Encountering John Reynolds

1. With Julian Dashper in Auckland, 1980s?
I don’t actually remember when I first encountered either John Reynolds or his work for the first time, but I associate either agreeable possibility with both Auckland and Julian Dashper some time in the early 1980s. I definitely met both John and his work, as well as Julian Dashper (and his), at Peter McLeavey’s gallery in Wellington around 1984 and subsequently. But the Wellington encounters are missing something — or rather, they’ve already got too much in them that I can claim was probably there. They’ve already firmed up. They’re solid. They’ve already begun to be about what to expect as well as what to be surprised by. By 1984, there are already words for talking to John with as well as the ones he’s gotta use. There’s already a stairway to heaven, or some such sense of covert transcendence. There’s already a sense of wristy drama — the wrists of table-tennis players, perhaps, or whirling beach-dervishes throwing Frisbees for happy dogs, or probably people dancing in the living room of someone’s flat, so crowded you have to wave your hands (wrists) above your head — as much as the hearty wrists of serious young expressionists. Wrists of hearts; Wrist of the Heart (1986). Uncertain tw(r)ists and turns that yet seem sure of where they’re going, like speculative maps or wiring diagrams (this could work?); like choreographies with moves and beats but not a lot of plot. None of this existed before the first encounter but it so quickly became present it’s nearly impossible now to imagine it not being there. What I nearly remember about the encounter when it began to be there (but before it was) is a, ‘So what do you make of this?’ tone. ‘Could this work?’ Friendly, gregarious, optimistic. ‘Works for you?’ I have a sense of Reynolds and Dashper tossing ideas around before they got to tossing paint. They were enjoying themselves and this came across. They were light though not lite. They were serious but not heavy. There was a sense of physical theatre rather than of monologue. Knockabout, vaudevillesque, a patter. No worries. They were also pretty mental.Out the window was the sprawly city of sails with its oysterish, murky harbour, a fair bit of money sloshing around the place, a touch of over-confidence (before the Crash), perhaps; I remember stepping out into a bright, exhaust-rich street and thinking, I like this, this could get pretty interesting. 
If anyone can help me with the occasion
I can’t remember properly, that would be greatly appreciated — but it doesn’t matter too much.

2. Tendering, 1988
What was missing about the time John Reynolds (and Julian Dashper — whom we can shake hands with and wish well at this point, because the story’s John’s from now on) came to Wellington in (I think) 1984 was that first sense of ‘this could get pretty interesting’. It already was pretty interesting, which was interesting in itself but no longer a surprise — because John was interesting and so was his work. The interest was anchored.
The reason I asked John if he’d do a cover and frontispiece (or maybe he threw the frontispiece in unasked?) for a book of poems called ‘Tendering’ was because I was thinking about the residual pleasure of that first encounter — the ‘what was soon to be missing in Wellington’ sense of surprise and expectation. I probably remembered it (the first encounter) better then in 1988 than I do now, though now, in 2007, I remember remembering it well enough. I remember thinking I’d like the poems to be prefaced by some of that surprise and anticipation, that not heavy serious, that not lite light, that looseness held somehow, like dancing without a plan in a room where everyone else dancing keeps you on the spot.

Now, in 2007, I feel a certain amount of tender pride in the blurb I wrote for the back cover of the book, which goes like this (ahem) and which might as well have been the brief for the artist, not that he needed one:The word ‘tender’ is wonderfully supple. It describes vulnerability and also protective feelings — tenderness. Tender is what we do when we bid for the possession of something. We tend what we care for; we also incline, and we attend. A ship tended swings to the weather tide on an anchor; a ship is attended by a tender filled with provisions or fuel ... I wanted poems that were tended — that could swing freely about a secure centre.

Gosh (as John might say), look: an anchor. John’s anchor on the cover is a fine white one with satisfyingly means-business arrowhead flanges on one hook. It’s plunging through the aqueous, moiré swirls of antique oil-marked paper, a murky bluey grey like the city-of-sails Waitemata on the day I can’t quite remember stepping out into an exhaust-fumey summer street in the pleasantly over-confident years before the Crash (or shipwreck).The frontispiece is another anchor, but this one’s tangled up in its own rope, there’s some agitation and struggle in the scrabbled black oil stick; the tides are probably turning. 

