A City Street. A Sign. Dusk

Robert Leonard interviews John Reynolds.

John Reynolds: Sumwhr (New Plymouth and Auckland: Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Artspace, 2002). This interview addresses two shows: Harry Human Heights, Artspace, Auckland, and K Road to Kingdom Come, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, both 2001.

Robert Leonard: Artspace’s show is called Harry Human Heights. How did you arrive at the title?

John Reynolds: It’s a street in Meadowbank. I imagine Harry Human was some worthy burgher or local councillor who perhaps had a passion for drains or traffic and they decided to name a street after him. Someone in the council had a rush of blood to the head and a dose of alliteration and proposed ‘Harry Human Heights’. The name has a Shakespearean echo but a conventional suburban location. The street arcs around and overlooks a golf course. It offers elevation, a view, but goes nowhere. You get pedestrian vista. I may be overly drawing this out but that’s what I intended with the show. It’s in two sections and one provides a platform from which to view the other.

Let’s start with the two huge works in the main room.

Well, I had a cantankerous drive to exhaust the possibilities of the interlocking dotted-rectangle motif I’d already explored in big works like Y2K from 1999. In that one, you have large rectangles with smaller ones inside them, then smaller ones that cross through both. You get this sense of recession through the composition; it’s a pictorial effect. But, in the new works, the marks are evenly dispersed, and the space, the recession, is caused by the use of different colours in different areas. It’s a bit like a shag-pile carpet, where some areas have been flattened and others raised. The paintings have that textile or dot-screen continuousness. They’re atmospheric, inflated. I like that sense of something ambitious in terms of scale, yet made up of fragments, small things. Huge but not heroic.

Why are the titles so obtuse?

Both titles are lines from Leigh Davis’s poem The Book of Hours. Trading Hours and Various Materials is the white iridescent one and King for a Thin Day the bronze/brown one. For me there’s a connection with some of the first works I ever showed, which had titles like Haulage and General Practice and Protocol for an Odalisque. Even then there was a real unhinging going on with the titling.

Trading Hours is atomised, like a mist of perfume.

There is a story I like. The winemaker Michael Brajkovich was in France drinking champagne. He would have it as an aperitif in the morning, then at lunch, then in the evening with his meal. It surprised him that there was so little fruit in it. He observed that it’s a thin wine; it’s by putting the bubbles in that they give it essential volume—‘mouthfeel’. There’s a connection with King and Trading Hours. They’re big works, without much paint on them. They’re bubbly.

KingandTrading Hours remind me of Emily Kngawarreye. Rex Butler said while indigenous Australian artists are generally famed for making work with secret content, in Kngawarreye’s late paintings her content is that very idea—‘secret content’.

Diane Arbus once described her art as ‘a secret about a secret’. I do see a connection with Kngawarreye. Do you know that massive painting Big Yam Dreaming? It’s about proximity. Looking at it, you get a real sense of the physical space between the artist and the work when she made it. And that has a huge bearing on where viewers stand and how they engage. I remember seeing a photo of her painting it. She’s sitting on the ground, in the middle of the canvas, layering up that web of ghosting lines, a brush in each hand—she was ambidextrous. That painting is claustrophobic. There’s a kind of blindness involved in the way it was painted. Kngawarreye couldn’t stand back, couldn’t see what she was doing, couldn’t consider the work as a whole to edit it. Her field of operations was an arm’s length. It was like she was feeling her way across. The painting lacks finesse. It’s callous and eloquent at once.

How does that connect with what you’re doing in your big paintings at Artspace?

I’m also repeating my mark close up, at a standard distance from the surface. The works are a product of a mind-numbingly simple process. I’m watching something emerge out of repeating a simple gesture over a large expanse. I know, if I make a mark hundreds of times, this way and that, something will happen. I’m interested in what that something is. Oil sticks are a big part of it. They don’t allow that painterly fluency. I need the crudity—that burnt-stick quality. The label on my ivory black oil sticks says ‘carbon from charred bone with oil and waxes’. There’s something about that, something basic.

In the smaller galleries, you’re running Epistomadologies, a frieze of seventy-five works on paper.

I wanted to polarise the experience. The layout of the spaces at Artspace invited this. I wanted a central issue in the main room and then voices off—the text that berates it, nags it—rattling on to the side. The show’s a two-way thing. In the main room you can hear the creak of scaffolding. I’m trying to position something wall-sized, something unwieldy. Some kind of siege machinery has been wheeled up and it’s cumbersome. The Epistomadologies, on the other hand, are a tunneling. A kind of grandstanding occurs with the big works, a self-importance that gets deflated or complicated with the works on paper. They don’t support the big paintings in any way. They toil on the edges.

