Planet, no. 13, 1994.
Sometimes we feel oppressed by what we loathe, but we can also feel oppressed by what we love, especially when we love it so much that it makes us feel wretched and unworthy, when we invest it with the power to bewitch us and make us feel small. Love of art can suffocate the artist. With so many great works of the past to revere, how can today’s artists compete? How can they do something new when every new thing seems always already prefigured in the art of the past? How can artists cut out a space for themselves in the face of the tyranny of art history?
Recently, Rhonda Lieberman, Artforum’s agony aunt, had some advice for the artist: ‘Confronted with a staggering masterpiece that taunts us with our limitations, we must bring it down to our level, consume it—do something to it or with it—or be destroyed.’1 Michael Parekowhai and Julian Dashper are two New Zealand artists who do not need this advice. They are already making names for themselves by dealing to the names of the past.
For Michael Parekowhai, as for many other artists, Marcel Duchamp is a beacon. In 1913, the Frenchman gave birth to conceptual art by inverting a bicycle wheel and inserting its fork into a stool. Bicycle Wheel was an iconoclastic one-liner and art was never the same again. With his ‘readymades’, Duchamp trashed the idea of art-as-craft. He made finesse, technique, and tradition irrelevant. Art didn’t even have to look like art anymore. Now, the idea was paramount.
Seventy-six years later, Michael Parekowhai was an Elam student. Being an art student means immersing yourself in the great art of the past, all the while struggling to find a voice of your own. That’s a tall order. Parekowhai’s response to this challenge was to cut Duchamp down to size by building him up. Parekowhai lovingly fashioned a replica of the Bicycle Wheel in wood, rewriting it as a Maori carving. Honouring Duchamp’s critique of craft in a crafty replica, Parekowhai trumped the Frenchman. Of course, the work was conceptual too. A wild idea. He called it After Dunlop (1989).
Since then, Parekowhai has produced numerous works which continue in this manner. The Antiquity Act (1990) is a pair of boxing gloves. Upon them is inscribed ‘D champ … 1968 … Porirua’. Duchamp died in 1968, the year Parekowhai was born in Porirua. The young artist would happily inherit the champ’s gloves. Morris Minor (1990) is a floor-hugging mirror cube, a diminutive rerun of a key work by American minimalist Robert Morris. Parekowhai presents himself as a minor Morris, a Morris Junior. Parekowhai’s big sculpture The Indefinite Article (1990) is a pun on I Am, Colin McCahon’s modestly-scaled, but masterly, cafe-cubist painting of 1954. With it, Parekowhai addresses McCahon’s god-like status in the local art scene, undermining and monumentalising him at the same time.
Parekowhai is not yet done with the art of the past. His current exhibition, Kiss the Baby Goodbye, reprises works by Duchamp, Henry Moore, and Gordon Walters. The centrepiece of the show, also titled Kiss the Baby Goodbye, is based on Walters’s classic koru painting Kahukura, painted in 1968, the year of Parekowhai’s birth. Parekowhai offers the Walters as a mammoth kitset model.
This work plays into the ongoing debate over the appropriation of Maori imagery by Pakeha artists. Much of this debate has made an example of the work of Gordon Walters. Walters has been bitterly attacked and defended for his appropriation of the koru motif in his classic abstracts of the 1960s and 1970s. Rangi Panoho, for one, has expressed concern at how Walters ‘progressively simplified the form, divesting it of meaning and imperfection and distancing it from its cultural origins’. Francis Pound has replied, arguing that, as a ‘translation’, Walters’s work has actually enhanced the prestige of the Maori koru. More than that, Walters improved on the original. In Walters, the koru ‘swells with a new strength, it draws itself up to its full height, it takes to itself a maximum power’, wrote Pound.
Thus far, the appropriation debate has been bogged down in moralising, as if moralities were not themselves culturally relative and interminably contestable. Parekowhai’s work does not buy into the prosecution-defense duality, reading as neither a clear critique or a clear justification of Walters. Parekowhai prefers to generate interference patterns.
