On Allegories and Ruins

In our living room is a wall that has been drawn on by John Reynolds. Images emerge dream-like from a midnight-blue background, luminous apparitions floating in deep space. It is collage of fragments both figurative and abstract that cross cultures and transgress time, a phantasmagoria of symbols. Each image is a door to somewhere else and many doors beyond. In the work of John Reynolds the world is an immense web of connections and relationships, resonating with meanings and associations. It is a rich and mysterious place where history and philosophy are in the air. Inscribed at the base of the mural are Walter Benjamin’s words ‘allegories are in the realm of thought what ruins are in the realm of things’.

John Reynolds’ work ranges in scale from drawings on postage stamps to outsized canvases and epic landscape interventions. He works in many mediums and increasingly outside of gallery walls. He has a generosity of spirit, an expansive cultural engagement, and eye for spectacle that puts him out there as a Public Artist.

He has also had a strong relationship with architecture: his parents Ian and Marilyn were significant New Zealand architects, as is his sister. Growing up, he equated architecture with idealism: it was a tool for creating ways of living and ways of being. His artworks often resemble drawings rather than paintings, sometimes with architectural allusions. His paintings have a sense of spatial depth built up with layers of overlapping figures. The works are alive with transmitted information, vibrating with energy, teaming with ideas, sometimes clear and sometimes obscure, as if winding the dial on a radio through the frequencies.

From interviews with John Reynolds in Auckland, December 2006, about his architectural projects (for the film Questions for Mr Reynolds) 

Inevitably working as a visual artist involves a great deal of time in your own company, in a room somewhere, sustaining and advancing work on your own, and this can be a very mixed experience. There are moments almost of glee when you run towards exhibition openings and things like that. I think most artists would agree with me that one of the most exciting possibilities for an artist is to work with other people. And there is a very rich history, particularly in New Zealand, of artists collaborating. I have been very fortunate to work with a wide range of people — artists, print-makers, musicians, and others outside of the visual arts. 

The most pleasurable collaboration in a long time has been working with Nicholas Stevens and Gary Lawson of StevensLawson Architects on a range of projects ...

John knows how to work at an architectural scale and is not afraid of a big wall, as evidenced by CLOUD at the Sydney Biennale at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2006. This monumental work, made of seven thousand-odd small canvases, had a swarming, wondrous quality akin to being in one of Borromini’s seventeenth century churches in Rome with their white-on-white coffered ceilings. Then again, it had all the familiarity of a conversation at the local RSA.

In 1997 John, the landscape architect Matthew Bradbury and I collaborated on a design for the New Zealand ANZAC memorial in Canberra.

Our starting point was Colin McCahon’s Necessary Protection paintings, his pared-back landscapes of the cliff faces at Muriwai. These evoke a sense of the precarious coexistence of safety and danger in our lives, and we felt they had a poignancy for this project. In our scheme McCahon’s black blocks are interpreted as monumental tablets of stone. The slabs of New Zealand granite are configured as two sets of parallel walls cut into the landscape, dark and mute. Between them is an intimate space which opens up to the sky. It is a contemplative space with walls tattooed with John’s rich iconography and selected literary texts, including poems from James K. Baxter, Denis Glover and Allen Curnow, and fragments from soldiers’ letters home.

John’s artwork here is an overlapping collage of fragments, a contemplation on what New Zealand might mean and the nature of our shared sacrifice at Gallipoli. Imagery incorporates stacked cross-sections of the four original Maori canoes: Tainui, Te Arawa, Aotea, Tokomaru. As well as Cook’s Endeavour, ‘the enigma of arrival’, local street maps, piles of stones, crucifixes and star maps bisected with tracery and raining with shrapnel. Overlaid are more abstract figures, ethereal geometric compositions representing ideas such as ‘pedagogical clouds’, ‘a genealogical motif’ and ‘a topography of absence’. John’s incisions are deep, rough and messy, with the energy of graffiti but the symbolic quality of cave drawings. Some symbols are picked out in gold and silver like gravestone texts in a shaky hand.

Neil Finn composed an eerie soundtrack to drift out of the walls. It was an acoustic corollary to the artwork, where native birdsong, traditional Maori wind instruments and historic soundtracks were woven into a complex montage of sound designed to heighten the meditative mood.

We hoped to provide a contemplative space where we could think deeply about who we are and where we came from. We were runners-up in the competition, so the project wasn’t executed. It is a great John Reynolds work that remains unfinished and I hope that one day this project will be realised, but on New Zealand soil.