But the big paintings seem light, devoid of moral import, while the Epistomadologies… they’re fraught with it.

The Epistomadologies were done at the same time, but they’re off on a tangent. They’re like broadsheets, tracts, complaints, arguments propelled against the throw of the big works. They’re a series of letters, attempted communications, niggles. The title, of course, is from James Joyce. It’s one of his mangled words, and there’s a genuflection there too. ‘Ta ra ra boom decay.’ The works are oil stick again, but this time on galvanised, anodised, and pearlescent papers rather than the inert support of primed canvas. It’s dirty drawing on lustrous metallic grounds.

The title implies epistemology, the branch of philosophy addressing the conditions of certain knowledge.

My project deals more with uncertainty, botched attempts to know. In the Epistomadologies, the road signs all point right, right out of the frame. It’s one page after another after another, with a desire building for some destination or resolution, but this expectation isn’t met. The piece lurches forward, directed by those signs pointing the way. Coherence may be on offer, but it ain’t there. The whole thing disperses or flickers into something else. It’s all bogged down in a ‘syntax of weakness’, to borrow a phrase from Beckett. It’s like some monumental mason’s backyard littered with broken or unfinished markers, all of a heap.

In several works in the Epistomadologies, you quote ‘Amazing Grace’, a spiritual about finding coherence, even as you shrug it off.

I got the ‘Amazing Grace’ lines from Leigh Davis, from one of the drafts for his Book of Hours. Leigh rewrites the lyrics as they’re sung, all warbly ‘Buu-ut no-oww I am foww-wnndd’—and I run his lines in these crazy Braille dots that suggest a Broadway sign, names in lights. It’s a Chinese whispers/bush telegraph kind of thing. I have a long interest in how images can percolate and garner references with time—or, better, atrophy. Like that gnarled tree motif I use in the Epistomadologies. It comes from a twelfth-century Spanish fresco I saw in the Prado in 1992, a tree of life. It’s a rich image, but, in my use of it, where it’s symbolically described, a certain insufficiency kicks in. Viewers won’t pick up on the original reference, and I wouldn’t want them to. But, I’m interested in leaving them with a sense of my having tinkered with something, disassembling its possibility, a sense of decline.

Why all the grids?

Sometimes I think of them as being like the markings on a view camera’s ground glass, as something to look through. I can tell you how they came about. I was flying from Mangere to LAX, on the way to see the Donald Judds at the Foundation in Marfa. I was bored and staring at that little screen where they put up the information: -10° outside, 33,000 feet up. And they show this map: a grid with a stick plane and a big shape that’s the US. At one stage, the only text on it was ‘Santa Barbara’. I suppose that’s where the radio tower is. Anyway, it was on that flight that I started drawing grids in my notebook, grids with placenames. So, they came from charting tedious longitudes and latitudes, and on the way to a desert.

What did you get out of the trip to Marfa?

Dan Flavin. Flavin more than Judd. I had gone to see the Judds, but they’d just opened this big posthumous Flavin installation at Chinati, and that’s what really impressed me. Judd and Flavin are both minimalists, of course, but they’re totally different. I like Flavin’s sensibility more than Judd’s theatre. No one talks about Flavin’s colours, but they’re hypnotic, they’re sick. If Judd is daylight, Flavin is twilight. He makes me think of Eliot’s ‘violet hour’ and Baudelaire’s ‘green shadows’. I’ll side with the fuzzy of Flavin over the prescription of Judd. My grids in Epistomadologies have nothing to do with Juddian minimalism. The important thing is that their abstraction doesn’t exist in isolation, it relates to other images in the frieze. How can I explain? I remember a talk Keri Hulme gave at the Auckland Art Gallery years back. Someone asked her about her working method and she mentioned ghost nets, those old fishing nets that get cut loose at sea. These nets, kilometres of them, drift through the ocean collecting and killing things. I like that image. My grids are like that, and they have different densities, like a series of sieves.

The signposts are like trawls of names.

The way the road names are stacked in alphabetical order satirises the whole cataloguing imperative. The signposts are wobbly accumulations, graveyards of signs. The names all have this allegorical, liturgical quality: Harry Human Heights through to Hope Street. They’re august and portentous, but there’s a buffoonery—something laughable and calamitous—about them. Names like Anxiety Point and Ash Pit Road I’m exploiting for their humour, or their leverage. All Day Bay! I want to look at how we name things for its banality and its genuinely loopy poetry.

