Gallery Talk

The Painted John Gibbs

18 October · Katrina
The Painted John Gibbs

John Gibbs, (1831-1909),
Clearing up after rain, foot of Otira Gorge 1887
Reproduced print,
Oil on board
420 x 605mm

One day I was talking to someone about making art and how expensive it has become. I explained that for me to make work I must buy a canvas and several paints. I must also get the work framed and then of course, time spent making the work must be considered. It all adds up. I then went on to describe how I avoid these problems, by searching through secondhand shops, buying existing paintings or prints that are already framed and re-using the hardboard to do my own artwork on top of. Then I would have a frame-ready artwork, ready to be shown and sold. For me, this process was never about incorporating the existing works into my own works – that came later on, as I started to use this cheaper process to make work again and again.

Once while I was fossicking through the painting section of a secondhand shop I came across a framed hardboard print of Clearing up after rain, foot of Otira Gorge (1887) by John Gibbs. I was reminded of an art history lecture on this painting and just knew I had to add this print to my growing collection of found works. This painting in particular began to inspire a new kind of process, one where the existing work might feature in some way within my new work painted over top.

I got it home on my bike and my mother asked me what I was going to do with it, as she liked it as it was. My response was: “To paint it of course”. However being such a significant work of art, I began to feel as though there was now more than one way to approach painting it. Should I do a reproduction of it, or should I paint over it, or should I just leave it – so as to exhibit it as the reproduction it is? So, as you do with paintings, I hung it up on a wall so I could ponder its fate.

There was a time that I was doing some paintings on the concept of the digital pixel, which had grown out of my 20-year career in the computer animation industry. More recently, this has become intertwined within my current painting practice of gridding up drawings in order to transfer them on to a canvas.

At the time of doing this work, there was the ‘Go Digital’ campaign going on through the media, you know, where television was changing from an analog to a digital signal so everyone had to buy new television sets. I suppose all these things were working on me in some small way.

Then one day I took down the John Gibbs and ripped the print from its frame and decided to grid it up. The only pencil I had lying around was this red Faber-Castell watercolour pencil; oh well, I was going to paint over it anyway. But what size grid to draw? The ruler was already marked with 10mm or 1cm marks, why not just stick with that? So I had just finished painting over all of the clouds and had put it back on the wall to look at for a while and to see if it was working as I had hoped. Although it was definitely starting to get there, I left it wondering whether I should paint over all of it, or leave it with just the sky, or go down to the mountain line, or the horizon line? So I left it.

I remember in the lecture that Gibbs’ mountains and sky were described as a manifestation of romanticism in travelling to discover a new, beautiful landscape. As I looked at the painting a little longer, I thought of the Southern Alps being this enormous divide between both sides of the South Island. I thought of the great leap we had just made from the analog world to a new digital world. I also thought about the slow shift from European art to New Zealand art. This latter thought was even more significant as I painted a modern artwork over a traditional one.

Perhaps this is what the artwork was saying to me as I left it there to ponder once more. Finished but not finished.

Written by F. van Hout

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