John Reynolds

Born in Auckland, New Zealand 1956

Lives and works in Auckland




1978 University of Auckland



2008    Ballet Macanique, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           John Reynolds: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, Christchurch Art Gallery, Christchurch

2007    Known Knowns, Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns, Sue Crockford Galley, Auckland

2006    Last Evenings On Earth and Alien Hand Paintings, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           CLOUD, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Biennale of Sydney, Australia

2005    I Gotta Use Words When I Talk To You, Sue Crockford Gallery

2004    Einstein Sings Nirvana, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

2003    I'm Doing Nothing Wrong, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

2002    We Are Going Nowhere, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

2001    Antipodes, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Harry Human Heights, Artspace, Auckland

2000    History and the making of history, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1999    Y2K, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1998    Western Springs/Bloody Angle, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1997    12 Hours of Daylight, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           John Reynolds, Center of Contemporary Art, Christchurch

1996    Neitzsche on Whites Beach, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Millennium: a general theory of tears, McDougall Annex, Christchurch

1995    Karangahape Rd, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1993    John Reynolds, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Two large recent paintings, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           John Reynolds: recent work, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

1992    Ritual Flowers, Center for Contemporary Art, Hamilton

           John Reynolds, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1991    Recent paintings by John Reynolds, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           John Reynolds, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1990    John Reynolds: New Works, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           John Reynolds, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1989    An exhibition of recent paintings, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           The Cross, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1988    John Reynolds, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Recent work, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

1987    John Reynolds, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Pyrotechnics, cibrachromes, Real Pictures, Auckland

           New works, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

1986    John Reynolds, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           John Reynolds, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           Big drawings 1981-1986, Center for Contemporary Art, Hamilton

           John Reynolds, paintings, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1985    John Reynolds, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Cibachromes, Real Pictures, Auckland

1984    Mezzanines, Space Gallery, Auckland

1981    Big paintings, 100m2, Auckland

1980    Swell drawings, 100m2, Auckland



2012    Kermadec, City Gallery Wellington, Wellington

2007    Just Painting, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, Auckland

2006    Pakeha Now, Suter Gallery, Nelson

           Group Show, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

2005    Free NZ Art, ARTSPACE, Auckland

2004    Vacancy, Te Tuhi The Mark, Pakuranga, Auckland

           Remember New Zealand, 26th Sao Paulo Bienal, Brazil

2003    Nine Lives: The 2003 Chartwell Exhibition, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki

2002    White, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

2001    After Killeen, ARTSPACE, Auckland

           Tall Poppies, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           It will be ok, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           Black and White, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

2000    New Work, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Home and Away, Auckland Art Gallery; Govett-Brewster Art Gallery; Dunedin Public Art Gallery; Waikato Museum of Art and

           History, Hamilton; City Gallery, Wellington

1999    What I Photographed This Summer, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

1998    New Zealand on Paper, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

1995    A Very Peculiar Practice: Aspects of Recent New Zealand Painting, City Gallery, Wellington

1994    Sugar Lift, Canterbury School of Fine Arts Gallery, Christchurch

           Station to Station: the Way of the Cross, Auckland City Art Gallery

           Two Major Works, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

1993    The Right Stuff, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           Fisher Gallery, Pakuranga Arts Society,

1992    Distance looks our way: 10 artists from New Zealand, Seville Expo

           Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           New Works 1992: Five New Zealand Artists, National Art Gallery

           Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

           The selective eye, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

1991    Cross Pollination, Artspace, Auckland

1989    After McCahon: Some Recent Configurations in Art, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland

           The Photography Show, Fisher gallery, Pakuranga, Auckland

           Group Show, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1988    Demolition Exhibition, Artspace, Auckland

1987    Lindauer Art Award, Auckland Society of the Arts Gallery, Auckland (winner)

           Drawing Analogies: Recent Dimensions in New Zealand Drawing, Wellington City Art Gallery, Wellington

           John Reynolds: A rough geography, The North Gallery, Whangarei

           Albrecht/Reynolds, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           The Folding Image: An exhibition of screens by contemporary New Zealand artists, Fisher Gallery, Pakuranga, Auckland

1986    Someone's Scheming, Real Pictures, Auckland

           Group Show, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Omaha Beach, with Julian Dashper, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           Drawings, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

1985    Opening Show, Sue Crockford Gallery, Auckland

           Group Show, with Julian Dashper, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           Group Show, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

           Chartwell Collection, Center for Contemporary Art, Hamilton

1984    Group Show, with Julian Dashper, Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington

1983    Group Show, with Julian Dashper, Durham House, Auckland

John Reynolds: Painting, Planting and Performance


Asked about Snow Tussock and Golden Spaniard, his recent outdoor works at Macraes Flat, John Reynolds remarked: 'John McCormack told me these must be the largest artworks in New Zealand. My response was: Well, actually I see them as the slowest artworks in New Zealand. One doesn't wish to ratchet up numbers as significant, but they'll find their fullest expression 50, 60, 70, or even 80 years from now. It's a process we're on, and I'm hoping to visit year by year to enjoy the changes.'1

Watching tussock grow is a change of pace for an artist who made a timed sixty-second painting for the Vacancy exhibition, based on Bob Dylan's line 'The next 60 seconds (can feel like an eternity)'.2 But time has often been a concern of Reynolds' art. His latest exhibition at the Sue Crockford Gallery was Last Evenings on Earth, and its first image confronted the viewer with You've Got Three Minutes. An earlier show was called History and the Making of History. And he describes his current Auckland Art Gallery project, 4 Walls, 3 Layers, 2 Marks, 1 Light as evoking 'a twilight sense of a roll call of contemporary art performances of the last 40-50 years of the gallery.'3

2006 was a milestone year for Reynolds - he turned 50, celebrated his 21st exhibition at the Sue Crockford Gallery, was selected as an Arts Foundation Laureate (for artists who have had a significant 'career' but whose 'richest work still lies ahead'), and contributed a major work to the Sydney Biennale (Cloud, dedicated to his father Ian who had died a year earlier). In progress are an independent documentary, Questions for Mr Reynolds,4 and a related book, and the artist is maintaining his usual flurry of activities - other outdoor works, Swanndri designs for Karen Walker, and a collaboration with Stevens Lawson Architects.

A backwards scan over Reynolds' career - 26 years of solo exhibitions since Swell Drawings and Big Paintings at 100 m - reveals a major body of work by an artist whose interests have grown more distinctive over the years. He has won several major awards.5 Still, some observers express reservations. T.J. McNamara notes that 'His work has been considered difficult, particularly his austere and complex markmaking and tracking.'6 And Michael Dunn's New Zealand Painting comments: 'He can appear as a draughtsman more than a painter . . . Reynolds lacks a clear identity because he restlessly moves from one option to another . . .'.7

McNamara and Dunn are themselves basically sympathetic, but correct in suggesting that some of the very qualities that have drawn viewers to this art - its restless energy, its wit, its informality - have also led to it being read as puzzling or superficial. Poet Leigh Davis, who collaborated on Office of the Dead (2001) and The Book of Hours (2001)8 , argues in his important essay 'Country and Western' that 'In the little body of writing about Reynolds' work to date it is the ornament of the painting that has most drawn talk. The work is celebrated for its dandy doodle riot of expressive incident. That is, it is read as hovering on the edge of psychology.'9 Davis sees such readings as a failure to recognise what this art has contributed to a renewal of the medium of painting.

It is also salutary to consider the relative lack of understanding for the work of artists close to Reynolds, such as Julian Dashper (who has received more recognition overseas than in New Zealand)10 and et al (the target of a fierce, nationwide controversy after being selected for the Venice Biennale)11 . One might add Davis to this list as one of the country's most original writers who is consistently overlooked by the local literary community. All these artists, including Reynolds, have committed the sin of downgrading 'psychology' or 'expressive' elements in their art. Obviously they have found local audiences for their work, and there are a number of other artists in the same situation. But it serves to remind us that the big shift in New Zealand art in the '70s and early '80s still represents a barrier for the culture at large.  A look at Reynolds' career will highlight some of the aesthetic issues.

Travelling light
When Reynolds was at art school the tradition of expressionism or 'anxious images' was strong in local painters such as Tony Fomison, Philip Clairmont or Jeffrey Harris12 . Others sought to link art with social or political advocacy. Reacting against these expectations, Reynolds deliberately sought to be 'light and whimsical, emphasising a sense of play.' This shifted the focus from personal experience or politics to the materials and mechanics of art. Naturally the artist's life continued to inform his work, but only as the starting point for a process that pursued pleasures and intensities different from 'the expression [of] unease, anxiety, anger, fear and pain' (as Alexa Johnston characterized the 'anxious images' tradition).13 Reynolds saw 'lightness' as the strongest 'point of difference' in his art, and this was its most controversial aspect, causing a nervous reviewer to enquire whether his first solo exhibition was a hoax.