Kiss the Baby Goodbye could be read as a celebration of Walters. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful work, lovingly crafted. It maintains Walters’s clean lines, his modernist aesthetic. Then again, it also looks like an awesome institutional barricade, a corporate castle gate. Or, perhaps it is belittling to represent a Walters as a kitset, as if it were childish work. Then again, Walters did determine his complex koru compositions through the cunning manipulation of paper-collage kitsets. In offering a Walters as a kitset, Parekowhai might also be evoking the Duchampian idea, that it is the viewer’s job to complete the work. On the other hand, he may be inviting us to rip the work apart and fashion something new from it.
Is Parekowhai’s work a critique of Walters’s appropriation? How could it be when, like much of Parekowhai’s work, it is itself an instance of appropriation? Is this the pot calling the kettle black?
Julian Dashper’s works cross-reference the styles, works and legends of past art. For instance, in 1989, Dashper produced a series of paintings and drawings which picture the year he was born: 1960. In each he writes that date with the help of French curves—a drawing aid. These works surely refer to Rita Angus’s painting AD 1968 of 1968.
In Angus’s work, a stick, two seahorses, and a couple of tanks conspire to tell the time. Meanwhile, Dashper provides abstract-decorative-illumination of a time long past. Angus’s fantastic landscape is rendered in a tightly controlled, hard-edged manner. Every spot of the picture is covered. You could describe her style as colouring-in. Dashper’s works on the other hand are more loosely rendered. The compositions are drawn rather than painted, and the picture is never completely coloured in. Angus’s work records the year of its making, while Dashper’s celebrate the year of his making. Angus did just the one—a singular masterpiece. Dashper, however, produces plenty of examples.
Not only do Dashper’s 1960 works seem to have little to do with Angus, they seem have a little to do with several other canonical figures in New Zealand painting. McCahon also did paintings of numbers. But Dashper’s 1960 works are far lighter than McCahon’s portentous Teaching Aids. Gordon Walters is another possible reference point. Walters made french curves the subject of a still life in 1943, anticipating the use of Maori curves in his later koru series. But, apart from the French connection, Dashper’s 1960 works have little in common with Walters’s works.
Until recently, most of Dashper’s homages have involved canonical figures in the intimate New Zealand art scene. Now, he increasingly looks offshore. In Untitled (Italian Zip) (1993–4) and Untitled (The Scream) (1991–3), photographs are combined with found objects. Dashper’s passport photograph hides behind a lengthy zipper and a series of photos of italicised Os is accompanied by an inventive homemade collapsible wooden potty seat. Both works have a superficial visual similarity to famous expressionist paintings. Untitled (Italian Zip) refers to Barnett Newman’s zip paintings; the aperture in the toilet and the elongated Os in Untitled (The Scream) recall the recently returned Edvard Munch painting.
Neither Dashper’s Newman nor his Munch follow the logic or style of Newman or Munch. Dashper’s zip is mundane rather than sublime. Instead of being backed by the awesome otherness of God, it is the artist’s diminutive self which coyly peeks out from behind. Similarly, Dashper’s Scream is not figurative, garish, and demented, but abstract, graphic, colourless, and cool. These works move in the opposite direction from those they might be thought to pay homage to. Instead, they follow the logic of conceptual art or readymades.
Dashper’s works have been read as erudite commentaries on their sources, yet they could also be read in just the opposite way—Dashper wresting signature elements away from their originators and their grounding in art history. He decontextualises motifs, styles, and procedures and creates new thoughts for them. Notwithstanding Dashper’s own desire to be part of the canon, his work also exposes and taunts our desire to put him in one.
These works by Michael Parekowhai and Julian Dashper are homages, at least in part, because the artists acknowledge and value the space that has been cut out for them by their predecessors. They could not make their works without that history. Yet these homages are perverse, because they would capture that ground for themselves by inverting or deranging the logic of their sources. Rather than become victims to value systems that precede them, Parekowhai and Dashper appropriate art history and refigure it for their own use.
[IMAGE: Michael Parekowhai After Dunlop 1989]
- Rhonda Lieberman, ‘Fear and Loathing in Vienna: Thomas Bernhard’s Subjects’, Artforum, January 1994.