Signposts to Nowhere

John Reynolds, in Matthews Philip, 'John will be your guide: searching for the whereabouts of John Reynolds', NZ Listener, 14 July 2001, p.51.

This group of mountain names comes from Reynolds' Epistomadologies 76-91, 2001.

John Reynolds' signposts arrive most numerously in several series of drawings made between 2000 and 2001. Unbelievably, the bizarre names lettered on the signs of one of the series — the itself bizarrely named Epistomadologies 1–75 2001 and 76–91 2001 — are taken from New Zealand street maps. Taken from maps they may be, but they are not much help in finding a way. As Reynolds himself admits: "They all point right, they signal meaningfulness and direction, and yet their destination is never arrived at."1 No wonder, with names of such a manic elevation as Sky High Road, Eulogy Place and Universal Drive. Or is it that the traveller is forever frozen by melancholy — mania's downside — overwhelmed by 'Mt. Solitary', 'Mt. Misery' and 'Mt. Hopeless';2 sunk in the weariness of living, in the face of 'Doubtful River', 'Torpor', 'BACKWATER', 'Small Beer' and 'Folly'?

John Reynolds, op. cit., p.51.

Reynolds perfectly describes the general tone: "I've used odd New Zealand street names. They have an allegorical, liturgical quality. Harry Human Heights through to Hope Street. Those names are august and portentous, and yet there's a buffoonery — something laughable and calamitous about them."3 August and portentous? Styx River Place, Shades Arcade, Hopeland, Mt. Aspiring. Calamitous? Anxiety Point, Escape Reef, Dark Summit. Laughable? All are laughable, just as all are calamitous, but some more obviously so. Excellent Street, Nobs Lane, Shaggery Road, Duffers Saddle, Apes Road. Liturgical? Ascension Place, Faith Grove, Christian Road, Cross Street, Pulpit Rock Road. Nothing arcane about that symbolism: this is Christian country.

The name Glenorchy appears, split in two, in Reynolds frontispiece to Landfall 200, directly below a sign saying 'Folly'.

A related group of drawings made for Landfall 200, November 2000, bears the marvellously resonant title Paradise Road. Paradise, in this context, means not a cubic city in the sky, pink and fluttering with flags, as painted by some Quattrocento Master, but a small town somewhere near Glenorchy in the southern half of the South Island.4 Early last century, you could take a tourist bus there via Paradise Road. The word 'Paradise' was lettered on the bus's brow — a remarkably Reynolds-like conjunction of the mundane and the transcendent.

Throughout the Paradise Road series, there is a tendency to the deflationary, as with the case of Paradise township, where we smile at the disparity between the grandeur of the name and the modesty of the named in the case of the Paradise bus. At other times, the disparity (the sheer, mad oddity) comes from the conjunction of the likely and the unlikely in a road sign's referents. 'The Unfordable Stretch of Water', 'Ohope', 'Tolaga Bay', 'Thin Air', one sign reads, with a wonky pointer to each destination. Here, surely, 'The Unfordable Stretch of Water' and 'Thin Air' are unlikely road signs, useful warnings though they might be, while 'Ohope' and 'Tolaga Bay' are perfectly plausible. Our delight is in the way all these weirdly mixed names rub together, creating a novel poetic object. Language itself is allowed to speak. Reynolds' art, here as elsewhere, displays a distinctly literary sensibility.

However, not all is literature in Paradise Road. A multitude of art references appears, mostly to McCahon: 'Tolaga Bay', '90 Mile Beach', 'French Bay', 'I–XIV', 'DRY Bones', and 'The Comet', for instance, all of which are McCahon inscriptions and titles. Elsewhere, we get: 'Sfumato' — Leonardo's blurring technique, cause of a fertile uncertainty of expression and edge; and 'Marfa Lights' — a reference to American sculptor Donald Judd's vast museum to himself at Marfa in the Texas desert. In these cases, even when a place is named, it is place as already transmuted by art, or, as in the Marfa example, it is place as brought to our attention by the presence there of art. Before Judd, who had heard of Marfa? Just as today far more people know Rita Angus's Cass 1936, with its station sign saying 'Cass', than know the place of that name. Place, or plausibility of place, seems to be disintegrating, as art replaces the world it had once hoped to describe.