He was aware of overseas precedents - Pop Art, and painters such as Olitski, Hockney, Guston, and other artists who had reacted against the earnestness of high modernism or expressionism. Meanwhile there was a local shift in taste vividly showcased by the 'New Image' exhibition that Francis Pound curated in 1983. Focusing on artists born 1943 to 1953 (Frizzell, Wong Sing Tai, Watkins, Killeen, Chilcott, and Hartigan), this survey just missed Reynolds, but he shared many of the artists' interests: a return to figuration (with a 'post-abstraction' sensibility); an appetite for the whole tumult of culture (from high to low); a preference for wit over earnestness; a moratorium on 'anguish' and 'neurosis'; a 'quote mark' or 'semiotic' awareness; and a strong conceptual streak, including a tendency to make 'art about art.' Pound also saw this work as 'urban' and 'internationalist.'14

This was a new cluster of interests for the '80s. In what ways did Reynolds' art stand separate? Figuration tended to be less important to him - his search was less for 'new images' than for new methods and materials. He made a key shift of emphasis from painting to drawing (in its broadest definition). Also, he developed some period concerns in a distinctive manner. His cultural interests were unusually wide-ranging, collecting and sampling in surprising ways, giving a special  - lan to his art. His interest in conceptual, performance and sitespecific art helped him to think laterally about painting and drawing. He identified not simply as an 'internationalist' but as one of a new breed of New Zealand-based artists for whom the global and the national comfortably co-existed.

Other characteristic features were Reynolds' intense feeling for language; his interest in rock music; his 'deadpan' humour; his extreme juxtapositions; and his liking for images that are seemingly artless, underworked, or 'emptied out,' or have an edgy sense of tension or wobble. These interests are not unique but their combination is distinctive, and the resourceful ways he has developed them has kept his art fresh and challenging. It also explains why it is important to see his art as a whole, as the energetic pursuit of a set of interests more consistent than any 'dandy doodle riot' of surface elements. This essay is one attempt to see the coherence, though there will not be time to cover all the areas (such as Reynolds' innovative photography and print-making).

Dirty drawing
Reynolds' generation of artists emerged at a time when the medium of painting seemed creatively exhausted. His particular response was to focus on drawing, previously regarded as a secondary genre, as a servant of painting. In his words: 'Even in my early work, painting was only the backdrop for the real drama - the drawing, often with a text component. For paint I would use an everyday commercial primer off the shelf in some crappy colour like pink, to avoid treating paint and colour as the key things.' His work has continued to stretch the scope of the process of drawing. 'I draw with everything except a paint brush - with chunky graphite sticks, Japanese silver enamel paint markers, spray cans, any instrument that makes a mark.'

Suiting his strong interest in text, the process of drawing has affinities with writing. It is important to him that 'there's something about drawing that goes with edge, with brittleness.' He is interested in any form of drawing that has an exploratory quality - such as children's work. He likes oil sticks because they involve 'just the right amount of lack of control'. Such 'dirty drawing' evokes 'a certain frailty'. When the drawing produces 'figuration,' Reynolds likes the effect of 'seeming to end up with it almost by accident.' One way he describes this effect is that his drawing of a lightbulb 'is really a drawing of the idea of a lightbulb'. Other recurring icons in his work include signpost, tree, umbrella, and billy. He gives them enigmatic labels. When he represents something Reynolds feels 'the desire to tip it over,' to deny the viewer an easy payoff. A representation should have 'provisionality' and 'explore as well as assert.' Another way to give a twist to the image is to make the process obsessive: 'Repetition has a strange intensity. It's like when you say your name so many times that suddenly it dips into strangeness.' In large paintings such as Kingdom Come (2001) there is a tension between the regularity of the rectangles and the obsessive hand-drawn energy of the dotted lines.

He likes to return to painting from time to time 'for a change' yet his paintings retain some of the qualities of his drawings. He may include pencil lines or give the areas of paint 'uncertain edges,' or the tense or frail qualities he associates with drawing. The memorable large canvas Last Evenings on Earth (2006) is an unusual mix of cloudy colour patches drifting down from the bright colour at top left to the darkness at bottom right - the painting dips into strangeness.

Reynolds has his own slant on Colin McCahon and several of his exhibitions have had titles that allude to the older artist's work.15 Though Reynolds is well aware of the heavy, anxious elements in McCahon's paintings, he values his extensive use of text and 'his methods of pictorial organisation' - especially the way he 'under-works' his paintings and 'empties them out.' He also admires McCahon's habit of using 'whatever materials were available in his vicinity,' from roadside signs and comic books to the Bible. Reynolds enjoys 'art that works with the clutter of life.' McCahon managed to use limited means and materials to suggest complex meanings. Interestingly, Reynolds admires the best of Bruce Nauman's performance works for similar reasons: 'He uses only as much as he needs. Each piece is simple yet rich, a distillation of his thinking around a particular idea.' This is not 'minimalism' (a label reviewers have misleadingly applied to some work by Reynolds), but an expert under-cooking that challenges the audience to take things further. He finds a similar simplicity/ complexity in work by Gary Hume, Paul McCarthy, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.

There are parallels in Reynolds' use of signposts (in Epistomadologies) and paintings based on single lines from pop song lyrics (such as 'I'm doing nothing wrong,' from P.J. Harvey's song 'You said something'). To Reynolds, 'music particularly has that ability to destabilise . . . Music - and every teenager in the world understands this - is a great vehicle for disassembling received ideas, fast-tracking emotive connectiveness . . . and for [creating] transgressions'.16 One of the first local artists to make direct use of rock music, Reynolds understands how music can have a casual, throwaway manner yet be rich and complex, especially when further sampled as part of a painting. He has drawn on Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Don McGlashan, Nirvana and others. His art can tap the adrenalin of music. Leigh Davis writes: 'Reynolds' paintings exaggerate movement. They have a distinctive body language; one could say that they are commonly either "jitterbug" figures or "waltz" ones . . . '.17 (not to mention some pogoing and freestyle moves).

Reynolds is like a musician whose cunning offkey flourishes we learn to enjoy. They are also a reminder of the many uses of humour in art today. Humour can provide a way in for the non-specialist viewer, as shown by the feedback Reynolds received for Cloud. Each of its 7073 small canvases bore a colloquial phrase from Harry Orsman's Dictionary of New Zealand English, and many viewers were amused or shocked by particular phrases.18 Humour is part of contemporary art's knowingness. Reynolds talks of bursting out laughing at one of Sigmar Polke's paintings because of its sly understanding of the physical business of painting. Reynolds likes 'deadpan humour' - as illustrated by Cloud with its consistently cool delivery of odd colloquialisms. His interest in the writer Samuel Beckett, triggered by Lucky's speech in Waiting for Godot, has touched many aspects of his work (such as the 1995 show Seven paintings around a Beckett soliloquy); and that is also a clue that his humour can imply a sharp sense of absurdity.19 Arguably, its deadpan quality also has a kiwi resonance. The colloquialisms of Cloud echo Frank Sargeson's stories and their ironic subtext. We can see why humour - like lightness - can have a special strategic value for the local artist when we look up the word 'artist' in Orsman's Dictionary. In New Zealand usage the word tends to be 'ironic or pejorative' with connotations of 'illegality, impropriety, excess.' It is most commonly applied to 'a hard-case or inveterate performer in a field disapproved of' (such as 'con artist,' 'booze artist' or 'bullshit artist').20

Catastrophe theory
Reynolds has many ways in his pictures to create 'dips into strangeness' - the visual equivalent of what Ron Silliman calls 'adding torque' to a sentence in poetry21 . He derived The Transatlantic Paintings (2005) from a book of X-rays of Mondrian paintings which revealed the initial drawings and constant corrections behind their tidy surfaces.22 His signposts are disconcerting for their off-centre pointing and the deadpan poetry of the street names. Cloud offers up the verbal culture of New Zealand ('land of the long white cloud') in line with the Biennale's theme of culture contact, but also confronts us with its strangeness and opacity. It is too large to grasp and its silver words are mercurial in the changing light. Typically, the work raises questions about the process of making art ('the Sisyphean task' of producing 7073 small canvases!) and about the process of reading it. It's another example of art based on a simple idea that creates complex effects. For all its seriousness, this is a light, floating work that remains gorgeous, intriguing and funny.

The installation of Cloud across the foyer and west wall of the Art Gallery of New South Wales illustrates Reynolds' interest in the site-specific aspects of art. Before exhibiting the work in New Zealand, he wants to find a location with an equally striking look and relevance. He likes to set up exhibitions with dramatic contrasts and tensions. His 2001 Harry Human Heights exhibition was a vivid example with its juxtaposition of large and small works. As Reynolds described it: 'The Epistomadologies . . . are [off] on a tangent. They're like broadsheets, tracts, complaints, arguments propelled against the throw of the big works . . . . Coherence may be on offer, but it ain't there. The whole thing disperses or flickers into something else.'23 A small-scale example was the enigmatic black urn that turned up in the middle of his latest exhibition labelled Catastrophe Theory - a type of phrase the artist likes because the words are in tension.24 'Cloud' in its random ordering was an endless permutation of 'delightful collisions between terms.' Davis relates Reynolds' interest in juxtaposition - 'hybridity of material or idea, or both - to T.S. Eliot's concept of the 'metaphysical' in art - 'a rupture or jolt . . . a complicating or problematising component.' Such surprises in art tend to be 'often under-read as a defect,' but they provide a way for the medium to be 'made visible,' to be 'caught in operation, and changed.'25 Reynolds says of this effect: 'It's a mixture of collude and collide.'