Feel that tug on the hawser?— the edge where see turns to seem

3. Contemporary New Zealand Poetry, 1989
In 1989 Penguin Books published Contemporary New Zealand Poetry / Nga- Kupu Tı-tohu o Aotearoa. The editors asked John to make a cover for the anthology. I remember hoping and expecting that it would look like the cover of an anthology of contemporary poetry; that it would express complexity and dynamism, that it would have a here-now look about it as well as a sense of hard-to-map histories, polyvocalities, vocal localities and local vocalities. The cover design was implemented by Flashing Blade! — and John’s reading of the text was also an action movie. A whirling red and white vortex, a whirligig (spinning out or in?) overlays a black structure that could be botanical, a coastal storm-tossed cabbage tree; blue forms, like those an archaeologist might quickly sketch, lie over.And then the hesitant certainty of representation spins or shifts away (or in). Open the book. I gotta use words when I talk to you will be the title of an exhibition sixteen years later at the Sue Crockford Gallery in Auckland. It’s a quote from T. S. Eliot and it’s also a kind of deliberate light not lite misquote of Colin McCahon’s oft-quoted ‘I will need words’. In the same show will be two big wall drawings, ‘Stairs to Heaven’. They kind-of quote Led Zeppelin and they also kind-of quote the tukutuku pattern known as poutama or stairs to knowledge. They’re a tacit eulogy to John’s dad, who died in October 2005, the month before the exhibition.The shiftiness of representation — the what-do-you-make-of-this? -ness of it — can it also do time-shifting, temporality, even historical consciousness? Of course, the vortex shape on the cover of Nga- Kupu Tı-tohu o Aotearoa is also a koru of sorts, a pretty mental one (and a cue to the poutama of I gotta use words). Is it possible for the representation of depth and space, the apparent floating of shapes and colours above, over and out from each other on the flat plane of the picture, to also, shiftily, hesitantly, momentarily, represent time passing, circling, returning, anticipating? Could these shifty perspectives also convey — represent — historical consciousness? Is this what’s piercing the flat wall of the here-and-now? Phew, as John might say. Gee.
Works for me, at any rate — so to speak. I mean, so to talk

4. At Peter McLeavey’s gallery in Wellington, March 1990
In 1990 — the ‘Sesqui’ — there was a lot of history going on. Ann Verdcourt had a show with the year’s best title, Playing with the Velasquez Girls. There were a couple of important shows at the National Library: Kai-Whakaahua, a throat-tightening exhibition of James McDonald’s photographs taken in the 1920s; Histories: Seams of a Culture, a brilliant historical essay about the places where the narrative fabrics of history come together (or rip apart). 

Then there was John Reynolds’ history exhibition at Peter McLeavey’s gallery in March 1990. The whirligig, action-movie koru from the cover of Nga- Kupu Tı-tohu o Aotearoa reappeared, only this time it looked uncannily (as history tends to) like the moulded plaster relief in the ceiling of McLeavey’s big room (a feature Billy Apple hadn’t subtracted, but that’s another history).
I reviewed John’s exhibition for the Evening Post on 22 March and had this to say:
‘In response to meaning-of-life questions, the late Andy Warhol was wont to ask, ‘So what?’ this was on a par with his equally notorious statement that if he looked at a work of art long enough, it stopped meaning anything. Droll though such a philosophy seems at first, it may be less campy cynicism than forthright recognition of the speed at which significance flees in an image-saturated world. It offers a view of history that says this (or this) is only interesting for as long as it’s interesting to look at – not long, usually. An inspired 1959 Volkswagen ad by the New York agency of Doyle Dane Bernback (the ‘lemon’ ad) crops up in Warhol’s 1985 ‘Ads’ series of screen prints. In these, ads replaced famous ‘moments’ as the worthy subjects of art wanting to allegorise history. This ad (says the Warhol print) is as ‘significant’ as anything else that happened in 1959. And it’s good for about 30 seconds.John Reynolds (who finished at Peter McLeavey’s on Saturday) is no popster. But he makes art out of vanishing, out of signs whose lives are ending as we begin to look at them, out of texts that have already fallen silent or been dismembered, out of history that is being erased at the very moment we are invited to ponder its significance.We were, in this Festival show, promised a Reynolds meditation on New Zealand’s history. This we did not get, except in the Warholian sense — some vestigial skid marks as the ‘lemon’ of history accelerates out of the picture.

