Category Archives: visual arts

William Beetham Portraits

Close to Home: William Beetham Portraits: Selected paintings from Te Ru Movers and Shakers: Early New Zealand Portraits by William Beetham, an exhibition toured by the National Portrait Gallery – Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, Masterton February 2014

The names Beetham and Brancepeth have tended to float around in my general vicinity for many years without alighting on any particular focus – which this particular exhibition achieves.

William Beetham is primarily known as the founder of Brancepeth Station, east of Masterton, which grew in its heyday to 30,000 hectares, 300 employees, a 32 room homestead, grand stable with a coach-house, buggies, motorcars, library, school, smithy, store, cookhouse, slaughterhouse, kitchen gardens and number of work camps in the hill-country. Phew! – before being broken up in to smaller farms in the early twentieth century.

But before William Beetham was a key figure in colonial Wellington and the Wairarapa, he was a respected young portrait painter in England, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London at just 25 years. The paintings in this exhibition comprise only a part of the Movers & Shakers exhibition it belongs to, which is a bit of a shame as from looking at the catalogue of the full exhibition it appears there are some interesting paintings, particularly of Maori that would shed even greater light on Beetham as a painter. The portraits of local Maori in particular look tantalising, painted in an honest manner with none of the “dying race” or “ethnological curiosity” flavours of many other artists of the same period.

Still, what does Close to Home reveal? In terms of painting technique, it shows an artist who was not committed to any particular school of art and open to trends from Neo-Classicism to the radical “warts and all” Realist style of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). The exhibition speculates that Beetham may have been taught by one of Lawrence’s students. His portraits of his father and mother with their faces fully rendered but body only sketched, are typical of the Lawrence style. The portrait of his father is full of life and character.

Interestingly, some of the works in the show have an almost Renoir like quality, although the chances of any direct influence are virtually nil, I imagine, even if they were painted around the same time.

Perhaps my favourite portraits are those of Jacob Joseph, a Wellington general merchant and real estate agent, and his wife Kate (above) with whom William and Mary had a close relationship. There is almost a stylistically naïve quality to the paintings which well suits the characters of two sitters with Kate in particularly being known for her warmth and charm which comes across more richly than any photograph of the time could have captured.

Death stalks the sitters, many of whom did not live to a long age, a reminder of how precarious life was in those days. As for Beetham’s self portraits – the first from early in his career displays a young man with fashionably Romantic inclinations but at heart quite solid and sensible, and it appears it was the latter qualities that guided his life decisions, although it has to be said that moving to a town barely 15 years old on the other side of the planet certainly shows a person willing to take a chance.

There’s a photograph of a painting of Mary before their marriage which shows a lively and even saucy personality. It isn’t clear that this was painted by Beetham but I suspect not as his paintings are a bit more rigid. But you can see from this work and his early self portrait around the time that they both were part of the aspirational lower middle classes.

As a painter, and the son of an inn keeper, Beetham could undoubtedly see only a limited financial future in England. Anxious about the prospects for their children, the couple emigrated to New Zealand in 1855, and it is quite a sweet tale that Mary sneaked William’s paint brushes and easels into the luggage without his knowing. The fact that Beetham had chosen not to bring them himself indicates where his priorities lay and his modesty about his own talents.

His primary aim seems to have always been to capture the likeness and character of his sitter which he achieves to a high degree. He was never a radical and the paintings never escapes a certain feeling of conservatism and establishment. This is most apparent in his watercolour sketches which lack any fluidity whatsoever.

The late double portrait of William and Mary shows they have morphed into your typical elderly Victorian couple. That said, the fact that Beetham choose to do a self portrait and the skill and sensitivity he brings to the subject of himself and his wife shows an artist’s heart was still beating under the conservative dress.

