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Looking West, late afternoon, low water

Nick Archer

Visual Arts


John Reynolds
Peter McLeavey Gallery
147 Cuba Street
July 4 – August 5

On a cold July 4, I wandered up the creaky stairs to the Peter McLeavey Gallery on Cuba Street. It wasn’t our Independence Day on that winter night, but there happened to be a slice of our own history on display. Borrowing from iconic New Zealand poet Allen Curnow Looking west, late afternoon, low water is a painting by Auckland based artist John Reynolds.
Or to be more accurate it is 1175 miniature paintings in metallic silver on small black primed box canvases. What makes this work interesting is that it’s made up of a wall of words that overwhelm you – and not just any words, but commonly used Mäori terms that make up part of our everyday vernacular.
These aren’t strictly Mäori words in a linguistic or Tikanga sense, but Mäori influenced colloquialisms that have become part of our culture. One good recent example that you might have heard would be Warewhare (which is a popular nickname for The Warehouse).
The basis of these words come from The Dictionary of New Zealand English which was edited by the late pre-eminent lexicographer and former Victoria University English lecturer Harry Orsman following his 1951 thesis. Encompassing more than 40 years of research, it’s widely regarded as the first dictionary fully dedicated to the variety of English used in New Zealand.
One good example of the level of detail and research that Orsman achieved is the word koru, in which Reynolds was keen to elaborate on. Pulling out an impressive leather bound copy of the dictionary he flipped open to the word koru and explained that Orsman had noted that the curator Peter McLeavey himself had made comment on the word to the Dominion newspaper in November 1981:
koru… 1981 Dominion (Wellington) 26 Nov. 17 McLeavey said ‘Gordon Walters invented the koru’. He knows and I know that the koru has its origin in ancient Mäori folk art… If popular usage annexes new words to a language, we will allow Walters the distinction of being the inventor of the koru in the language of contemporary New Zealand art.
As part of the journey to Looking west, late afternoon, low water, Reynolds originally made small paintings of 7,073 words out of the dictionary and hanged them randomly in the entrance hall of the National Gallery of New South Wales and called it Cloud. Highly engaging as an artist and as a person, he likened this current work as a little sister companion piece to Cloud. He said, “This is like the black heart of the big work, the little dark sister.”
He noted also that it tracks how we are close to the UK and Australia in some regards but so far away from them in other ways. My thoughts were that we are lucky that we have been able to embrace Mäori culture compared to the painfully slow way that Australians have been at embracing Aboriginal culture. Our own race relations with Mäori has also had ups and downs, but we should count ourselves fortunate that we have such a rich culture. Hopefully when Australia finally comes to terms with its past and resolves the issues that often boil to the surface like the Redfern and Palm Island riots and the recent Little Children are Sacred report, it can culturally enrich itself by embracing its indigenous heritage.
Following on from Cloud, this time around there is a painting of every Mäori word from the dictionary. Individually catalogued, numbered and packaged Looking West, late afternoon, low water took two and a half days to put up and were originally all going to be on one wall. But gallery owner Peter McLeavey came up with the idea of creating a door like space and putting the remainders and the top corners in the other room.
Soaking in all the words as I stood in the main darkened room, it reminded me of a time not so long ago when I was doing some gardening. My colleague pulled out a really heavy iron rake for me to rake some oak tree leaves. Full of enthusiasm he remarked, “now this is what you call a Mäori rake!” I had to agree; one could imagine raking a kumera patch or preparing a hangi with such a reliable tool and there was no broken handle like you’d get from the latest Warewhare special….
Without trying to come across as pretentious, the main reason I enjoyed doing this review was that it all seemed a bit disassembled like the art and quite tricky. But fortunately I let go and just allowed it all fall into place. Firstly I discovered that the batteries were flat in the Salient tape recorder I was using. But this seemed appropriate, as the gallery has no technology like a computer to distract you. After exhibiting from the same space for 41 years, McLeavey has allowed a quality artistic vibe to flourish. This forced me to really take in a greater sense of what Reynolds was saying.
Allan Smith, Senior Lecturer at Elam School of Fine Arts, once described Reynold’s work as “intoxicated, indecorous, hedonistic, romantic, sublime, mythopoetic, dithyrambic, epic and visionary, excessive and cloying, satanic and heavenly, and restless; his compositions as turbulent, angelic, chromatic, shimmering and exfoliating, internally stressed, externally unhinged, and ornamental; his iconography as reminiscent of blood vessels and hallucinated architecture.”
After reading this I was immediately excited and jumped out of my chair and walked around the room saying, “of course!” because I then got what Reynolds’ art is all about. My gut instinct had been right as to why this was going to be an unorthodox art review. He defies summary.
The reason I mention this is because there is an upcoming documentary on John Reynolds, which is part of the Telecom 36th Wellington Film Festival screening at the Film Archive on August 2.
Directed by Shirley Horrocks, Questions for Mr Reynolds probably attempts to answer the questions anyone should have after reading this review and viewing his art. But knowing Reynolds, you will probably go away wondering even more than when you went into the theatre.
To give you a preview of what you are in, for I suggest you check out his Cloudwork web site at http://www.cloudwork.co.nz, go to the Cloud movie section and you will see what I mean. This time around at Looking west, late afternoon, low water he had a video camera set up recording the action on this July 4. I expect that there will be a sped up video that will appear to show me and others sculling beers and wines spliced among the two and a half days it took to set up this exhibition. But such is Reynolds’ quirky style that it will be an art form in itself.
John Reynolds and Peter McLeavey respectfully dedicate this exhibition to the editor of the dictionary, H.W. Orsman; and to Alan Curnow and Hilcote Pitts-Brown.