. There are conspicuous generic or recurring motifs (column heater, fireplace, piano, vitrine, in addition to the basic ingredients mentioned above), but also minute moments of interest, made evident by the simplicity of the whole - scuff marks on the floor of 'Deaker Gallery #4', the beaded cord of a roller blind in the particularly minimal 'Jenkin Gallery #1'. The light is considerably brighter in the niche to the left of the fireplace in 'Kirkby Gallery #1' compared to the niche to the right, and the latter is occupied by a peculiar purplish smudge. In 'Anderson Gallery #2' a silver and gold light seems to swirl about the two central light switches.
So Martyn has not engineered a completely even light that cancels out mood and singularity. There are related pairs of images and scheme, such as a view of the garden through the curved bay windows in 'Deaker Gallery #4' and 'Dickison Gallery #3', but the differences are as compelling as the similarities (the view looks mistier in the former than in the latter, for example). Martyn works like an abstract painter, settling on simple compositional systems, eking out a series, summoning rich surfaces and slight tremors on pictorial 'incident', making each image a world of experience for those who are patient and love looking.
The 'Objects' photographs are still more austerely abstract, partly because they are, more or less, close-ups, and partly because of the black surfaces with which Martyn has replaced the pictorial details of the photographed artworks. The latter is a technique she has used in photographing paintings at other galleries, such as the Auckland Art Gallery and the Louvre, while in the multiple views of Lake Taupo in 'Lake (2000)', the sky becomes a flat white foil for the wrinkled rippling water. 'Shift #3', though, is less of a close-up and more like the 'Interiors', picking up the roller-blind cord from 'Jenkin Gallery #1' and showing a painting still hanging on the wall, a black rectangle within a mildly ornate white frame. 'Shift #5' is a closer examination of frames, one white, the other a deep blue-black, resulting in a taut and sumptuous composition. Throughout the 'Objects', frame edges along with creased, cream clothes covering some of the paintings, are strikingly reminiscent of the stacked paintings and pale clothing in the earlier Mrkusich portrait. The close-up format also betrays blemished surfaces - peeling paint (in the Barnett Newman-like 'Shift #9') as well as marks and scratches (on the picture rail above the shrouded picture in 'Shift #1') - and thereby Martyn's painterly sensibility, her eye for a kind of discovered 'complication ' of colour, line, tone or texture that Larry Poons has described as 'the honey for any painter'.1
Back in 1981, Martyn made a series of close-up photographs of exterior concrete walls of buildings, called 'Surfaces'. Turning details of the world into abstract 'paintings' is an approach that harks back to American photographer Aaron Siskind, although Martyn's photographs are like the 'post-painterly abstraction' to Siskind's 'abstract expressionism'. That is, Martyn's are based more on orderly, reductive and repetitive patterns such as the grid, chevron and all-over network. Her focus is also on a very specific range of rather mechanical or uniform textures, particularly the stucco effect, in contrast to Siskind's more emotive, scarred and weathered surfaces. In fact, more striking than the relationship to Siskind is that with the New Zealander Mervyn Williams, who was also, in the early 1980s, making abstractions that had a 'stuccoed' look to them, and Williams's paintings often look like photographs, funnily enough.2 Both artists explored not just the porosity of surfaces but of media or disciplines. It seems possible, though, given that Martyn was closely involved with feminism and women artists from the time she spent in Sydney early in her career, that her rigorous abstractions are as much a challenge to the male modernists with whom she can be compared. Perhaps this resides in the way she repeatably homes in on humanising details and eschews uniformity and perfection, as in the Anderson House interiors, or in the fact that she periodically switches attention from the architectural to the human subject.
William Main and John B. Turner have observed, in the portraits Martyn made following the 'Surfaces' series, 'the same crisp abstract form, and almost obsessive attention to specific detail'.3 The portraits, some of which are double portraits, attend first and foremost to the people and the light, and often have little else in them - though some, such as 'Helen and Margaret (1981)' and 'Jude/Interior (1986)', have a vertical division (or Newmanesque 'zip') in the form of the corner or edge of a wall, against which the subjects casually lean. The artist portraits tend to follow suit: besides the Mrkusich one, with the vertical edges of the canvas, there is Jeffrey Harris leaning against a wall, and Jacqueline Fraser in front of a wardrobe, the join of the wardrobe doors pointing down to the centre of her head. The Fraser portrait is unusual in that is features more accoutrements, including a happy-looking toy dog that makes a mockery of the artist's severe countenance. Generally, however, detail still tends to reside in surfaces - the mesmerising lines of Fraser's dress and the sheen and grain of the doors behind her, for example.
