City Art Reader 8: High Five
An art lover’s Christmas wish list – art critic and writer Andrew Paul Wood names his top five art books to come out this year
Art publishing is rarely a commercial success story, particularly in a small and relatively niche market like Aotearoa New Zealand. It is actually quite remarkable that we produce the number of art books that we do, particularly to the excellent quality of publishers like Auckland University Press and Te Papa Press in particular. Every year sees another crop of splendid books, and 2018 is no exception. The following list represents what I think are the cream of that crop, judged on their production values and lasting legacy to New Zealand art. Buying art books is also an expensive pastime, and therefore in thinking about my top five for 2018, I was also pondering which volumes give greatest bang for the buck in furnishing the home library.
Otago University’s Frances Hodgkins Fellowship is one of Aotearoa’s most important artist residencies, and 2018 saw the publication of a tremendously important book acknowledging fifty years of its existence, Undreamed Of… 50 Years of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship (Otago University Press, $59.95). Former Dunedin Public Art Gallery director Priscilla Pitts and Andrea Hotere (daughter of Ralph) have created this wonderful book covering half a century of some of our most interesting artists and providing important background to the fellowship, why it was so very necessary in the first place in the fostering of a professional art scene in New Zealand, and its relationship with the Hocken Collections and DPAG (it’s a slightly unusual context given Otago doesn’t have an associated art school, although Otago Polytechnic does). It’s a really worthwhile book to own.
Perhaps the most beautifully designed book of 2018, thanks to the skills and eye of Neil Pardington, even if I have a few issues with the contents, is Gordon Walters: New Vision (Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, $78.99), edited by Laurence Simmons, Julia Waite and Lucy Hammonds, and accompanying a touring exhibition of the same name, jointly curated by Auckland Art Gallery and DPAG, and currently on exhibition at Christchurch Art Gallery until 17 March 2019. Although quite pricey for what it is, it’s a great opportunity to have some fascinating essays on the subject between two covers and the book is superbly illustrated.
A book released with much fanfare this year was New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, $75.00), edited by Mark Stocker. It is a lavish publication to pore over with a great many highlights among the 270 artworks selected from the national collection’s 40,000 – even if I can’t really get past the lack of Māori creative participation prior to the 1960s. Nonetheless, it will be an important, if occasionally idiosyncratic, reference book to the taonga in Te Papa’s visual arts collection. It’s very accessible, readable, and for the most part well designed, with the exception of the way Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels are reproduced all squished up. All cavils aside, it is a useful and attractive text, and it is important to support such endeavours if we wish them to keep happening.
Roger Blackley’s Galleries of Maoriland (Auckland University Press, $75.00) is a vital and essential engagement with the way hegemonic colonial power in New Zealand instrumentalised cultural institutions and art to its own ends in appropriating Māori into a romantic nationalist mythology as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, with reference to Lindauer and Goldie, the Dominion Museum and the Polynesian Society. At the same time, however, this is a story of how Māori refused to remain passive subjects in this scenario and manipulated those same romantic mythologising processes to their own ends. While the former is relatively well understood, the latter is rarely explored or acknowledged, which makes for fascinating and enlightening reading.
Probably the most important art book to be published this year is Damian Skinner’s Theo Schoon: A Biography (Massey University Press, $59.99), filling a long overdue gap in Aotearoa’s art history (full disclosure, I made my archives available and gave feedback on an early draft of the manuscript). Although Schoon was a genius (in a rare, legitimate use of the word) in his own right, his contributions to pushing traditional Māori arts to the forefront of Pākehā consciousness and as a mentor to younger artists, had a profound effect on the development on modernism in New Zealand and Australia. He was also, by most accounts, a cantankerous and divisive figure, permanently on the fringes of mainstream New Zealand society because of his relatively open homosexuality, exotic foreignness (East Indies flamboyance meets Dutch forthrightness), and obsessive pursuit of his art. Skinner has done a marvellous job of piecing together this carefully researched life.