John Reynolds' Golden Spaniard at the earthwork stage
In talking about art he makes frequent use of words such as 'theatre' and 'performance.' This reflects his interest in figures such as Beckett and Nauman, but also his ironic sense of the traditional role of the artist. In his Laureate acceptance speech to the Arts Foundation, he recalled his experience as a six-yearold, assisting a mental hospital patient to operate a complicated 'tennis court painting machine.' Their white lines were decidedly wonky but a lot more interesting than the orthodox court pattern. This anecdote (about his 'first outdoor work') emphasised art as a physical performance. Reynolds has done Beckett-style routines at exhibition openings, and the sense of theatre (or theatricality) crops up in his art in many ways - through movement, for example, or through repetition. Texts appear in speech balloons or resemble scripts (Cloud is like a set of cue cards). Reynolds' comment that 'even in my early work, painting was only the backdrop for the real drama' alerts us to the fact that there is often a strong separation of foreground and background in his art, so that one may see his words, figures or patterns as performers on stage. (At the same time, the sense of space can be complex and ambiguous.)

Outdoor works
Reynolds' recent outdoors works may seem a surprising departure. They include Cordyline, a work consisting of 8000 cabbage trees for Alan Gibbs' sculpture farm at Kaipara; Snow Tussock and Golden Spaniard at Macraes Heritage and Art Park in East Otago; and a further work at the planning stage for a sculpture park at Brick Bay in the Matakana winegrowing district. Reynolds tries hard to keep his art from becoming predictable; and he wanted to re-direct his energies after Cloud because it was 'the culmination of certain interests'. Working outoors 'broadened the conversation of materials and refreshed the eyes'. But he is still applying a familiar aesthetic. Each work involves 'an un-natural staging of the natural.' The artist has chosen plants or trees that are not picturesque but 'maverick.' He likes cabbage trees for 'their Dr Seuss quality - they are such distinctive characters,' and their presence 'both colludes and collides' with the pasture land around them.

Farmers tend to regard tussock as 'something to burn'. But this scruffy plant is a strong survivor that 'does what it does well'. Reynolds chose to transform an area used as a toxic dumping ground. It also offered symbolic possibilities since it stretched 'from a Church to a cemetery'. The 870 snow tussocks are 'un-naturally staged,' lined up in an ornamental or symmetrical way - something very new for what farmers call 'fucking tussock.' For Golden Spaniard, Reynolds has planned 'an inverse ziggurat on top of a 30 hectare ziggurat-shaped landform, creating an enclosure and viewing space for a mass planting of 10,000 Golden Spaniards, a native plant under threat as farming takes a greater hold on the Otago landscape'26 . The stiff yellowish green plants will flower into a 'golden blaze'27. It is still too soon to judge the results but these works promise to deliver familiar satisfactions - striking contrasts and rich connotations, humour and surprise, and pleasure in the featured materials and performers (in this case, the native species).

Our cover photo of the artist (by Patrick Reynolds, his brother and long-time collaborator) returns him to Ponsonby still dressed in country gear. He is modelling 'the Jackal 3D body system,' also known as a ghillie or yowie suit, used by 'snipers and hunters with extreme requirements for camouflage.' This is 'a system for breaking up your outline, disrupting your landscape and disguising objects beyond the ability of the eyesight of man, beast or bird.' While this character might be mistaken for Magritte, the hat and the double latte should tip us off. And that's the striking thing about an artist whose work has been based from the beginning on a shift away from personal expression (at least in the form of expressionism). To some he may 'lack a clear identity because he restlessly moves from one option to another,' disrupting critical 'eyesight.' But others value the kinds of challenge he continues to present to his audience. While it may be difficult to predict where the hunt will take him next, he can be seen as producing a cohesive body of work that has grown more distinctive as it has gone along. He has followed a consistent set of artistic interests, informed by contemporary practice, which have led to significant innovations in the way he has developed elements such as juxtaposition, humour, text, and drawing.

1. Quotes in this article not otherwise credited are from an interview with the artist by the author, 11 December 2006.
2. The line occurs in the Bob Dylan song 'Things have changed' (2000). The original words are 'The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity.' For 'Vacancy' (2004), see: http://www.imageandtext.
3. digitalresources/reynolds.asp Last Evenings on Earth is the title of a collection of short stories by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano.
4. Questions for Mr Reynolds is the working title for the documentary by Point of View Productions.
5. His distinctions include: 1988 Montana Lindauer Art Award, 1993 Visa Gold Award, 1993 QEII Arts Council Fellowship, finalist 2002 Walters Art Prize, and 2006 NZAF Laureate.
6. 'Art laureate turns on bursts of colour,' NZ Herald, 15 November 2006.
7. New Zealand Painting: A Concise History, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2003, p. 179.
8. Leigh Davis, The Book of Hours, Jack Books, Auckland 2001 (with 'artwork' by Reynolds).
9. 'Country and Western,' an 'essay on John Reynolds' painted language,' at: artknowledge.htm.
10. See, for example, Julian Dashper's collection Reviews�he loves me not, Auckland, Art School Press, 2002.
11. This controversy is documented in my essay, 'A Short History of "the New Zealand Intellectual"' in Speaking Truth to Power, ed. Laurence Simmons, Auckland University Press, Auckland 2007. (Incidentally, the cover of that book is by John Reynolds.)
12. Cf. Aspects of Recent New Zealand Art: Anxious Images, ed. Alexa Johnston, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland 1984.
13. ibid, p. 6. An example of how Reynolds incorporates a personal dimension in his art was his powerful 2005 exhibition at the Sue Crockford Gallery, in one sense a memorial to his late father Ian Reynolds. The artist's interview with Andrew Clifford shows how personal elements were combined with broader cultural themes ('I gotta use words when I talk to you,' NZ Herald 7 September 2005).
14. See Pound's catalogue Aspects of Recent New Zealand Art: New Image, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1983, or his article 'The New Image Painters' in Art New Zealand 22, Summer 1981-82.
15. For example, 'Of the shadow cast by a man at night with a light' (1991) or 'Twelve hours of daylight' (1997). 'I gotta use words when I talk to you' (2005) was actually a quote from T.S. Eliot's Sweeney Agonistes but in the local context there is also a McCahon echo.
16. Andrew Clifford, op. cit.
17. 'Country and Western,' op. cit.
18. 7073 canvases were painted for 'Cloud,' but the Biennale catalogue cites an earlier figure of 6944 (Zones of Contact, Biennale of Sydney, 2006, pp. 234-35).
19. Beckett's writing also has a 'deadpan' humour�he admired slapstick comedians like Buster Keaton.
20. The Dictionary of New Zealand English, ed. H.W. Orsman, OUP, Auckland 1997, p.16. Another artist well aware of the strategic value of humour is Dick Frizell, who responded to the claim that he lacked seriousness with this shrewd comment: 'I can't say I've ever been particularly non-serious, though I've made it a lifetime mission to avoid going out of my way to look serious' (quoted in Michael Dunn, New Zealand Painting: A Concise History, AUP, Auckland 2003, p. 174).
21. See the title essay of Ron Silliman's The New Sentence, Roof, New York 1987.
22. Andrew Clifford, op. cit.
23. 'John Reynolds talks to Robert Leonard,' SUMWHR, New Plymouth, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2002. p. 53
24. Juxtaposition is another aspect of McCahon's work that impresses Reynolds�for example, titles such as Angels and Bed or Moby Dick sighted off Muriwai Beach which link the extraordinary to the everyday.
25. 'Country and Western,' op. cit.
26. From the Starkwhite gallery website (http://www.starkwhite.
27. Virginia Were, 'Silver Lining,' Art News New Zealand, vol.26 no.3, Spring 2006, p. 60.

Speech at the Govett-Brewster Gallery
for K Rd to Kingdom Come

Leigh Davis, 13 October 2001

Being asked to speak at events like this is like being asked to be the designated driver. It is nice to enjoy the confidence of your colleagues, so that they get to party, and you get to have all the nice orange juice.

My great thanks on behalf of you all as guests to this wonderful gallery and to Greg Burke, Hanna Scot, Gillian Irving, and the installation. We are here because of you.

As a special matter I also want to say a public thank you to John McCormack. John ran his leg of the Govett-Brewster gallery relay race some time ago, and shifted the tradition of this place to a new level when he did. He has often stood in the place I am standing in tonight.