Rita Angus
Cass 1936
oil on canvas on board
courtesy of the Robert McDougall
Art Gallery and the artist's estate

For a much fuller account of place-name inscriptions in 20th century New Zealand art, see my Signatures of Place, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 1991.

Curnow, Allen, Introduction', The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, 1960, p.51. The passage is prefaced in its original place by the remark: Regionalism is not much respected in criticism today", so adding a faintly querulous note to the generally admonitory tone. Perhaps the pungency of the passage derives in part from its questioning and agonistic relation to the Internationalism of the Centre. That is to say, the force of Regionalism is a counter-force, and gets its energy from being so.

Closely akin to the station sign of Angus's Cass is the Titahi Bay Club' inscription on the hotel sign of Harry Linley Richardson's Mrs Thornley, Titahi Bay c. 1931-32; the Fish and Chips to Take Away and 'Maketu Fisheries of Robin White's Fish and Chips, Maketu 1975; the place-name prominently lettered on the door of the foreground truck of White's Mangaweka 1973; and the closest correlative of all to the station sign of Angus's Cass, the station sign of White's Mana Railway Station 1970. It is exactly this to which the Regionalist signature of place seeks access: a power for which there is no equivalent English term, the mana inhering in New Zealand place.

John Reynolds, op. cit., p.51.

Curnow, Allen, Introduction', A Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923-45, Christchurch:
Caxton Press, 1945, p.17.

Epigraph from Fernando Pessoa, inscription by John Reynolds, Eureka School: John Reynolds, Manukau City (Auckland): Te Tuhi, the mark, 2001.

Clearly, these Reynolds signs are some way from the station sign in Angus's Cass.5 There, the name of the place, 'Cass', is literally inscribed as the work's largest signature. It is a potent legend. A more perfect answer may hardly be imagined to the belief of the New Zealand poet, and theorist of Regionalism, Allen Curnow, that: "the signature of a region, like that of a witness written below the poet's, can attest value in the work."6 In fact, with Cass, the painting goes even further than Curnow requires, since the signature of the region is written above the signature of the painter, and written much larger, and written twice — it gets top billing.7

With Reynolds, we still have the 'signature' of place, but no longer the place; and we never will have it, only a perpetual pointing towards. Symptomatically, one Reynolds signpost points twice to Happy Valley — but in exactly opposite directions. How then to find this place where we will be happy at last? And how to find the Regionalists' much-vaunted New Zealand real? As Reynolds remarks: "There's a constant sense of refusal. The signposts refusing to describe a destination."8 There is everywhere, in the words of an Epistomadologies inscription: "A taste for... whatever has least relation to reality". Least relation!

We could hardly be further from Curnow's injunction to the New Zealand poet to "seek forms as immediate in experience as the island soil under his feet."9 Nothing is immediate here, there is nothing under one's feet. Instead, in the words of a particularly perverse Reynolds epigraph: "Every landscape is located nowhere".10 Everything is sliding away.

Other signs point less to place than to emotional states, or, rather, to such states as place. One sign cluster announces to a suitably grey paper sky: 'Angst', 'Ennui', 'Weltschmerz', 'Cafard', 'Taedium Vitae', 'Anomie'. It is as if the road sign, having offered religious instruction in the McCahonian manner, and a lesson in art history, with a special emphasis on McCahon, is now giving Nature a lesson in human sadness. To the traveller's question, 'Where should we go to feel less sad?', it answers: 'There is nowhere else. Though you can, thanks to me, have your sadness in the language of other places'. Things are so hopeless it is funny.

Statutes of the Golden Fleece
from the Paradise road series
oil pastel on paper

As if to add insult to injury, the fictionality and the provisionality of Reynolds' enterprise are everywhere marked. 'Make Do, Make It Up, Make Light Of, Make Over, Make One's Mark, Make Tracks', one sign strangely reads, as if instructing us how to make the works before our eyes. This is not what we expect from road signs. So, is to 'Make Over' merely to inscribe the Regionalists' signatures of place anew? Not at all. The differences between Reynolds' inscriptions and theirs are more striking than the continuities. Instead of the place-name sign dissimulated as a real detail of a real landscape, as with Angus, with Reynolds we get the sign and nothing but. What ends up being stressed is the very sign-ness of signs.