In Martyn's photographs of prominent lawyers, commissioned in 1986 by the law firm Buddle Findlay, objects start to compete with subjects. 'Denese Henare (Lawyer) (1987)' is notable for the dominance of the lawyer's desk angled obstructively across the middle of the image and laid out neatly with papers, stapler, tape recorder, calendar, calculator, telephone (and one of those desk pads with the triangular corners that have sometimes ben invoked in descriptions of Mrkusich's paintings - how odd that he keeps cropping up here). Henare (Ngati Hine, Ngapuhi), now a District Court Judge in Auckland, was partner from 1986-90 in the high-powered law firm of Collinge Watt & Henare. John Collinge became chairman of the Commerce Commission, New Zealand High Commissioner in London and president of the National Party, while David Watt was jailed for fraud in 2006. Martyn pins Henare against the back wall of her office, head and upper body rising above the desk, one foot visible in the shadow beneath. The upper-left quadrant of the photograph is, in a sense, the portrait within the portrait. Henare is framed there by two vertical joins in the veneer panelling of the office wall, by the top of the desk below and by a sliver of a picture frame above (the latter another fame devoid of a picture, like those in the Mrkusich and the 'Objects' photographs). In this miniature board-room style head-and-shoulders portrait, Henare's expression is vacant, wide-eyed and serene (typical of Martyn's portraits), but her hands grasp and break the 'frame', pale fingers stretching out across the dark surface of the desk.
Bridie Lonie one wrote of Martyn's architectural photographs: 'whatever life goes on behind these walls has become something hidden, at odds with their stark simplicity'.4 This equally describes human facades of Martyn's portraits (and indeed the images of picture frames). The faces do not reveal much, if anything, about character or mind-state. There is no obvious reading of these surfaces. Or, conversely , there are innumerable permutations. As Kirk Varnedoe said about abstract art, 'reductions toward austerity represent what the French call a 'reculer pour mieux sauter', a purifying impulse that leads to a new expansiveness'.5 As artists 'cut back towards simplicity', Varnedoe argues. 'they can wind up increasing, rather than delimiting, the volatility of possible meanings and associations'.6 In other words, if the artist does not give us viewers much to go on, we start making things up. Is Joanna Margaret Paul, in Martyn's 1981 portrait, really 'resigned', 'uneasy', 'tired and weary'?7 Who knows? But all surfaces, whether they are skin, stone, canvas or whatever, have they own qualities and arouse specific associations; we think and feel our way across marks and materials, furrows and features. As Mrkusich once said, 'The surfaces are not DEAD.'8
1. Larry Poons, in conversation with Karen Wilkin, 'On Greenberg'. 13 July 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wq56Zbhk3LI (accessed 25 June 2018)
2. Bridie Lonie, 'Seven Painters - The Eighties', Otago Daily Times, 14 March 1983.
3. William Main and John B. Turner, 'New Zealand Photography the 1940s to the Present: Nga Whakaahua o Aotearoa Mai i 1840 ki Naianei, PhotoForum, Auckland 1993, p. 79
4. Bridie Lonie, 'Adrienne Martyn's Portrait Photographs', Art New Zealand 29, Summer 1983-84, p. 58.
5. Kirk Varnedoe, 'A Fine Disregard: What Makes Modern Art Modern', Abrams, New York 1989, p. 96.
6. Ibid., p. 176.
7. Helen Telford, 'Pose and Contrapose: The World of Adrienne Martyn's Photographs', in 'Adrienne Martyn: Portraits: A Survey 1979-1987, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin 1988, p. 9.
8. Milan Mrkusich, letter to the author, 4 May 1998.
SHIFT | Invercargill Public Art Gallery 2018
Shift - light, surfaces and art of the move
The Invercargill Public Art Gallery collection has been held for more than sixty years, at Anderson House, the stately home built in 1925 for Robert Anderson, who was knighted for his services to industry in 1934. Sir Robert and Lady Anderson were by then in their sixties, with one daughter remaining at home. The Andersons had donated their previous home to the Plunket Society and let it be known that this house too would eventually come to the city; they specified that it was to become an art gallery. In 1951, after Lady Anderson’s death, the city took over the home, added new picture rails and placed its art collection throughout the building. A society was formed that quickly developed the collection, commissioned exhibitions, competitions, musical and social events and provided Devonshire teas. The house then sat between two models: neither a stately home with its furniture intact, nor a dedicated art gallery with temperature and humidity controls and appropriate storage facilities.