There are several great pleasures with occasions like this, which always somewhat overwhelm me. I am certainly a person for whom these occasions generate pointing behaviour. You know it when you see it and you will see it in these remarks; I engender the lolling tongue, the energetic goodwill, and the lack of knowledge, of a red setter dog in the midst of general excitation.

That means that your designated driver is well-meaning but clueless. Oh dear.

Here is one of the pleasures of this occasion: one has a certain warm confusion as to what the occasion is. We are here as a gathering, in a beautiful, historic, New Zealand, city, in good spring time, with the artist's family and friends, the gallery's family and friends, wannabes, supporters, charlatans, and poorly guided enthusiasts, like me. There are speeches and there is a little feeling in the air. And we are at something that it is hard to know what it is.

This occasion has many of the more normal ceremonies we take part in, and know how to make complete sense of.

It has some of the aspects of a funeral, with its solemnising and scope for outbreaks of high emotion and sonorousness, only of course it is much much happier.

Neither is this occasion a wedding, although it has some the features of one.

And so you could say to yourself, what is this warm occasion and gathering all about? And in my case, My God, how did I get here? People have come from big distances.

Another great pleasure is that this wonderful occasion is that it is happening to someone else. Clearly this pleasure is part of the melancholy charge at a funeral. It is also a happy feature of going to another's wedding not your own. Although with weddings there is also the pang and the tingle of being part of one of the great set pieces of foreplay in public. But there is a secret relief and gaiety being part of an act where someone else has had to bear responsibility for the setting and the carriage of the emotional tenor.

But we are unsettled, in this vague way, nonetheless. It is because one of the huge and particular feelings of this occasion is that it is not about someone, even someone called John Reynolds. This wonderful show, K Rd to Kingdom Come, is about something. And it is a very different occasion than we are generally used to seeing.

This something is in part a thorough and beautiful takeover of the whole gallery. Large visual artworks activate the walls here and cannot be seen all at once by the viewer. They strongly solicit attention. We glimpse here and there the strong abstract pull of the work while we are having our conversations and various distractions. This show is a wonderland, and we are unsettled, because we feel ourselves to be as Alices.

So what is this particular work as something to look at and think about, and what difference does it make?

Of many things possible to say, or which could be said better by others who are here this evening, I will comment on four things about the work; its largeness of scale, the way movement appears as an idea, the use of text, and the nature of minimal strategy.

The largeness of scale is a common and distinguishing feature of Reynolds' painting. It is a feature only successful if it is driven by naturally large and concrete frameworks of meaning: K Rd is a streetscape; the Office of the Dead is derived from a distribution of yachts in a race upon the sea; Kingdom Come is about a change to the world; Western Springs/Bloody Angle is about a theatre of war, and a park; Nietzsche on White's Beach invokes a beach scene, sort of, and so on. The point is, each large work here is both a painting, or is a developed visual idea, and also retains strong linkages with objects in the world. There is a literalness to these paintings, together with the abstraction. This gives them their particular Reynolds beauty, which is a vernacular quality.

They also surface a particular aesthetic emotion, which is their principal value: they are large enough to get lost in as a viewer, which is idiom for, you cant see them all at once. They sustain endless viewings, particularly if see them in close-up, from an ideal viewing distance of approximately 8 inches.

The idea of movement is central to the works success. Nietzsche on White's Beach, for example, is the sort of poem I would like to write. It presents itself as something to be read, as a serially unfolding group of lines. It is hugely suggestive with movement, across the face, and downward. The modulation of colour in the wall drawing does this too. The Office of the Dead overwhelms as a sea of vectors of speed and direction taken from roadsigns. Kingdom Come is a radiation pattern, and so on.

Reynolds placement of painting on a boundary in common with the world of text is also a regular device. In many works here painting becomes drawing becomes writing. What is this all about? It is an abstract pleasure, like everything else. Words and texts are defamiliarised - by bad writing, or defeating length, or by being hard to decipher because they are written in pudgy oilstick - so that they blur and appear as images; as a teasing luxury of repeated texture and thought, and register of thought.

There is an increasing minimalism to Reynolds painting, which is not yet acknowleged, and which this show makes obvious. The strategy works the way minimalism always does: by reducing its narrative content art sharpens the search instincts of the viewer, and drives basic aesthetic states - of speed, texture, dispersal, thought - more solidly home.

But there are other things, apart from the paintings, that I wish to name. This occasion is about two other large themes: art values, and the tradition of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

When an art show comes to achieve a particular authority, power and quality, which this one does, it sends out huge wafts, to touch the broadest of states of feeling. We sense in such a show as this the invisible presence of all of the things we care about most. K Rd to Kingdom Come takes its place with the truly significant shows of the past in these rooms, and with them makes plain, yet again -

    - What labour means
    - the value and nature of innovation, made as always, in boldness and independence of thinking
    - how courage or its objects always capture our affection
   - the civic nature of strong artworks, which bring a glory to the region in which they are made; and lastly,
    - how joy gets into the world
This is the bridge that leads directly to the meaning of the Govett-Brewster Gallery. It is an institution famous for its championship of the above list of qualities. It has a commitment to high culture in contemporary visual art and an independence of thinking, together with a professionalism of approach, that allows New Plymouth to recruit artists like John for shows like this.

So this is not a wedding or a funeral although it has some of these features. It is painting enveloping its viewers. And it is a city performing an act of leadership.

The familiar things are the traditional values we love about such art: the fact that they are paintings, and in your face, that they are dynamic, rich in materials, and dense with things to look at and think about. There is another familiar too: they need viewers to wander around them, with limited attention spans and busy heads, that is, in various kinds of difficulty and proximity with the paintings, over a lifetime.

The strangeness comes in the disguise of directness, angularity of vision, and a certain extremity in the use of scale, visual elements, lines, and materials. I call this the rudeness.

The Logic of These Logistics
Leigh Davis


This is an essay about John Reynolds' painted language.
THE iron filings of your heart shift when you drive into the South Western Texas desert, in Big Bend country, in the late autumn. The desert's warm dry volume, restricted colour range and clarity of distant objects is as a magnet for Aucklanders of more virulent weather. The desert is spread out as far as the eye can see, which is a long way, in the climate we are talking about here.
"On man, heaven's influence works not so
But that it first imprints the air" 1
This shift happens once again when you arrive at the nearby Chinati Foundation in Marfa, and when you walk within the intense fields of Donald Judd's boxes and Dan Flavin's light- tubes, those two compelling American visual artists of the last 40 years. Each of their installations at Marfa are intensely radiant visual works. And each are works of droning sound too, which is surprising. The boxes ring hollow with gong- tone voices as audience members interact, and the light tubes buzz with the noise that electrical transformers make.
These engulfing works, Russian-doll universes, we got to, me, John Reynolds, and a red GMC 5.2 litre pick-up truck with bags in the rumble seat and Lucinda Williams in the CD player.

The big idea at Chinati - in the Texas desert, and in Marfa in the Texas desert, and in the armory and barracks in Marfa in the desert, and in the box array in the armory plus in the light tube arrays in the barracks, all in Marfa, all in the desert - is medium.
It is a property Judd calls space because he likes his big ideas in aw-shucks form. His is also a marvellously polemical New World tradition that liked visual art but - facially, at least - not Old World ("European") or art-semiotic ways of regarding it.
But the New World's relationship to the Old World is this essay's story. It backgrounds Reynolds' painting's patrimony. It maps the New World and the Old World upon each other. Of related but less central interest, it tracks Marfa's power to the presence of Giotto's absence.