Exacerbating this — here, as everywhere in Reynolds' oeuvre — is the way the act of drawing makes no attempt to hide itself, engaging us instead with its spasmodic and somehow dextrous wobble and dash, stepping out before the footlights, as if to perform itself into being before our eyes, before falling back into nothingness. Stressed, too, is the play of verbal language. It draws attention to itself by behaving so absurdly, or by talking dirty (Shaggery Road); or, unabashedly, it points to its own parts, as with the two Paradise Road signs that direct us, against the flush of a paper sunset, towards 'Saxon Syllables' and 'TROUBLED SYNTAX'. Every Reynolds sign is — in the helpful phrase of the signpost in the drawing Vital Signs 2001 — 'a tangible sign'. Tangible. Material. Not to be seen through. Nothing here is transparent to place.

Hothouse Spring Schedule 2001
Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Miller, J. Hillis, Topographies, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995, p.4.

Curnow, Allen, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, op. cit., p.66.

Brasch, Charles, The Silent Land', in Allen Curnow, A Book of New Zealand Verse: 1923-1945, 1945, p. 149.

The literary theorist J. Hillis Miller once wrote: "You can get to the place by the way of its name.11 The place-name, in this way of thinking, is a kind of signpost assuring us that there is indeed a place and a direction in which one might find one's way — that one's country is not, after all, as was so often feared by its Regionalist observers, an unmappable, unplaceable, unwritable, unspeakable, unpaintable terrain. Reynolds puts paid to all such hope. Admittedly, at first sight, he might seem with his manic signage to obey that further Curnow injunction: "to learn, one way or another, to name those 'nameless native hills', that loom across [our] inward or outward vision".12 He might seem to respond to the complaint of New Zealand poet and Landfall editor Charles Brasch, that: "The plains are nameless and the cities cry for meaning...".13

But when Reynolds names, or when he reiterates the already given names of the named, offering them as found objects nailed to his posts, he does no more than bring to our consciousness the sheer arbitrariness of all naming acts. Names, we see, reveal nothing about Nature — let alone about the New Zealand Nature whose essence the Regionalists sought, and everything about the Culture doing the naming. We are shown, for instance, how lugubriously 'liturgical' New Zealand used to be, as if nearly everything here had been named in the monotonous harping on through the centuries of a single Christian voice.

Curnow, Allen, The Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse, op. cit., p.17.

"Reality must be local and special at the point where we pick up the traces," Curnow famously says, "as manifold as the signs we follow, and the routes we take."14 with Reynolds, the signs are certainly manifold enough, but there is no reality left to which they might point, and no routes to take to it. If anything 'local and special' does appear, it can only be in the signs themselves, in all their pleasing grotesqueness and pathetic hopes. Admittedly, one of Reynolds' signs does claim to point to a 'Local object' — a sign every Regionalist painting needs. But, in fact, with that sign, as with all these signs, nothing is pointed to, or — it amounts to the same thing — everything is. Outside the sign there is nothing but empty paper, plain white, or commercially printed in a technicolour orange, yellow or pink, smoothly gradated from pale at the base to dense at the zenith, and thus readable as a sky at sunset or dawn. As if to encourage this reading, one sign declares 'ORANGE SUNSET,' while one of its peers points to 'The Violet Hour'.

We have come, as another sign wittily says, to 'A Pretty Pass' (how nice this mixture of a geographical term for a narrow passage through mountains with a saying for a bad state of affairs!). Representation is 'Fiasco' — to use yet another sign's word. Or rather, since we cannot know what that or any sign points to, all is fiasco, life, death, the arrangement of the stars, everything.

Toponymy: the study of the place-names of a region.

The drawing Vital Signs was made specifically for the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery newsletter. 'QUEEN STREET' may also be taken to refer to the main street of Auckland where Reynolds lives, or to any of the many Queen Streets in New Zealand, and throughout the remnants of what was the British Empire.