... the latest architectural project is for a hotel in Grafton. What particularly engages me is the nature of the collaboration — I’m not wheeled in as an artist who will simply provide an artwork to be dropped in on the building — plonked-down art, you might say. Instead, Nic and Gary have wanted the work to be embedded in the very aesthetic of the building. I’ve certainly felt stretched during the collaboration but thrilled to work with them. Having had an architectural family background I walked in with a certain amount of optimism — too much, because I assumed we would knock it off in no time. The project has involved a number of formal challenges and it took time for us to crunch the problems. But happily we’ve persevered, and we all contributed in a very free and easy way, which means we all own the result. I think we’ve come up with something that’s going to give people at the hotel or pedestrians on the street a really singular experience of an architectural moment in inner city Auckland.

Currently my architectural partner Gary Lawson and I are working on a large project with John for a hotel in Grafton, Auckland. The irregularly shaped six-storey building with a hollowed-out courtyard will be wrapped in an immense metal screen designed by John, a detailed construction of a hand-made drawing. The screen’s theatricality and exoticism is intended to play on the ideas of arrival and departure and the allure of the destination. John’s design is animated by a vivid range of local and off-shore motifs which are woven into a seamless ever-changing web that ultimately becomes its own unique language, a language John describes thus:
Polynesian star maps and tapa patterns are summoned alongside a highly fractured take on the patterning complexities of Maoridom’s tukutuku panel design. A further layer of referencing is of drawings by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca of the layered veils falling across the faces of women. Other touch points include the compositional dynamics of Colin McCahon’s triptych On Building Bridges, and the winsome engineering of high fashion Parisian stockings. All combine in a tense visual play on the mechanics of revealing and concealment.

The building will stand opposite the Auckland Hospital on Grafton Road — on the right, after you’ve come across Grafton Bridge. It’s a large building, destined at this stage to become a three-star hotel. With a hotel there is always the desire to theatricalise or dramatise a visitor’s experience of staying in a new city, by an evocative or memorable bit of design. The Australians have been very quick to develop singular hotels, as have the Americans. If this building is able to proceed happily through all the various design convolutions, it should be a tremendously vigorous experience to be in a room and literally be looking through an artwork to the view outside. 

The only parallel experience I can think of is many years ago when I was in southern Spain, we stayed at a series of hotels called Parador hotels. Paradors refer to certain windows in a building used formally to dramatise a view. The view may be beautiful anyway, but you dramatise it by a framing device like a decorative screen. I really love that idea, and we have designed something that initially will appear from the street as a vast decorative screen on the external fabric of the building. Ultimately it will wrap the building, enclose an interior courtyard, and be used throughout as a motif for any decorative component. This means the work is not something simply imposed on the architecture but intrinsic to it. And that’s the most heartening form of collaboration because I feel involved in an experience that is outside the painter’s grasp. Hopefully, if it’s successful we can develop further projects.

We worked closely with John over a number of weeks to arrive at a design that worked for the artist and the architecture, and responded to the urban context. There was a round table, a lot of coffee, a felt pen and loose drawings on tracing paper pasted all over the office walls and windows. It was an open process, brainstorming ideas, exploring and discarding many and working and reworking different combinations, until finally almost like magic the design revealed itself. It utilises many elements of John’s personal themes and visual language, but somehow feels fresh and site specific.

There can be a freedom in art that does not exist in architecture, but it was necessary for John’s design to function on several levels. The design’s triangulated super-structure reads strongly from a distance, and viewed closer, the infill patterns intensify with infinite variations on a theme. This creates an intricacy and fine-grained scale appropriate to the location and provides privacy and sun-screening for the hotel guests. From within each room the guests will look out through a fragment of the design, a personal John Reynolds drawing made of steel lace. The screen will be animated by the changing light, casting fractured shadows on the glass wall behind. At night the building will glow like a decorative lantern, with the screen in silhouette.

I think such opportunities are particularly available in New Zealand. It’s such a small community that these synergies are up for grabs, if you can just make them work. That part of it depends on the chemistry. Fortunately Nic, Gary and I admire one another’s work, and we can operate together productively and quickly. We’ve had lots of roiling conversations about how lace operates, say, or how a stocking-like torsion can be engineered with the design. That is, a lot of conversation occurred that wasn’t necessarily about architecture or art – it was conceptual talk about design problems. You can do that with people that you know are up for that kind of conversation, people who understand that a design solution can come from that.

Multi-storey buildings by their nature must have a certain rationalism in their design, but we are looking for ways to recover some of architecture’s romanticism. We are interested in the frisson created by the combination of the handmade and the technological. A hand-made drawing can be transformed with scanners, computers and laser cutters into a monumental work of stone or metal. Ironically it is through cutting-edge technology that we can achieve the sense of the hand-made that was once provided in architecture by craftsmen. Our collaboration with John Reynolds has lead to a more expressive architecture, where the realm of thoughts is made manifest in the realm of things.

Nicholas Stevens