LET'S ride.
It seems increasingly clear that the old world - medieval, or more strictly post-Classical, thought - supplies major aspects of visual art's contemporary wealth of meaning. As with any present world city that is structured in detail upon an old one (present London, say, or Prague) much present visual art is constituted by its past. It is visual art - that is, it attains its category definition - because of this.
Ezra Pound, the American poet and Romance scholar, once referred to "the medieval dream" with the following piercing claim -
"... (the medieval dream) is a very complicated structure of knowledge and perception, the paradise of the human mind under enlightenment"2
And this old world medieval dream is Reynolds' ground too. You cannot see Reynolds' painting fully until you see it as stubbornly and diligently old fashioned: as an activation - a troublesomeness, a roaring - in traditional painting's time- honoured skin. As a refraction of the old town's bones.
Reynolds' art object is not the representation of painting's ornaments. The object of his work is not the thing he portrays from time to time in painting. Rather, Reynolds' object is painting's skin. (It's a Roland Barthes' distinction, this ornament and skin). The skin in Reynolds is atavistic. It differentiates the work and sustains its interest.
In the little body of writing about Reynolds' work to date it is the ornament of the painting that has most drawn talk. The work is celebrated for its dandy doodle riot of expressive incident. That is, it is read as hovering on the edge of psychology. It is not read as hovering on the edge of painting, the source of its fundamental capacity to create and sustain excitement. One needs to do more than point out what it is that Reynolds is painting. It is more important to see what it is that is painting Reynolds.
Therefore: The post-Classical is a pretty big catchall term. It is half a reference to a period in history and half a reference to a period in ideas. As a period in ideas it is chronologically fuzzy: conventionally, a point where Christian and Pagan ideas meet in a hybrid spanning maybe 500 years to 1350. Dates don't focus definition much. Re-reading the post-Classical from the present: it as a vanishing point. It seems a convergent region where the family of discourses with which we most commonly associate high culture - theology, philosophy, astronomy, and art � in their rudiments last and most richly interpenetrated.
What vanishes into this point are potent post-Classical theories which become potent criteria of visibility. The theories of most interest to the understanding of painting are: the theory of air; the theory of movement; the theory of inside and outside, and in addition, the theories of the viewer, of depth, signs, and medium. 3
The Theory of Air is a hybrid of Classical, neo-Platonist, and Christian thought, spanning Aristotle and Dante. Aristotelian pneumatology divided the space above the earth into Air and Sky. Air was the region under the moon and above the earth, and Sky was above the moon. This distinction reflected the sense that the continuum between the earth and the stars was a continuum between the changeable and unchangeable worlds, both of which are different in kind. The region below the moon is filled with air, and above with aether.
In this theory air is therefore an idea, not merely inert and not merely a substance. It is a low to Sky's high; a metonym for worldly mutability that is layered beneath heaven, the overarching domain of permanence. Most importantly, it is a middle; that is, a region above the earth but below the sky.
Air therefore has a thickness, and latency. It is less what you breathe or what birds fly in, than it is a screen for invisible movies, and a domain of daemons who are of a middle nature between gods and men. Daemons are intermediaries, and through them alone we mortals can have intercourse with gods. Daemons are the appropriate animals for air, not birds, since birds are confined to the lower margins of the air and daemons are confined only to the space between the moon and the earth. Daemons have a finer consistency than clouds and like clouds are sometimes visible and sometimes invisible. "Genius" was the standard Latin translation of daemon. (Interestingly, "genius" has become a property now thought to be internal to individual people. "Genius" has thus been taken out of its post-Classical air.)
The theory of movement deems the air a transmission medium for lively planetary effects. In this theory movement originates with God who is portrayed as existing outside of a Ptolemaic universe. God caused the Primum Mobile to turn and with this turning occurred the turning of all of the transparent planetary globes between the Primum Mobile, the highest level of the universe, and the earth, the lowest and around which the planetary spheres spun in concentric circles.
On earth, two derived sources of motion could be observed. The first was a derivative of planetary movement, which caused influences, the subject matter of Astrology. Through this derivative force planetary emotions, and their symbolic colours and metallic elements, impacted earthly affairs. Such influences did not work on us directly but by first modifying the air.

The second origin of movement was "certain sympathies, antipathies, and strivings inherent in matter". According to this conception a falling body exhibited a kind of homing instinct for the earth; the sea "desired to follow" the moon; and iron "exhibited particular sympathy for the lodestone." According to this theory there was a certain superconductivity and ambient motion in the air.
The theory of inside and outside is another post-Classical staple. In this theory inside is outside the Ptolemaic universe, in a manner counter-intuitive to us. In this inside there is no space and time, but endless light, as where God is. Inside is up, and earth, within its layers of planetary spheres, is that point to which all lines reach down. Earth and man are peripheral, are marginal, or are on an outer rim, an outside to the inside of God.
The theory of depth is related to this conception of theistic space. Depth is the span between earth and God, the span with mutability at one end, and its other inside at the far end. This is a finite space with end points. It is imaginable not unimaginable; finite not infinite; a space between opposites. There is an up and a down. Moving upwards and towards the centre: the earth gives way to air; air to sky. Darkness gives way to light.
The theory of the viewer positions man as looking across deep space, with all its planetary and aerial superventions, to God. It is an habitual orientation toward the source of light and through its illuminated objects. Up is where you look and is what you look through, not at. It is the attitude an outsider has to inside, a looking in, a visual equivalent analogous to listening to the soundless music of the spheres. The viewer is therefore a figure in religious coordinates. He expects to see divinity. Her characteristic gaze is from changeable here to eternal there, through a space where everything is rendered intermediate.
The theory of signs considers the world to be text-like, or to be a book or a space of messages whereby gods are held to be

in communication with men, or as encountering them. Signs are what are left behind. They are a residue, as a burn mark is a residue, an imprint of communication conceived of as a mystical mechanism accruing force.
The theory of a medium is related to the theory of the air. A medium is what air, and above it aether, becomes. It is active with the passage of messages, daemons, (later) angels, influences, enclynings, music, and light. It is a domain where annunciations travel and reach their target.
The theory of this medium is supported by two mostly neo- Platonist collateral theories: the Principle of the Triad, and the Principal of Plenitude.
The triadic principle powerfully deems any intervening space or gap to be active, by definition, and not inert.
"It is impossible that two things only should be joined together without a third. There must be some bond in between them to bring them together" 4
This principle reflects the belief that gods do not meet man directly. Each encounters one another only indirectly. There must be some "wire, some medium, some introducer, some bridge" enabling the encounter. Building on Plato, Chalcidius, the neo-Platonist writer applies a deduction from natural science, and reasons that since immortal, celestial, and stellar creatures exist, as do temporal, mortal, earthly, and passible creatures, then
"it is inevitable that between these two there must exist some mean, to connect the extremes..." 4
The Principle of Plenitude holds that this medium is full. According to this theory, because there is a normal distribution of active agents (of communication, motion, god-like beings) throughout creation the aether and air must contain their relative share of these active agents, although invisible.

And, finally, there is a deeper theory behind all of the above. We can see now that a theory of texts was at work. The medieval period was characterised by conspicuous written discussion of rare texts, such that these authorities compounded their own weight and power, together with the content and the authority of post-Classical thought. Writing patinated by authority and antiquity did its work defining, integrating, and yielding rich images of wholeness. In the process it cast its own properties into that image. Physical space, for example, became page-like. It was deeply message-imprinted. The invisible was first constituted then populated and, thus asserted and thickened; it drew the amazement of onlookers. Time became textual time: history was held to resemble a sheaf of episodes, a gathering, unfolding revelation, of chapters in a single volume.


IT is possible that the institution of Western painting might never have existed, or at least that its forms of visibility might have been other forms. It is conceivable that states of history could have arisen that drove little or different hermeneutic wealth into the strange wall badges that have been the staple of Western painted art. That such things, if they emerged at all, did so as merely decorative. But painting - and visual art more broadly - has a present meaning and ardour. How did this emerge, this ardent legacy, with its high conception? Likewise: its representational latency, and characteristic claims on the viewer?
Post-Classical theories and their integration suggest Western painting itself as we know it was never invented. Painting didn't have an independent, isolated, differently motivated, body. It had no independent worth or meaning. Rather, a post Classical discourse evolved that made of the visual world a representation, and made of the viewer a particular avid, hunting, revelation-sensitive, philosophic subject, and this matrix made painting. This world issued a distinctive phenomenology too, or a distinctive experience of the mechanics of meaning appearing in a register of awe. Visual art both copied and invented these literary discursive tools. It gained from this antecedent hermeneutic wealth. It pictorialised post-Classicism's theatre or it theatricalised post-Classicism's pictures. Painting became not just privileged within but the same as post-Classical space. Read backwards from this present, painting seems best regarded as a literalisation of a phenomenally rich and strange ambient representational model. It was an activity, a portrayal, borne in a world regarded with dynamic immensity, which exhibited the chain reactions of signs' enlarging, of signs gaining power through circuits of resemblance. Painting became full, something to look at and think about for a long time, but not full as a principal is full. Painting derived its prestige, an agent in a perceived universe of agents that set air, depth, signs, and the viewer in a mechanism of frictions and hand-overs. This mechanism made up a physics of communication, not just congruent with but the same as the physics of meaning in the environment. It was meaning's stuff, and apprehended as falling to earth every moment.
In this framework an individual painting was not a picture on a wall and not a depicted content in the way we normally consider these things. It was not inert or motionless. It was a charged object in a charged play. It was an element in a triad that combined itself, the viewer, and the space between each regarded as a medium, that is, a volume of exchange, a space of transmission, a space of invisible transactions. A painting was thus apprehended as ventilated. It was something trembling with the weight of a rustle of messages performing both God's and representation's judo. It was a well of theories.
The Deism of this post-Classical thought and world is particularly rich and strange when we look back from here and begin to see it. Looking at this present past our eye- beams fasten more on a body-language of marvellous epochal apprehension and technology, and less on the apparent object of all of this message-radiance, the hybrid God of Classicism and Christianity. With a near-Borgesian sense for us, it is the vigour, dynamics, spectacle, conjuring, and centrifugal reach of the world-as-art that most excites. Looking back, God seems vague and man seems skinny but the percussive richness, the flooding and animation between, the sensuous and transforming apprehension of images captures the contemporary object of attention. There was much behaviour of meaning in post-Classical thought, interchanges with illumination and transformation, up and down an invisible and speculative hierarchy. God was a "Holy, Holy, Holy": a repetition of splendid noise with no sentence structure. Meaning in the form of Divine messages came to possess a geometrically compounding moment, a ubiquity that could leap from this or that worldly object to a (viewing) subject. Meaning's arrival was always as an annunciation. From Divine origins the meaningful had been carried through aether and into air, from the unchangeable to the changeable worlds, via the intermediaries of daemons and angels. To use an electrical word-picture, painting was demanded to earth meaning. And a chemistry word-picture: images could be catalysts and vehicles of this leap, not as a representation of objects in space simply, but as a model of their latency and effectiveness in the manner of bearing revelations, where these revelations were coupled with but not reducible to propositions. Painting could thus be a spark in an incipient explosion. Further, painting was an operation performed in time, an element in an implied serial of transactions, as much as it was a reflection of objects in space.
A painting attained significance as a thing different from its depictions. It was not a metaphor of psychological realism or humanist subjectivity but had a metonymic status as a physical object in a meaningful context. It was something-in-a- medium. A painting had an independent station in a universe with peers and adjacencies, themselves means. It was more than an inert bearer of pictorialised images or metaphors. It was more than an occasion to admire the painter's facility. It was a rustle, polarity, station, generality, gauzy veil - if it was art.