It needs to be said, too, that in Reynolds' toponymy15, what is named may be 'special,' as Curnow would say, but not much of it is particularly 'local'. This is so both in the case of the signs Reynolds invents, and in the case of those he finds on a map. One of the invented kind names the Argentine writer (Jorge Luis) 'Borges'; another alludes to works by the French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp ('Chocolate Grinder' and 'Occulist Witnesses'); while another conjures up French writer and theorist of signs Roland Barthes, by giving the title of one of his books in the first half of the sign: 'Empire of Signs (QUEEN STREET)'. In Reynolds' dispensation, as seldom under the Regionalist regime, a signpost may freely point to places and persons outside New Zealand - and this even at the same moment as uttering the street address (QUEEN STREET) of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, itself an 'Empire of Signs', and the host of the exhibition K Rd to Kingdom Come, an exhibition of Reynolds' own 'Empire of Signs'.16

Such is the truth of a cultural and intellectual space without borders: a place inhabited by Joyce, Borges, Pessoa, Nietzsche, Duchamp, Judd, as well as by McCahon — and this is just to mention the names named or alluded to in the works treated here. In the same breath, Reynolds' art can pronounce, as the Epistomadologies and Paradise Road works do, such New Zealand place-names as 'Anawhata', 'Aramoana', or 'Three Knights Islands', 'The Mists of North Piha', '90 Mile Beach', 'Lion Rock' and 'Young Nick's Head'; plus the already mentioned 'Tolaga Bay', 'Ohope', and 'French Bay'. It is not, then, a matter simply of reversing the Regionalist argument, and erecting a counter-aesthetic that celebrates the foreign and special as opposed to Curnow's 'local and special'. Rather, attention has simply shifted somewhere else. It has turned to the sign, to the very gesture of its pointing to place, though place itself is not to be found. 

Now that his current work has made place-naming so unavoidable a topic, we are more likely to notice earlier instances of Reynolds' place-name titles. As is always the case, an artist's later work changes the earlier work; or, what is perhaps the same thing, it teaches us to read it differently. The new work, that is to say, creates its own antecedents. Let us glance, then, at the oldest work in the K Rd to Kingdom Come exhibition. K. Rd. 1995 uses the standard vernacular diminutive form for Karangahape Road, Auckland. K. Rd. is a place of prostitutes; drag queens; porn shops; strip joints; massage parlours; as well as ethnic food and clothes shops; coffee bars and art galleries, including Artspace, the host of the Harry Human Heights exhibition. Attempts to gentrify the road have failed. Its shabbiness seems irreparable. Every Aucklander knows where it is.

In K. Rd., the whole pictured construction seems to have been cobbled together out of what used to be called 2" x 1" pine, and by someone with a minimal acquaintance with carpentry. It holds, but only for the moment. On one of its precarious horizontals is the painting's single inscription: 'KARANGAHAPE ROAD'. Architecture has always been a big theme for Reynolds, but the rickety chaos of the structure here could hardly be further from the harmonious order of the temple and palace ground plans he commonly includes in his paintings — the Mosque of Cordoba, the Temple of Knossos, Chartres Cathedral, the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii — as the trace of fallen but once splendid civilisations. This civilisation, to judge by its present monument, can hardly be called splendid; it is a botched job; and it seems about to fall before even fully begun. 

Of the other six large paintings in the exhibition, Western springs/bloody angle 1998, recalls an Auckland suburb and an offshore military catastrophe. One side of this cumbersome double-sided chalkboard shows a rough plan of Auckland's Western Springs Park over the top of which is an inverted map of the ANZAC disaster on Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, with the names of places where New Zealand soldiers fought, and the name of the battlefield, Bloody Angle, that gives the painting half of its title. The reverse side reveals a trinity of linear Xs — angles, in other words. Here, then, the title refers both to the local and the foreign. Similarly, the grandly titled Nietzsche on Whites Beach 1996 refers to a West Coast Auckland beach, as well as to the German philosopher. Irreparably, it seems, the local is contaminated by the foreign — and vice versa. It is as if in this wild place of the New Zealand local, the great negating figure in the philosophy of the West might be seen, striding across the blue-black iron sands, their bright mica grains scattering about him like stars. Reynolds is right, of course: all of Western thought comes to Whites Beach — with Reynolds, as with every Western visitor.