You’ve also been making signposts with anagrams.

I fancy anagrams as a tool for unravelling, with a basis in arbitrariness. I’ve used some to punctuate the Govett-Brewster show as hysterical museum labels. The signs point left and right, but the words aren’t opposites. LADIES/IDEALS. They all link up in some hard-to-specify way. ADORING/ROADING.

Why did you call the Govett-Brewster show K Road to Kingdom Come?

It’s titled after the first and last works you come across, which also just happen to be the earliest and most recent works in the show. Climbing the stairs, K. Rd. (1995) is the first thing you hit. Queen Street is Auckland’s spine. Karangahape Road runs at odds with it. Similarly the big painting makes a T with the gallery staircase. K. Rd. is large scale, but pantomime, slapstick: cardboard and string, pomp and paucity. In the background, there’s a clunky gantry with components suggesting a boat prow—the Argo!—a gibbet, lampposts, scaffolding, and props. All this creaky carpentry supports a ‘Karangahape Road’ sign, and, far right, a little empty Gustonesque picture frame. That sets the stage. Then, in the foreground, you’ve got these three protagonists. There’s a ‘Jingling Johnny’, one of those nineteenth-century Turkish military standards: its got a Muslim crescent moon, horse hair, and bells. During the Crimean War, the victorious British forces seized them as trophies, cruelly parading them as their own. There’s a corpulent Maltese Cross, like a nativity star, suspended, dangling. Finally, stage left, there’s a grounded Beckett/Dr Seuss thing: a leering tree trunk with a single pointing branch. I think of Waiting for Godot, with Beckett’s pared back opening lines: ‘A country road. A tree. Evening.’

Does it have anything to do with Karangahape Road?

It does and it doesn’t. Throughout the show there’s this fierce directing going on, but it’s all misplaced and conflicted, like those street signs, pointing somewhere else, beyond the frame, nowhere. That’s a big part of Western Springs/Bloody Angle (1998)— the work on the blackboard—where you have two geographies overlaid. There’s a map of Western Springs, Auckland’s picturesque reserve, with signs pointing to ‘Three Kings’ and ‘Saint Lukes’, and then, inverted and overlaid upon it, a map of Gallipoli from the time of the ANZAC fiasco. I’m interested in how both places point elsewhere: Western Springs evokes the cradle of European civilisation while the Gallipoli campaign was the bloody crucible for nationalism at home. In my upside-down Gallipoli map, the names of the New Zealand contingents—‘Auckland’, ‘Wellington’, ‘Canterbury’—are superimposed on the ancient Mediterranean landscape. ANZAC names for Turkish killing fields—‘Lone Pine’, ‘Bloody Angle’, and ‘the Daisy Fields’—also appear. It’s an ongoing fascination for me, that slippage between destinations and within placenames, the ways geography and history get smudged.

There are lots of big paintings in the show. How does the bigness work?

K. Rd. is the beginning of the show, but it’s also the end of something for me, the end of the road for big composition. Something unravels. I keep scale but get rid of foreground/background, figure/ground. You get works like Nietzsche on Whites Beach and The Temptation of Saint Anthony. You get shallow Byzantine pictorial space—planiverse. These big paintings aren’t exactly abstract, aren’t exactly figurative. They’re diagrammatic and calligraphic, hieroglyph and pattern, sign and grid, at once. I think of the hypnotic repetitive forms in Moorish art. Muslims consider images graven. Instead they have this repertoire of abstract motifs, conflating vegetal forms, writing, and pattern. In multiplying and expanding, these forms direct the viewer’s mind to bigger structures. These ornamental patterns embody Islamic principles of interconnection and integration. I think of tukutuku.

Nietzsche on Whites Beachis encrypted, obscure. You want to read it, but you can’t.

It’s New Zealand’s largest finger-painting. One of my favourite Nietzsche quips is from The Will to Power: ‘It is easier to be titanic than to be beautiful.’ The painting was done in 1996, but now it reminds me of those vertically cascading numbers on the computer screens in The Matrix. In the film, those numbers are at once a code and a veil; they’re hypnotic. People learn to read them, to break in. Numbers are what their world is made of and appearances merely effects, but their world is also a lie, a projection. The Matrix is technological and primal, science and mysticism. Face of God stuff. The painting’s like that too. How to read it? I see bar codes and DNA typing strips too. On the other hand, there’s also this ‘un-ambition’ at work. The scale is grand, but the motifs could be inconsequential or contingent. That’s part of its provocation.