And there is a final aspect to consider too. Painting emerged as an activity tormented by its inability to represent the post-Classical world. In post-Classical thought it was the relationship possessed by the visible world as a model for an invisible, exchange-based, framework of power that supplied the concrete world's voltage. But how to represent this doubled character, this combination of visible and invisible, in painting? Invisible objects cannot be painted. A distinctive suggestibility of painting, a particular dynamics and host of representational devices emerged to prise open this difference. Painting developed devices, which constituted a semaphore of (joyful) desperation derived from this necessary limit of means or this recognition that in order to make Reality accessible to comprehension, you had to make a picture, and then unmake it a little bit. Visual art of the 12th and 13th centuries here and there reveals a deformation of images due to this frisson of desperation. There is a problematising or stretching of surfaces and composition, so as to reveal images made visible in a manner designed to fold. This quality of "deformation" (see the discussion of Giotto's space below) could only be a subtle, marginal property, an edge between the visible representation and its portrayal as just that. A pictorial art could best declare this distinctive sign. It was a trace only that was employed in these devices that caused such "unmaking a little bit". A convention of sub-signs marking ripples on the surface of painting emerged. They were bare signs of trouble and partial signs of failure only, and not something that shattered the picture. It was not the world's presence that was sought out in painting but the portrayal of post-Classical meaning; not visible likeness but what likeness itself meant and was part of. The visible world - populated, three-dimensional, concrete, familiar - housed the reality for which it was held to provide windows and doors. Reality was a represented but invisible something else to which the eye could only be guided through bad images of the world. Annunciation took place but only in a chamber, that is, in a house or framework of representation opened up or out.
Thus a major - perhaps the supreme - invention of post- Classical visual art was the invention of the hesitant edge. It was the development of a representational system where the visible world was seen to touch, to resemble and be disturbed by, the invisible one. This edge was what turned depiction into art. It required new devices of representation, the invention of new visual erogenous zones to prise the gap between the world that you can look at and its hermeneutical context, which was (strictly) the world represented in the authority of the post-Classical text.
This disturbance is where we first pick up the traces of metaphysics as an art idea. It is a disturbance at the heart of Reynolds' painted language.


INDIVIDUAL works of Italian art of the 14th and 15th centuries are often regarded as points across an emerging portrayal of humanist subjectivity. The retrospective look at the work of Giotto for example does this. He is made into a transitional figure who bridges the gap between icon art and realism, and who accelerated the invention of modern man.
This has to be a humanist fallacy.
Giotto appears to have invented a distinctive form of visibility. He invented a realistic pictorial treatment of the world in order to make of this an idea of representation. Having invented a realism he could then "destroy" it or at least radically qualify it by making it stand as a model through the introduction of cross-sections. His was a multi-dimensional visual construction under load or stress. Giotto - or the Giotto industry � first secured the means of realistic portrayal, and then made it hesitant. Realistic portrayal became the support for what he really wanted to reveal, which was the limits of the painting/ world couple. He was a medieval worker so this was pretty natural. He set out the world as both a representation and a fault-line.
Giotto's was a language of visible and (inferred) invisible space established by means of the representation of dimensional and domain switches between exteriors and interiors. This switching between was primarily achieved with the play of three image types in a pattern of resemblance; first, buildings came to resemble clothes; second, clothes and buildings came to resemble paintings themselves ; and third, all of these were resemblances of the world.
Giotto honey-combed this model and the honey-combing came to be called space. His pictures encapsulate represented space via a wealth of volumes and frames, loggia, lunettes, piazzas, barrel vaults, rib vaults, groin vaults, arches, pediments, balustrades, fascia, and flutes.
By a near-obsessive depiction, with an equivalent weight too of foregrounding and repetition, Giotto's paintings dramatise the representation of clothing and fabric, especially of ecclesiastical garb. The chasuble, the ecclesiastical cloak or robe, is from the Latin word casula, which means "cloak, little house".
Finally, but less obviously and by identification almost, painting itself is made to resemble clothing and houses. You can see this in painted compositions that are co-extensive with - that is, that share the same pictorial space as - the depiction of buildings and clothes. You can also see it in the painting of complete chapel interiors so that the painting and the building became the same thing. You can see it as well in those exquisite painted interventions where God or Angels break through into the representation, or into both the image of the building and the image of the painting.
Therefore Giotto simultaneously invented painting as both the representation of visible space and the representation of hesitation. He painted space as a play of concealment and revelation, a dramatised ambiguity of inside and outside. His space had holes in it or more strictly, Giotto's space was deep. That is to say, it contained rents and fissures. It was a theatricalisation of not just the presence and the absence of mass, or the presence of stage forward and stage back, but of the presence and the absence of backstage. Representational space was a cutaway construct comprising openings and closures that consistently established the world and the world of painting as various kinds of house construction, that is, as various insides, with outsides, or the other way around. In the process he imbued painting itself with the metaphysical prestige thus given to the world. Painting's language came to resemble the world's. This is a more profound art end than is the achievement of realistic portrayal.
Giotto increased the drama and possibilities for meaning set up by his portrait of space as porous. The representation of God's intervention was also God's intervention in the representation. Thus Giotto helped to thicken painting itself as a sign by making it thin, by simultaneously detaching it from and attaching it to the visible world through a weight of quotation and resemblance in works that so clearly relay the post-Classical text. Look at the extraordinary Miracle of the Crucifix, with its beatific figure encased in a cutaway chapel.

The angel of the Annunciation of St Anne breaks through both the window and the painting. The hand of Almighty God in St Francis Renouncing His Earthly Possessions similarly breaks through represented space and becomes visible in the painting. In this picture too, space is parted left and right and forward and back in the picture plane. The picture is deeply, vertiginously, prised open to make a blankness between the two architectural masses. Through this void (which echoes the classical acoustic void of the Pauline Damascus Road) both the naked St Francis (he is therefore outside the painting), and God describe an invisible link across it, and beyond it.
But in many ways the most extraordinary example of Giotto's representational fiat can be seen through an accident which sets up a present day contradiction of post-Classical thought, and thus reveals it. I refer to the end wall of Giotto's The Last Judgement. There are two apertures in this painting- as-building. First, there is the represented "opening" of the painting and the world together, depicted in the tearing and rolling back of the picture plane to reveal heaven's gates.

Second, there is the appropriation of the actual three-part vaulted windows of the chapel into the field of Giotto's painting, so that the painting thus makes a representation of these windows. But these real-world windows at least in the current period of history now have blank blinds pulled down across them (most likely for conservation reasons). This blanking of the windows creates an extraordinary meaning- blindness in the work. The blinds blank both the windows and a key signifier in the painting. They place an on/off switch at the heart of the climactic Last Judgement. The resulting perfect do-good metaphysical (see section 6 below) gesture of the conservation blinds ruptures the metonymic field of the work in an oblivious manner which is breathtaking.
They are blinds that would have no force and no signification without Giotto's representative framework.
The moon of the post-Classical text thus exerted a tidal drag on the art. To move from the familiar world we can see everyday, to the consideration of painted art, is to move in such a way that vision becomes progressively bound as much to language as to sight.


THE above sets out the post-Classical legacy of painting's ardour. How is it also an ardour of contemporary painting? What can be said of contemporary painting's post-classical resemblance?
Start by putting an axe through the history of painting over the last 100 years, to divide a complex subject brutally, concerning divisions between different strategies of representation. For the clarity it provides. Read the history forward and back through the paradox of Minimalism.
The first representational model of painting, call it the internal one (Judd calls it "European"), involves a family of now familiar devices. Think of an easel painting: the painting as an object is minor in importance and the pictorial subject is major. The pictorial subject is composed within the boundaries of the frame and is viewed centripetally. That is, the viewer is drawn in to scrutinise the details of this composition. The painting tends to be small, static, and its meaning is independent of its varying presentational contexts, being gallery spaces, homes, offices and so on. The work presents a bounded transaction with the viewer who is regarded as spatially separated from the painting. This painting is basically metaphoric: that is, it is a tradition of pictures that trigger meaning through association and qualitative substitution. Humanist subjectivity is the transcendent signifier; in these pictures we are offered some insight into human experience. We could thus comment upon an image in such painting, say of the Eiffel Tower: "Oh, it is a celebration of modernist technological aspiration".