On the other hand, we were left with a meditation on the nature of history painting itself, together with titles that almost parody the biblical-subject version of the weighty ‘istoria’ painting: ‘Song of Songs’, ‘The Mark of Cain’, ‘The Burning Bush’. And we are offered a couple that wanted to regionalise history painting: ‘The Mariner’s Mirror (The Death of Captain Cook)’, ‘Tarawera’.All had in common a whirligig motif with a resemblance to the plaster moulding on McLeavey’s ceiling. This could conceivably be interpreted as double regionalist: a ponga-fern as both bush ceiling and as the ceiling of one’s dealer. All the paintings have the hush of departed narrative. All have a deliberately provisional look, as though unwilling to, or incapable of, pressing history painting into the service of memorials. What livelies-up this parched scenario is the occasional presence of a costume prop straight out of exotic history paintings: a heavily-tasselled girdle-type accoutrement, an inspired fragment of luxurious bricolage dropped by some over- (or -under) dressed allegory.The tassel is a bit like the Volkswagen in the Warhol print: it says that this detail, this curio almost, is as significant as whatever historical subject has now vanished from the scene. Or as insignificant: So what?

And what makes this poignant souvenir of history painting also humorous is the fact that it appears in four works, rather as if it was straying about the whole field of history painting looking for the parent that has left it behind. And so this orphan of significance strays incongruously into the Tarawera eruption, it attaches itself inappropriately to a burning bush. History is what got left behind.Reynolds, however, is no cynic. He may indeed have come up with a response to his dealer’s request for a ‘history of New Zealand’. He knows that a ‘history of New Zealand’ by a painter is going to be a history of history painting. His tassel, that forlornly gorgeous waif out of Poussin, or Delacroix, or more probably some melodramatic Victorian like Francis Danby, has attached itself to the ‘istoria’ of Tarawera, under a ceiling-fan ponga fern motif, in order to tell us that history is already a representation, a picture.’

5. Plato’s Cave, 1992 
Plato’s Cave, the massive oil stick and acrylic wall painting commissioned in 1992 by one of John’s best supporters, Tim Walker, when he was senior curator at the National Art Gallery, became history when it was walled over in 1993. Or almost history — we all knew it was still there, only it was behind the wall. Or the cave wall was behind the new wall. It was in the dark, but it was there. It was because we couldn’t see it that we knew it existed in an ideal form. Like much of John’s work, Plato’s Cave was pretty mental. No more a conceptualist (too wristy) than a popster (too historically conscious), John Reynolds could hardly have come up with a more conceptual Plato’s Cave than the one that got walled in.

I inherited this situation from Tim Walker when he left Te Papa to start building the New Dowse by subsuming the old institution within a fresh architecture — there’s a pattern? John and I had desultory conversations about what to do. Eventually, both the new and the cave wall had to go to make way for the new Massey University on the hill. We documented the moment in 2001, we made a video of the drawing when it re-emerged, briefly, into the light of the present day — and then it was gone. 

Only, it wasn’t, entirely. Who’s to say Plato’s Cave isn’t still there, behind the grand bustles of Massey’s Great Hall? In some sense? Its companion ‘cave drawings’ and collages (1993) remain in the museum’s collection, like postcards or souvenirs from time travel. I hope John got the wine we promised him, and a copy of the video, in exchange for the signed decommissioning document. I’ll have to check up on that one day. 

Typically and cheerfully generous, he gave the museum a huge drawing on black builder’s paper, also called Plato’s Cave. It was shown in the 2003 exhibition ‘Signs and Wonders He Tohu He Ohorere’. When that exhibition closed on October 17 2004, Plato’s Cave got walled in a second time, in the collection store, rolled up carefully, like some ancient map of the way to knowledge, a dark place to descend to, a reminder that staircases to knowledge don’t necessarily have to go up.

6. Ibykos, 1997
Which is why John Reynolds was a good choice to illustrate the Holloway Press’s lovely edition of Ted Jenner’s bilingual (Greek/English) The Love Songs of Ibykos: 22 Fragments. The Holloway Press publication announcement in 1997 stated that, ‘In Reynolds’s images, reproductions of the original papyrus fragments (with the permission of The Egypt Exploration Society) have been incorporated.’ I love the encounter that conjures, of John approaching ‘The Egypt Exploration Society’ with a friendly, how-could-you-refuse? smile. And they didn’t.