David Famularo

Breath: the Fleeting Intensity of Life – Vincent Ward

 Vincent Ward Breath: the fleeting intensity of life at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History reviewed  by Paul Melser at Wairarapa re-Views

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History  February 2014

By Paul Melser

Vincent Ward’s video is a shortened version of a larger work that circulated around New Zealand Galleries in late 2011 and 2012. Much of the publicity surrounding those showings and the commentary around them seems to have been provided by Ward himself through interviews and written publicity material. The version we see at Aratoi has two scenes. One shows a fat naked man lying in the middle of the road, in a deserted small town, at either dawn or dusk being approached by a white horse. You can read the rest of the review here

Close to Home – William Beetham Portraits

Close to Home – William Beetham Portraits at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History February 2014 reviewed by Paul Melser at Wairarapa re-Views

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History February 2014

By Paul Melser

Portraits are a statement about societal manners as much as they are the record of the appearance of a particular individual. Above all perhaps, throughout the history of image making, portraits have been an attempt to preserve and immortalise the status and position of the subject as worthy and important.

The current exhibition of Beetham portraits at Aratoi extols the values of probity, dignity, sobriety and respectability as much as they are records of the appearance of their mostly family subjects. You can read the rest of the review here

Art, the Rubber Duck and Love

Art, the Rubber Duck and Love – reviewed by Paul Melser

By Paul Melser December 2013

Three events coincided recently which raised the perennial question of ‘What is Art?’. The first was the death at age 89 of the renowned art theorist and philosopher Arthur Danto in October; the second was the appearance in news media of an oversize rubber duck which had so far visited 14 international ports (including Auckland in 2011); the third was a very amusing interview with Charles Firth who, as director of the Sydney Museum of Words convened an exhibition of ‘donated’ words.

Read the full review here:

Grant Muir – Modern Landscapes

Grant Muir - Modern Landscapes

Lennox Design Studio and Gallery, Masterton
November 2013

Reviewed by David Famularo

As Grant Muir points out in his text for this show, the past seven years of his life have been very much filled with goings-on on his small farm located in hill country of the rural district Hinakura, east of Martinborough.
And more specifically the Hinakura River, a medium sized river that meanders through his property, and which Muir has been fighting to protect from degradation by stock effluent and grazing, as documented by the short environmental film River Dog, produced by his son James Muir, which has won numerous international awards since it was made in 2010.
But Muir has been a committed artist for a long time as well, and much of his work has been at some level or other autobiographical in nature.
Not surprisingly, the Hinakura River is the subject of many of these paintings, but any environmental messages are implied rather than overt – not withstanding some of the titles – for example “Another Dead River” and “Green River”.

Muir’s chief artistic influences in the past have been Expressionist, so Modern Landscapes is a new departure which he has labelled “New Impressionism.”
Where one might have instead expected more anger, the works have a softer, more positive spirit than some of his previous work which tended to be on the dark side,
Perhaps by taking practical steps – Muir has recently teamed up Victoria University’s School of Engineering and Computer Sciences to design drones to patrol rivers like the Hinakura for pollution – Muir has been converting anger into energy.
Expressionism is much more readily associated with anger than Impressionism, which conjures up images of tranquillity and beauty – the river most associated with the movement being the Seine in Paris.
However, one has to remember that the Impressionist artists lived through a period of social turmoil, belied by their most famous images – France was rapidly industrialising with accompanying social upheaval, while France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was followed by the Paris Commune the following year.
Camille Pissarro, for instance, lost almost his entire life’s work when the rapidly advancing German army took over his house on the outskirts of Paris and turned it into a butchery, wrapping the meat in his painted canvases.
There’s tranquillity and beauty in Muir’s landscapes too, just as in the plethora of Wairarapa landscapes painted by the voluminous number of artists now living in the region.
But whereas they, for the most part, accept at face value what rural beauty as exists, Muir understands and implicitly recognises that these landscapes are a mere shadow of the beauty that once was and potentially could again be.
This is most ominously portrayed in the brooding grey greens of the works made with oil and inkjet on sculptured hardboard.
Rather than reminding me of typical Impressionist landscapes, they are more reminiscent of conventional European landscape painting of the mid-nineteenth century.
The first series of works you meet when you enter the show, made mostly using pencil, beeswax and oil on canvas, capture more the Impressionist’s love of life and beauty, as if Muir can’t help but simply appreciate what is still there.
Or is he simply pumping up the irony, especially given titles like “Crimson River”, “Discharge” and “River Bloom.”
The title of the exhibition itself – “Modern Landscapes” – suggests that these landscapes are typical of the Wairarapa and much of rural New Zealand.