The second representational model, call it the external one, is the basis of contemporary abstracted painting of varying types. (But "abstract" of course is a carpet under which many granular and different art strategies are swept, and therefore it can only be a term applied from 30,000 feet above the target). The main simplicity of this second model is that it is the opposite of the first model, an Other created by the first, and one keeps coming back to this binary existence and the way it marks a difference of view. In this alter- image the painting as an object is major and the pictorial subject is minor, and frequently removed. The picture is literally and compositionally unframed, which usually means that the pictorial subject and the painting are the same thing, but it can mean that the art "breaks the frame". Small or large, the painting tends to be based upon an exaggerated sensitivity to its physical presentational context - to the room it is in, the building it is in, and the landscape it is in, often. It offers a relatively open and less bounded transaction with the viewer who perceives herself at the prompting of the work as in a world - as in a type of environment - and therefore as spatially continuous with the art's work. Space is the transcendent signifier. Here, the work is basically metonymic, that is, the work is also viewed centrifugally, which is the link between contemporary painting and sculpture. We could say about the image, say, of the Eiffel Tower, "Oh, it is all about Paris", and mean, "it is a thing that invokes and activates its context."
This second representational model is the great rag-bag coat hanger from Malevich to Knoebel and Bambury with Judd and others - pick your names - in between. These visual artists are not usually thought of as representational, although they are but what they represent are the less obvious, that is, the more general objects of visibility's form.
What are these objects? They resemble the ones of post- Classical thought with its theories - of air; movement; inside and outside, of the seeing subject, of depth, signs, and medium. The language of contemporary abstract painting is atavistic because of this. It operates within a distinctive discursive formation. It is constructive of painting itself as an independent and complex sign - the sign of painting - and not a ground of signs. This complex sign installs a revelation- sensitive subject in a medium of transforming representations tending to be problems. It also holds painting to be the engine of a dispersed gaze criss-crossed with language.
In the 1950s Ad Rheinhardt lamented art's then contraction of scope. It had moved, he said, from the medieval Gothic cathedral to the easel painting over the course of the last 800 years. Some of art at least is moving back. Painting of the post-Classical era created an art by simultaneously inventing a realist paradigm belonging to the then future of art, and turning it into a problem. Some interesting visual art of the last 100 years recommenced a same art by turning the paradigm that came to be invented after post-Classicism (the "modern") into a problem. An art of the 12th and an art of the 20th centuries are thus looped.
To summarise and end with Michel Foucault: this looping of past and present can be raised high. Foucault calls painting a metamorphic space of visual representation. It is one paired with the labyrinthine space of writing:
" the two great mythic spaces so often explored by Western imagination: space that is rigid and forbidden, surrounding the quest, the return and the treasure (that is the geography of the Argonauts and of the labyrinth) ; and the other space - communicating, polymorphous, continuous, and irreversible - of the metamorphosis, that is to say, of the visible transformation of instantly crossed distances, of strange affinities, of symbolic replacements" 5


IT seemed that Giotto and a discussion of painting's sign would be a stage-setting for a Reynolds discussion. The risk was that the stage-setting would overwhelm the actor. It should do. It's the right order.
The task is to frame the what of Reynolds' abstraction. Reynolds art scratches. It is ostensive argument, but what does it argue? What does this painter scratch, materials or meaning? The assumption is, Reynolds' is a language, else he makes gee gaws not signs.
The less obvious task is to put Western into Country, and show that an art made in Auckland is at most a discursive variation only within the regularities of Western representation.
So what is this art and how does it disrupt?
Reynolds is an Auckland, post-McCahon, painter. His work is carnal, particular, and plentifully diverse, in physical size, visual strategy, and media. At its heart are three big pictorial ideas. The first concerns composition emphasising movement. The second concerns the use of a vernacular strategy with a directness of treatment and an interplay of private and public signs and levels of meaning. The third concerns the idea of the metaphysical, which is to say, rupture is Reynold's basic device.

These three ideas are also central for Reynolds' older Auckland trailblazer, Colin McCahon, too. They are an appellation feature.
And these are big ideas from painting's history. At its most scratched Reynolds' art becomes most familiar as portraying the face values of painting's sign. Wounded, it is most corporeal. Distressed, the most supported by Western art. Reynolds' art is Giotto's hesitation, blown up. It is this doubling that is the work's allure; that for all its arresting novelty we know each work to be old. That the representation of movement, vernacular marks, and rupture sit deep in the bosom of painting's class, and are not gestures that rely on any simple fascination with rudeness or expressionism for their effect.
Reynolds' paintings exaggerate movement. They have a distinctive body language; one could say that they are commonly either "jitterbug" figures or "waltz" ones, meaning Reynolds commonly employs one or both of two compositional "speeds": the languid, slow explosion, or the fast and hectic one. On the slow side are visual incidents that are diagrams - spirals, necklaces, bushes, webs - in attitudes of drift or expansion. On the fast side is the figure of radiation, which is a relatively recent feature and one associated with a reduction in the variety of visual incident in Reynolds' work. The radiation figures - the all-over patterns of dashed 'dancing squares' or straight lines - contains more of an illusion of expansion in a three dimensional way.
Another distinctive compositional idea based on movement is that of gravity. Gravity appears, in drizzly paint, and in other top-down or falling figures.

The vernacular in art is creole language. It is where an ordinary and distinctive local speech is used as the media for the traditional objects of art. Here found materials � in Reynolds involving actual place names, historical events, and idiomatic figures of speech � embody art meanings and are worked for their abstract potential. Reynolds employs local place names for example as the titles of paintings. See, say, Eureka School (1993), Hope Street (1997), Western Springs (1998 ; with Western Springs being both a lakeside park in Auckland and a cultural mechanism or well-head ) or Nietzsche on White's Beach (1995). The use of such titles stretches and literalises a general idea or emotion rather than creating an extended visual resemblance. The titles are important to the works. They and the painting provide mutual context, but variably, as delicate and generalised tissue, as play, or as startling literal reference. The speed - the way in which a title is conscripted by a painting- keeps changing. Hope Street, for example, is the name of both a painting and a literal streetscape. K Rd (1995) is a construction site, a ramshackle assembly of platforms and scaffolds. It helps to know that the Auckland street, Karangahape Road, runs into Queen Street, Auckland's main and more genteel thoroughfare. K Rd, the painting, runs into the idea of Queen St like a stockcar. Nietzsche on White's Beach has a racial moment. White's Beach is a beach near the Reynolds family bach at Anawhata on Auckland's west surf coast. The bright tattoo of surf in lines summoned by the title stands in some relationship to the serial finger daubed waves of the painting. But the painting's "beach" depicts a visual style that is more Maori than white.
But the vernacular is not only a property of titles. It is more a property of materials, and of how they are treated; in a new visual language, which can only be a language broken open, raw, with unworn edges. This is a large topic with Reynolds.
Reynolds paints rude works (and Daemons didn't go to finishing school). He uses rude materials like bare plywood; rude paint in rude (gloopy, drizzly, mopped) applications; and employs rude, or unevenly distributed, endless, compositions. His oil sticks are knubbly, sticky, like lipstick, and sometimes applied in a more haphazard fashion than you might be used to. His lines or marks are on the jerky side of gestural, the jerky side of baroque. The drawing is not so much "primitive" as simply independent of conventional drawing. Reynolds is thoroughly rude. At times he is off-putting rude and you shrug your shoulders. And frequently the works are larger in size than is polite.
This direct, pushed, vigorous painting is of course a deliberate aesthetic and a Western staple. It is a desperate joy of representation, one we have already met. It is a homage to painting as such, under the guise of perverting it. Through this and urgency comes a greater voluptuousness, more elegance, more carnal and engaging surfaces or states, in more explosive communication with the viewer. In Donne's phrase, there is more imprinting of the air.
- mixed media on 50 sheets of paper - mixed media on panels - mixed media on plywood - graphite and burns on plywood
- Mondrian Chrysanthemums and medieval marginalia - Marginalia plus chrysanthemum and pacific spirals
graphite on wood - Spiral details on postage stamps - Mosque at Cordoba (Spain) plan - Cordoba mosque plan (left), Tree of Life plus arteries of an
old man (Da Vinci) - Acrylic and crayon on plastic sheets - Ink on canvas - Celtic spirals and spiral underdrawing - Maori cave painting details on Knossos ground plan - Oil stick, lino, and acrylic on canvas and wood - Mixed media on stainless steel, spiralisation - in paint and
burning - Oil/wax crayon and lead pencil on chalkboard - Oil stick crayon and acrylic on chalkboard - Stainless steel spiralisation in paint and burning - Mixed media on chalkboard - Mixed media on medical chart (List taken from back catalogue slide series, artist handwriting)

