In mid-winter 2018 and again last year, I was artist in residence in the Queensbury Hills, between Cromwell and Wanaka, Central Otago. The residency was a converted boat-building shed high up in the hills looking across the Clutha Basin to the St Bathans Range and down the valley to Lake Hawea. A very dramatic, remarkable landscape, the light could change markedly within seconds depending on sun, cloud and that mysterious inversion layer mist. Early morning and later in the day were the most extraordinary – with deep shadows creating cubistic effects reminding me of Bill Sutton’s Landscape Synthesis series. The valley floor was a patchwork of ordered plantings, grapevines and shelterbelts.
I recalled works I had seen in curator Julia Waite’s show at the Auckland City Art Gallery, Freedom and Structure – Cubism in New Zealand Art 1930 –1960. That exhibition was an epiphany for me. Although many of the works were familiar, somehow their power, energy and combined voice was extraordinary.
When I’m in a plane, I almost always take aerial photographs - looking below at planting patterns, contrasting colours and textures of crops, intersections, etc. Flying over the Atacama Desert in Chile in 2013, the abstract gridded plantings on mountain terrain seemed incongruous with the wilderness - the sophisticated patterns and designs following the topography could only fully be observed from the sky. The cubist encounters in this exhibition could reference the Canterbury or Horowhenua plains, however the works are not necessarily specific to a particular locale. They could be anywhere or nowhere.
Historically, Synthetic Cubism came after Analytical Cubism - which was mostly monochromatic. Picasso, Braque and Gris introduced vibrant colour, flattening of the planes, whilst adding textures and patterns to their paintings, and experimenting with collage - using the everyday (newspaper print and patterned paper, text, cloth, sand and dirt.) With art and life combined, painting began to look more like sculpture – expanding the range of ways painters could explore reality.
In my interpretation of the concept of Synthetic Cubism - horticultural plantings and agricultural practices alter the appearance of a landscape - they are like collages on the land. The landscape is a canvas. Stripped bare. When viewed from above the man-made patterns seem strange and intriguing - painterly, abstract assemblages.
This body of work plays with aerial views of abstract plantings, removing references to scale, looking at structure & colour combined with incidental markings. They have the appearance of constructed collage using an array of materials (plywood, corrugated card, towelling, felt and velveteen), also hand drawn elements with pencil, pastel and charcoal, and painterly brush strokes. The photographic element, I think, imbues the finished work with a slightly discombobulating photographic truth.
Many of the works seem familiar and reference other well-known artists though not necessarily intentionally: Rosalie Gasgoine, Colin McCahon, Bill Sutton, and Philip Guston, Ben Nicholson and Richard Diebenkorn amongst them.
The processes of observation and art making brought a wonderful sense of discovery, and an appreciation for others' cubist encounters. Working with compositional levity, colour, balance, wistful joy. Also an analytic study of the realities of monocultures and industrial farming. Looking at what lies latent in the landscape revealed through the practice of distillation and abstraction.
-Notes from Elizabeth Thomson