Let us amuse ourselves with some simple statistics. In K Rd to Kingdom Come there are but four place-name titles out of 12, a deplorable proportion by Regionalist standards. We get even worse results, from the Regionalist point of view, if we count the foreigners as against the New Zealanders named or alluded to by the inscriptions in Reynolds' paintings and drawings. On the New Zealand side, in the works discussed here (a random enough sample), we have seen McCahon alluded to. That comes to one New Zealander. As for references to foreigners: the series title Epistomadologies alludes to the Irish writer James Joyce; the Argentinian writer Borges is named and pointed to by a sign; the American writer Gertrude Stein is quoted; the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa is quoted from and named by inscription, as is the Romanian writer E. M. Cioran (Drawn and Quartered); the German Nietzsche is named in a title; the Frenchman Duchamp is alluded to by naming his works; and the American Judd is alluded to also. Finally, the sign 'Young Nick's Head', though it refers to a New Zealand place-name, also recalls the sharp eyes of a young English sailor exploring New Zealand's coasts with Captain Cook. The final score is foreigners eight, citizens one.

This relative paucity of local signature should be compared with Reynolds' Regionalist predecessors like Angus or Woollaston, whose titles almost invariably pronounce the name of a New Zealand place or person, and whose untitled works can almost always be identified as representing a New Zealand site or citizen. If titles may be taken as a convenient indicator of content, it must seem that for Reynolds the depiction of place is no longer the central artistic concern. Paradoxically, this remains so, even despite the innumerable place-names that Reynolds is now inscribing all over the faces of his works.

Amongst the signpost drawings of Epistomadologies 76-91 2001, another series in the exhibition, the opening drawing intones a litany of New Zealand mountains.

Mt. Aspiring
Mt. D'Archaic
Mt. Hopeless
Mt. Longsight
Mt. Misery
Mt. Patriarch
Mt. Solitary
Mt. Technical
Mt. Tinline
Mangles River
Memory Rock
Mid Dome

However, the next drawing names Scottish distilleries of single malt whiskey.

Another drawing of Epistomadologies 76-91 is inscribed with the place-name, Vincennes Asylum: The Kitchen, from the title of a 19th century French photograph; another takes its title, Hookey Alf of Whitechapel, from that of a 19th century English photograph of a rag and bone man from the London suburb of Whitechapel. In another drawing, a signpost points to 'Church Road' and 'Reynolds Street': the first the name and address of a winery and the second a barely disguised signature (or 'SIGNAT', as another pointing sign here has it) in the guise of an innocent street name - the artist's signature, that is to say, feigned as the signature of a place. The signpost of this drawing points also to 'DON QUIJOTE', the huge name of a Swedish ship the artist once saw looming through the windows of his Auckland gallerist; and to two more destinations even more distant than Sweden, or the Spain of Don Quixote, 'Kingdom Come' and 'Milky Way'.

Finally, with the 20-sheet drawing Mare Insularum 2001, not only are we not in New Zealand, we are no longer on the earth at all. Reynolds is 'off the planet', as they say. He has gone to the moon. With appropriate lunacy, the Lord's Prayer appears in caption-length fragments at the base of each vertical panel, with an attendant name of a lunar feature (lakes, bays, promontories) floated above, and overlaid upon a cartographic grid. Among these names the old Latin names have extraordinary beauty and melancholy: Lacus Oblivionis/Lake of Oblivion; Mare Vaporum/Sea of Vapour; Mare Cogitarum/Sea of Thought; Marsh of Sleep (no Latin given); Marsh of Decay...

Burke, Edmond, A Philosophical Enquiry Into Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, London, 1757, Menston: Scolar Press, 1970.

Beauty, says Edmund Burke, the great 18th century theorist of the Beautiful and the Sublime, affects the observer like a warm bath, "by relaxing the solids of the whole system into melting and languor".17 In Mare Insularum, however, lest we should too much relax our solids, there is a sharp contrary tendency. Just as we are sliding into melting and languor we are jerked awake by the disparity between the beautyof the old and the poverty of the new. The contrast is between sublimity and mundanity: between the transcendent imagination of the Latin and its translations, and the bureaucratic numbness — or at best the brusque and wry vernacular — of the names applied in our time. Thus: 'Shorty' compared with 'Marsh of Decay', or 'Lacus Oblivionis' (Lake of oblivion) as opposed to 'North Complex'. It is a disturbingly anti-picturesque mix. This too is typical of Reynolds: he gives only to take away. If he offers beauty, it is always a beauty undone.

Francis Pound