This rudeness is a time-honoured way of ballasting lyrical art, and is therefore an unsurprising feature of Reynolds. It is also a time-honoured way of showing ardour. Each Reynolds painting works hard and with original means to arrest the jaded onlooker. A Reynolds painting is an attempt, by a forcing of two-dimensional means, to make a certain envelope for the viewer. It is a confrontation with this viewer, seeking agitated exchange by physical means.
It is a rudeness that is an aspect of abstraction. Reynolds' vernacular style is part of a wider visual art device that could be called "metaphysical".
The Metaphysical
Because the word is fundamentally important to some artworks, and to Reynolds', (and it is McCahon's greatest singularity), we digress, to discuss it. It may name a particularly strong appellation feature of New Zealand painting, at least.
In philosophical discourse metaphysical is now a hollowing- out term. It is as mercury on a mirror, seeming to give off so much but in application so slippery, bright with prospects but too vague. Meta + physical: "in a different order than can be understood by the senses", and there we are, at best uncertain, conducting an enquiry into the world with seeming irrelevant tools.
(This is a footnote: the above is what has become of the word in common use. In fact metaphysics is a key to the spiritual fate of the West, and is at philosophy's durable heart. Meta meaning of or through, by means of or beyond: phusis, (a super-set of physica), which is that which emerges from itself in an unfolding or opening up; Heideggerian metaphysics, as emerging abiding sway; metaphysics - in New Zealand art history it engages our ancient radar in a four-square chime with McCahon's great concepts of the gate and the way through.)
But the term in the discourse of art knowledge as opposed to the discourse of philosophy has its own history and content, but it is one rarely used. It most recently came up, like a whale barely touching the surface, in the critical writing of T.S. Eliot, whose eye in turn had caught the little swirl in the Renaissance English writers called the Metaphysical Poets. Prior to Eliot, according to received (and reductive) wisdom, Donne and company were called "Metaphysical " because they employed hard, curiously mechanical images and metaphors in their poems, as in
"    ... the soul is fastened to the body gumphis subtilibus, ' with tiny little nails'. We may smile at the (almost 'metaphysical') quaintness of the image... 4
This is the principal clue: 'metaphysical' was once the term for a curious difference, something discordant in context, a hybrid of the same and the other.
Somewhat following Samuel Johnson (who argued that in the Metaphysical Poets "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together"), Ol' Possum advanced what now seems his single most powerful art critical intervention. He argued that these poets were metaphysical because they participated in a "dissociation of sensibility". Eliot made the actually astonishing observation
" The poets of the seventeenth century...possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience.. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered ". 6
Tracing this development from the seventeenth century to "our civilisation" he goes on to comment:
"The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning". 6
These few words cannot now be read casually. They are the E=MC2 of twentieth century art discourse. By so defining "metaphysical" Eliot named the central concept of art last century by revealing that that which was held to be so new was so old. The famous Possum was evidently trying to find some term in art knowledge which could name his own brand of non-representational poetry and its origins. Metaphysical was the word he took up, to locate the sign of the Modern in the midden of the Renaissance. The word identified delamination, a correctness prised apart, an irruption where something "hard" was felt to be occurring.
Eliot saw (or foresaw) the evolution of a new hybrid of abstraction but he did not argue it in avant garde terms. As almost always, Eliot found the attribute in tradition. (Less obviously, Eliot found the attribute too in Dante's ordinary style and syntheses of curious images and local affairs.)
The rehabilitation of metaphysics did not continue beyond Eliot (but collage gained currency as a kindred but over-blown term. Collage is not art with wounds, as metaphysical is. It is train-smash art).
After Eliot we can say more about metaphysical. We could define metaphysical as a quality in a work of art. Materially, it is a rupture or jolt, a torn element, a quite concrete separation in the surface of support media that makes lamination or hybridity of material or of idea - or both - directly and surprisingly visible or available. It is a problem in the mechanism of meaning. Simultaneously: the medium is made visible, it is caught in operation, and changed. Metaphysical is an attribute of sacrifice: a sharp and contrary element in context. It is thus a complicating or problematising component, often under-read as a defect. It is often a sudden and surprising code shift in media that draws attention to itself in context and that foregrounds media as an idea, by breaching it. The meta equals a translation or a shifting of plane or exponent: physical equals a directness of force, either a collision or a literalisation of mark, element, or idea. Metaphysical thus viewed is a property attending the thickening, the deconstruction of, the peculiar forcing of materials and differences within the heterogeneity of signs.
6. LOPING INTO REYNOLDS' RANCH Once, metaphysical had a link to Giotto's hesitation.
There is an Annunciation painting in the National Portrait Gallery in London. It is of the medieval period, and portrays a broadly realistic Virgin Mary. Despite, she has an over-painted pale gold dashed line coming down from heaven from over her shoulder in the top left of the painting, across her front, dropping down, down, to terminate in the folds of her lap. That is metaphysical.
The zips in Barnett Newman are metaphysical.
The painting of McCahon's Blind, on separate panels, on the support of separate literal household blinds, is metaphysical. As is so much else: speech balloons, partial rubouts, written text on the face of paintings, poor materials.
The chrome drawing pins, the tiny circle of hobnails ("gumphis subtilibus") in Reynolds Nebuchadnezzar's Head in a Wave is likewise metaphysical, even within the context of Reynolds' generally direct and materialised style.

The amalgamation of the knotted plywood and the staining and graphite lines of The Burning of the Boyd are metaphysical.
Reynolds' use of writing over painting, or text over picture, is also metaphysical. It is a proximity - the domain of text layered on the domain of painting - common in Reynolds and of course common in New Zealand painting. The Maxim works (1996) are examples, to drill into.
These are extraordinary icons. Torn out pages of Giotto images are stuck with drawing pins to their supports and are overwritten with Nietzsche maxims in coloured oilstick. It is likely a rupture to both systems to lay one on the other - as Parma ham, on melon. What is the resulting taste? A new one. A dissociation of sensibility. The effect of one scheme draws correspondence from the other. The visual teases rhythm from the written. The written teases idea from the visual. Pattern recognition flares, becomes off-balance and searching. There is a lack of closure, a gap, into which the eye crowds in. And this crowding in, teasing and tugging, is the broad chime of where textual and pictorial go snap at the level of register. Which is often the register of classic narrative, as is so evident in Reynolds' paintings' titles.
As Ludwig Wittgenstein would say: it is a crossing of pictures.
The Office of the Dead (2001) is metaphysical. It reads the literalness of road signs as geometric abstract art, or the other way around, and brings the memory of highway space and speed inside.
And so on.
Although they are strongly related art history terms, metaphysical is not the same as abstract. It is a different categorical fascination. The distinction between metaphysical and the common sense of visual art abstraction may be a matter of tolerance for thickness and variety of visual language. I am not sure. The metaphysical is a rupture in, and therefore a revelation or literalisation of, whatever constitutes art's host, "in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into.. meaning". The abstract is a means of clarifying the same host or support, by reducing semiotic abundance and mixture to its fewest terms. Manifold is a central idea of the metaphysical. So is polysemy. Singular is a central idea of abstraction. So is monosemy. Both strategies are commonly directed at achieving an art of surprising difference relative to the viewer's habitual technology of thought.
So how does John Reynolds' art resemble painting's wealthy sign with its distinctive mechanics and phenomenology of meaning? How does Reynolds create works of visual art that disperse its viewers' gaze and criss-cross it with language? He makes painting come to life by rubbing and scratching at it, by inverting it, making, by a kind of mischievous camera obscura, an inversion, a rupture of pushed surfaces, materials, and many speeding figures. Thus chased, embodied, warmed, thus made vivid, painting in a state between noun and verb comes to be apprehended largely. To extend the photographic metaphor - painting comes to be apprehended as that which lies beyond Reynolds' extreme close-up here, blow-up there.
Walter Benjamin somewhere describes beauty as the object of attention on the edge of resemblance. Any Reynolds' work resembles painting on or from its edge. That is the characteristic of Reynolds' art's abstraction. The power of Reynolds' avowal is that it parades with continuous apparent disavowal, with a slyness and evenness of temper. Reynolds ardour is distinctive both because of the what that is made luminous through being treated metaphysically, and because of the distance of this resemblance or the gap across which it is made to travel by indirection and loosened signs - a certain springing in the logic of all these logistics.
(1)    John Donne "The Extasie" (2)    Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading, New Directions, 1960,
p104 (3)    The understanding of Medieval or post-Classical thought
set out in this essay is heavily indebted to C S Lewis' The
Discarded Image, Cambridge University Press. 1964. (4)    Lewis, p. 60.
(5)    Michel Foucault, quoted in Simon During, Foucault and Literature, Routledge, 1992, p 77
(6)    T S Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets", 1921