What’s Nietzsche doing at Whites Beach?

The idea is an opera and slightly absurd. Whites Beach is minor, a small stretch of sand between North Piha and Anawhata on the West Coast; while Nietzsche is major, one of philosophy’s heavy hitters. There’s a displacement or inversion there. A little while ago, I was reading Patrick White’s autobiography Flaws in the Glass, and he describes being a novelist in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s. He talks of growing up in a country where the gospels floated and blew in the wind and didn’t quite meet the landscape. They slid off it. With White, you get the Australian interior, a desert, but alongside it another dryness, the dryness of the tradition, of the gospel, not connecting. And, I immediately thought of Colin McCahon, where you have this tension between a cultural inheritance and the bare facts of a new landscape: Moby Dick, an apparition, sighted off Muriwai: I also think of a postcard I’ve got of Joseph Beuys with a branch, drawing a skeleton on the wet sand.

Density seems crucial. You get vertical compression in Nietzsche … but dispersal in the new one, Office of the Dead.

Dispersal, sure. There’s a story behind Office of the Dead. On that trip to Marfa with Leigh Davis, we had to drive through 200 miles of Texas desert. Every now and again there’d be this isolated little post with a chevron pointing the way, just like they do at home, and I’d just have time to grab the camera and get a blurry photograph. There was this nice theatre with these simple signs punctuating the desolate landscape. Heading for the Rio Grande, you’re in a geography layered with American and Mexican history, but those chevrons were a connection for me. With this work, I wanted to do something with the chevron that drew on its life as a familiar sign while freighting it with something else. I took that central image of the yacht race from Leigh’s poem Office of the Dead, the Coastal Classic. They sail from Auckland up past the Poor Knights to the Bay of Islands and back. In his book, Leigh pictures the regatta using letters. I drew on that in my work.

You left your oil sticks behind this time.

This one’s hard edge. There’s a flight of chevrons in reflective vinyl on aluminium, different sizes, colour variations, all pointing right, on a wall seven metres high. There’s a lot in Leigh’s poem about the space between things, and the gearing of that space. He considers energy and dissipation. He’s got lines like: ‘Slow work of compression and slow work of expansion / Cessation of Labour Weekends marking time / Here in the regatta of differences, regatta of constants on the water’. My work rolls with this contemplation of passage. On the one hand, the work is terribly static, like butterflies pinned to the wall. On the other, it has this flickering, flaring quality; a swarming vitality. It also moves the viewer on, picking up on all the other signpost imagery in the show. The arrows resignedly point the viewer to Kingdom Come.

In other words, the viewer is delivered.

Kingdom Come is all the colours in the rainbow. It’s a dispersion of bright patches, a diagram of dissolutions. At first glance, there’s no particular order. Actually there’s a quiet shift in the spectrum through the four panels. Your eyes glide across it without its offering traction. It doesn’t shape or arrest attention, but stimulates a busy kind of searching for shape. Some people would see it as being like a 1950s Formica design. Again, I think of tukutuku panels. In tukutuku, the pattern is a function of the binding that secures the panel. I like how tukutuku panels in meeting houses act like codas, pauses between the big stories, rests. In Kingdom Come, it’s like the primary event is in abeyance in some way. I think the painting is like the ceiling of Auckland’s Civic Theatre, those stars, those constellations, distracting you, holding your attention before the curtains part.

So is Kingdom Come the end of the show?

It’s not ‘the end’, more a delay or a cul-de-sac. It’s hung in that odd corridor space that links back into all the other rooms. That space is a drive-by, a flyover, not a resting place. So, at the supposed endpoint, the conclusion, you get routed back into the show. Another thing, you can’t get a proper distance on the work. Any way you come at it, it’s hard to take in the whole thing—you’re too close. It’s like being in the front row of the cinema with a bent neck. The prospect is compromised. Kingdom Come may be advertised as destination, but it’s deliquescence.

You satirise the big themes, but also provide occasions to think big. Is the unpicking part of the thinking big?

That’s what I want with Kingdom Come. And it may be a house of cards or a royal flush. The title promises some sweeping sense of conclusion, but the work demonstrates a blandly repetitive procedure, a paucity of means. It’s like McCahon, in works like HiFi, signalling an ambitious purpose while employing a pointedly inadequate, semantically weak language to affect it. It’s an arte povera thing. It’s almost as if you have to drive a big wedge between the ambitions of the work and the nuts and bolts of it. Is it coalescing into intelligence or blindly unravelling?