The model worked for more than sixty years, but earthquake strengthening requirements forced issues. Anderson House is a retreat, a peaceful home. Georgian architecture is perhaps the most peaceful of all building styles, and this peace is reinforced by the building’s setting in a large but unfussy park, with a section of untouched bush as well as some regeneration. The notion of art as a place of separation, where, as Wordsworth wrote, emotions could be recollected in tranquility, is only one of today’s understandings of art. However when Anderson House was built, it was the primary one and remains so for many born midway through last century. The Invercargill Public Art Gallery Incorporated Society is now going to store the artworks in a stable environment and the collection will move to the city. This shift is therefore charged with emotion, as it signals the collection’s departure from the outskirts of the city into its more active centre, and the question of the house’s future.
'Shift' is both a record of the removal of the collection and a celebration of the art of the builders, whose surfaces offset the works that were hung there for sixty years. Those surfaces are in Martyn’s DNA. Her grandfather was one of the carpenters, while her great uncle by marriage, Alf Ball, was the contractor who brought sands from Stewart Island and mixed them with cement to generate Anderson Park’s white, glittering and durable external walls. Martyn’s photography has always vied with colour field painting’s concern for the variation within apparently uniform surfaces. Her exhibition 'Surfaces' (1982) celebrated the sharp sparkle of art deco’s stucco, while subsequent work considered the old plastered walls of the Excelsior Hotel, Dunedin and the project 'Abandoned State' recorded disused State houses. A later body of work, 'Looking for the Subject', explored the concept of art through a study of the impact of the frame without its painting and the interdependence of buildings, rooms and their artworks. Martyn has also documented collections in their archived forms, including the series 'Kaikauhoe' showing pounuma in plastic storage bags at the Tauranga Museum.
'Shift' was the perfect project, bringing these factors together. We see artworks that are carefully covered with slip cloths, removed from their walls in the process of their movement to storage; we see the walls that were designed to hold them now emptied of them, making us consider instead their supports in the form of walls, picture rails and lights. We also see the internal details of the building that was designed to be two things in succession: a home for the final years of the Andersons’ lives and then a gallery.
Martyn has photographed the rooms as they sit in a transitional space, neither home nor gallery. Her titles record the rooms’ names, as successive benefactors were acknowledged over time. The artworks themselves make no claims on us; we see neither their colour nor their emotions. Some have their images blacked out while others are covered by slip cloths, or simply absent, signaled by picture rails. While Martyn was allowed to open the blinds, most of the images turn away from the astonishing views. The house that was built like a camera, open to the northern light, is dimmed. The internal details are naked and insistent. The house was built with double-wall insulation and an oil-fired central heating system. While its fireplaces echo Georgian forms their fireboxes are small, reminding us that they would need the brightest coal to make an impact. The house was stripped of its contents when given to the city and the light fittings do not quite reflect the grandeur of the building.
Martyn’s images give us the sense of movement stilled. The exhibition takes the form of two bodies of work: 'Interiors', celebrating the building’s fabric, and 'Objects', the artworks veiled in protective fabrics, Martyn's photographs recall both the conjunction of the surreal and the formal in painters like Magritte and conceptual artists’ investigation of the ways art institutions function. She treats the rectilinear forms of both architecture and slip-covered frames with a geometrical precision that balances, tilts and often slightly disturbs the sense of formal order. The overlooked aspects of the building are given their turn. Edges, textures, relationships created by shadow and light, are juxtaposed. The photographic prints’ own surfaces demonstrate Martyn’s careful negotiation of texture and tonality, answering the subtlety and delicacy of the plastered surface. They indicate the shifting patterns of light on non-reflective surfaces, surfaces that withdraw themselves until they are given attention.