7. Ralph Hotere Black Light, 2000
Any more than John refused when Ralph Hotere invited him to come along for a round of golf at Belleknowes in 1991. John took some photographs that day — Ralph making judicious selections of clubs in the cold winter sunshine. It was the same year he and Ralph made Winter Chrysanthemums together. John wrote about both for the Ralph Hotere Black Light catalogue. He described how making the work was, ‘something tactical, a negotiation of territory, like a game of golf.’ He described a sense of physical theatre: I caddied for Ralph Hotere. I carried his No 3 iron. The game (and its trace in the art, and its darkened memory) as a succession of mental parabolas across the landscape, with numbers and obscure diagrams and scores, a vehicle loaded with esoteric knowledge, hand-to-eye skill as the standing water on the course iced
over. Back to the club-house for a rewarding drink.The catalogue was published in 2000 and the exhibition opened in Dunedin, appropriately. Around 2001, I began to follow the activities of neuroscience researchers looking into links between learning and rewards. Like John who couldn’t play golf, I couldn’t play neuroscience; but I was carrying a No 3 iron for the boffins and trailing along after these superb parabolas of thought.

Turned out there was a Dr John Reynolds in the anatomy department at the University of Otago. He was a member of the research team that cracked the dopamine connection. Dopamine is the brain’s ‘feel good’ reward. You get a hit of it when you successfully learn something; makes you want to do that thing again. Makes you want to go on doing it. 

I hope John Reynolds goes on and on making art and that doing this makes him feel good over and over. I hope Dr John at the Otago School of Medical Sciences keeps on with his dopamine research and continues to enjoy the collegial support of his colleagues, both senior and junior, as well as of the occasional walk-on enthusiast willing to carry a No 3 iron.

8. Manos: The Hands of Fate, 2003
Less rewarding but occasionally, irrationally, drenched in dopamine was the encounter with yet another John Reynolds at the Becks Incredible Film Festival in Wellington in 2003. Listed in some movie databases as ‘the worst film ever made’, Manos: The Hands of Fate (USA 1966) was written, produced and directed by Harold P. Warren. Its plot summary states that, ‘Mike, his wife Margaret and their young daughter Debbie become lost while heading away on vacation near El Paso. They come to a remote house in the desert. The creepy hunchbacked retainer Torgo reluctantly allows them to stay the night. But strange things begin to happen. And then The Master that Torgo serves rises from the dead with the intention of turning Margaret into one of his harem of wives.’John Reynolds played ‘The creepy hunchbacked retainer Torgo’. There’s really nothing more to be made of this gratuitous coincidence — except to say, I imagine John Reynolds the artist would have got a blast of dopamine out of it had he been there. No popster, as we’ve already insisted, John’s rewarding gift is for a certain lightness — a sense of ease; that being mental is enjoyable, rewarding, entertaining; a pleasure worth repeating. During the movie, I had no trouble imagining John Reynolds the artist hamming it up as John Reynolds the actor, doing his Torgo routine. Says a lot for him.

9. Laureates, 2006
In 2006 both John and I got lucky and were given Laureate awards by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand. This was really terrific; but in some ways, the best part was that we did a little trip around the South Island with the other laureates in 2006, Oscar Kightley and Alun ‘Alboll’ Bollinger (Alastair Galbraith couldn’t make it), with the wonderful Kate de Goldi keeping us in the script.
At each of our presentations, John Reynolds the artist did a tennis routine that completely stole the show every time. It reminded me of his story about caddying for Ralph Hotere in 1991
(and also, a bit, of the Torgo routine I’d imagined for him — but I’ve never told him this until now). It was always
worth repeating, always rewarding,
always serious and moving and
always funny, too.
The tennis routine is the story of how John got to be a painter, and it goes like this. There’s a trundly machine with a wheel and a container of white paint that’s used (that used to be used) for painting the white markings of a tennis court. When John was a kid, he used to assist (the No 3 iron routine) a patient mental patient at a psychiatric institution with such a painting machine. There are some large gaps in this abbreviated narrative. What you have to imagine, irrespective of the unsurprising and unsensational history that led to John’s spending time being a helpful kid in the grounds of the institution, is a little, probably smiling, John in summer shorts, sharing the handle of the tennis-court drawing machine with a patient old mental patient, making these lovely white lines on the green grass of the courts. Up and down, across and across, measuring and walking, making this big drawing on the green; sometimes falling over and spilling the container of white paint — pratt-falling, like a vaudeville trainee, getting up, doing it again, seriously, this crazy kid.
He must have learned something, this crazy kid. It must have been rewarding. There’s just no stopping him.

Ian Wedde