Until recently many people had not heard of the artist Rosalie Gascoigne but this all changed two weeks ago when the City Gallery opened its current exhibition of her work. The gallery rarely dedicates its whole two floors of gallery space to one artist and has recently only done that for the Colin McCahon retrospective. But now they have done it again for Rosalie Gascoigne, and by putting her on such a level as McCahon, people are beginning to sit up and listen. Gascoigne died in 1999 but not before her artwork became recognised as excellent and was exhibited in places all over the world. Of course there is some debate about Gascoigne’s nationality and both New Zealand and Australia are trying to claim her as their own. Although born and raised in New Zealand, she moved to Australia when she married. Gascoigne and her husband lived in outback Australia and it is this setting that became the catalyst for her rural style artwork.
In all her art Gascoigne uses objects she has found around her home in outback Australia. She never uses anything new in her assemblage, as the materials need to have a feeling of history for her to use them. The gallery plays a short documentary video of Gascoigne, which shows her out scavenging for these materials. In her early work Gascoigne places objects she has found such as dolls, cups and ammunition shells within the structure of wooden crates. However, as her work develops, Gascoigne begins cutting up these crates and rearranging them on a flat framework.
Although her works follow the same structure as the modernist grid, Gascoigne claims that she was not thinking of this at the time. The logos on the crates and their words and colours are cut up and rearranged and by doing so create their own rhythmical patterns. The lyrical effects of the random colours in Gascoigne’s ‘All that Jazz’ (1989) is reminiscent of the rhythm and colour in Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie-woogie’.
Gascoigne continues her reconstruction of words as she starts cutting up signs and rearranging. The result of this is an arrangement in which the words make no sense and all that is left is colour and pattern. The materials used in these works range from the dull brown signs of a fruit market stall to the fluorescent orange and yellow of road signs. In the downstairs gallery you will see ‘Big Yellow’ (1988), one of her early road sign pieces. Upstairs in the centre of the gallery you will see ‘Metropolis’ (1999), the last piece she ever made. It carries on using the road signs but this time Gascoigne has layered them to continue her play on dimension and space. What is interesting about these pieces is that it is not just the bold black and yellow patterns that the eye follows but also the decay and weathering that the signs show from a good many years of use.
The works in the Plein Air collection focus more on Gascoigne’s attention to air and space. However the sparse white canvasses and chicken wire are rather dull compared to the materials used in the rest of her work. Gascoigne’s work in general is not pictorial however the pieces are assembled in such a way that they evoke images of landscapes and nature. One example is ‘Monaro’ 1989. Made out of old Schweppes crates that have been cut up into wonky finger sized pieces and rearranged onto four large panels. The sheer intensity of colour and concentration of pattern gives the work the strange likeness to the image of grass blowing in the wind. ‘Parrot Country’ (1983) is another example of colour and form indirectly creating an image. The layering of the coloured wooden panels and their roughly-torn edges look like the wings of a bird.
The most distinguishing feature about Rosalie Gascoigne was that she was well into her fifties before she made any of her art works. Furthermore Gascoigne’s only formal training in art is in Ikebana floral arrangement. Although Gascoigne’s work seems uncharacteristic of someone her age, her use of decaying materials and natural subject matter suggests a very feminine environmental concern. If you missed the Colin McCahon retrospective then the Rosalie Gascoigne exhibition is a good chance to see another New Zealanders life work.