Shifting artworks requires both care and brutality. The works’ content is ignored for its material qualities. Similarly, the building, once a vehicle for shared encounters with artworks and the Devonshire teas provided by the caretakers and curators, is now stripped of its contents, open to the investigative eyes of earthquake protectors and heritage reconstruction. It seems important to remember that it was designed in order to be a home for a brief period and then a public amenity in the terms of its own time. It has idiosyncratic features; the billiard room is not, as was often the case, a solid ground-floor wing, but occupied the central upstairs space, providing a clear segue into a large well-lit gallery space before the era of humidity and temperature control and the fear of ultra-violet light on artworks. By the time it was built only one of the four children lived at home, and there were only three bedrooms: the Anderson’s family home had been the busy single-floor villa that they donated to the Plunket Society on moving to Anderson House.
Martyn’s images give us the sense of movement, of leaving, of the dust settling in a room when both people and art have gone. The house’s mimicry of ante-bellum Georgian simplicity, recognized when it was used as the Civil War setting of an American movie, suggests notions specific to the mid-war years. Anderson was a rich and generous philanthropist, with his face turned toward civic service. His office lies to the left of the main entrance, and while the provision of beds was limited the house was designed to entertain frequent national and international guests. The ultimate designation of the house as a gallery following their deaths reflected the Andersons’ conviction that with wealth must come taste.
Martyn’s work returns to that notion of taste. The measured and balanced beauty of line and order, the clarity of construction and the tonal subtleties of her work recognise the building blocks of aesthetic order that were present both in the artworks that were hung on the walls and the walls that were built to hold them. As Martyn's relatives gathered the sands to provide the glittering light of the external walls, worked on and oversaw the interiors, they constructed a focal point for the community. In turn, her own artworks ask us to pay attention to the relationships between art and philanthropy in the 1920's and to consider what these might be today.
Shift - a personal connection
In October 2016, I returned to work from maternity leave. My child was four and a half months old and while I left my role as Assistant Manager of Anderson Park Art Gallery, I returned as Manager/Curator of the Invercargill Public Art Gallery. In my absence, the gallery had undergone a massive re-evaluation of its core purpose and my previous manager/mentor/in-house barista, Stephen Davies, had resigned. To say it was a shock was putting it lightly. I went from naps and nappies, to meetings and making important decisions – all while trying to survive on broken sleep. Looking back, it was a crazy time.
In the midst of the craze, Adrienne Martyn, a renowned photographer, contacted me about undertaking a photography project at Anderson House. She had been in contact with the IPAG board while I was away and, after catching up on the details, it became apparent how awesome this opportunity was. She wanted to document the empty interior of Anderson House and our collection shift, donate several of the finished works to the IPAG collection, and hold an exhibition at the project’s culmination. At this time, full time staff at IPAG consisted of just me, and as such I was excited, but daunted, by the enormity of the task ahead. We pushed on and over the course of the year we worked through the details and red tape, as well as revising the project to suit the collection still being on site.
As you can imagine, I was thrilled come October 2017 when Adrienne finally arrived in Invercargill, camera in hand, to undertake this project. By this stage, my team of full timers had grown to three and the juggle of management and motherhood has become my new norm. I was more than ready to sink my teeth into this project.
Watching Adrienne work was eye opening. I have observed sculptors and painters undertake their practice, but never a photographer. Watching the methodical way she set a scene and waited for the light, was a testament to her attention to detail. For me, however, seeing the spaces how she did, through her lens, was the highlight. The interior of Anderson House, although always beautiful, had become confining for me due to my time spent there during its closure, before our operations moved to 5 Don Street. Through Adrienne’s camera, the rooms were stripped bare and the essence of the gallery spaces became the focus. Light and airy, the images she captured show the rooms at Anderson house, in my opinion, at their best.
After a week of intense work, labour and discussion, Adrienne had what she needed and flew back to Wellington to create her final bodies of work, which arrived at IPAG in early March 2018. Hanging these works was an interesting and cathartic experience for me, as it was as if our past had met our present, with our collection shift being the defining thread between the two. The final exhibition Adrienne Martyn: Shift, represents the first time that I have been involved with the entire process of an exhibition, from inception to completion. As a curator, we are so often presented with the finished works, without any insight into their creation. For that reason the works in this exhibition will always have significant personal meaning. For me, this exhibition also signifies the changes I have undergone professionally, and how much I have ‘shifted’ since returning to work. A project that I was initially daunted to take on has become a reality and I have loved the entire process. I thank you Adrienne, for giving me this opportunity.
Sarah Brown Manager/Curator IPAG