Grant Muir: Modern Landscapes - Lennox Design Studio & Gallery Masterton November 2013
The other feature of the show is Muir’s unconventional use of materials with the afore-mentioned oil and inkjet on sculptured board which he has for the most part successfully transformed through illusion into something approximating a traditional landscape work (when seen from a distance).
The overall effect definitely works best when Muir so manipulates the inkjet process to make it almost unrecognisable. Where the inkjet print remains quite obvious the inescapable dowdiness of this technique is simply inescapable.
That said, Muir’s ability to convincingly represent landscapes in three dimensions through both traditional techniques (such as perspective), as well as sculptural form through carving into the hardboard and then painting over it, is original and accomplished.
Meanwhile, Muir’s painterly skills, especially his colour, as shown to best effect by the pencil, beeswax and oil on canvas works, have totally matured.

Salt – Tina Rae Carter

Salt - Tina Rae Carter

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History December 2013

Tina Rae Carter essentially belongs to the Symbolist tradition in painting. Although this movement officially began and ended in the late nineteenth century, it’s one of those tendencies that re-emerges in various epochs and individual artists, just as you can see Expressionist tendencies in some Byzantine paintings as much as twentieth century art.

This exhibition also exhibits a sympathy with science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. By this, I don’t mean fantastical stories of deep space and far into the future, but the vision scientists and artists had of the ocean, and space, just as they were beginning to explore both.

You can see this in the colour photography of strange deep sea creatures , television series like Stingray, and the voyage of Kon-tiki, and voyages of Jacque Cousteau’s Calypso. There’s a sense the Earth’s oceans, like space, offer worlds yet to be discovered, with boundless possibilities.

Fast forward to 2013 and there is a growing dread (amongst those who care), that this limitless expectation has been replaced by a finiteness, and accelerating consumption of the oceans’ resources. With this comes a melancholy, and sense of loss, that can be felt when viewing these paintings.

Carter has layered symbols and meanings amongst and over each other – turtle backs, opaque membranes, eels, kowhai trees, small fish, all co-habitat within the same environments. The intense but recessive colours accentuate the dreamlike qualities, the mood helped along by the sound track from Vincent Ward’s nearby installation playing nearby.

For the most part, Carter’s environmental themes play out very subtlety, but one of the best works, Anadarko, by its name alone baldly states the fact of deep sea drilling off New Zealand and what it forebodes. Like all Symbolists, Carter hides hundreds of elements within the paintings that you don’t notice at first, such as the face on the body of a seal, and the a fish who looks directly at the viewer.

The Kermadec Necklace, a sequential arrangement of paintings and framed photograms, takes its name from one of the deepest places on Earth, only just now being explored, location of a suggested marine reserve, and undoubtedly under threat, as are all the world’s oceans. The small paintings are perhaps creatures found in the Kermadec trench, and the photograms various symbols of human exploration of the deep from periscopes, to an old fashioned diving suit, to an astronaut on the moon.

Carter ultimately takes the exhibition to level of the psyche.

When sound vibrations are applied to salt, it forms mandala-like patterns. Salt is about Epic journeys, and the exploration, whether environmental or just human desire for change. Sometimes the best journeys are driven by a primal urge, with nothing but a notion of identity, and the push and pull of the tides. Everything seems to fall into place, and whatever is needed seems to appear just at the right moment, as if it was there all along.

With this statement, Carter builds a metaphorical bridge between the personal inner world and the oceans. We are moved by currents but we are also one part of them. When we let ourselves go to them, they take us home, just as New Zealand’s long finned eels in Carter’s paintings let the ocean’s currents to take them to a secret spawning area somewhere near Tonga where they mingle (providing there are still enough of them left) with the elvins then letting the currents bring them home to New Zealand’s rivers again.

The Unknown Craftsman

The Unknown Craftsman reviewed by Paul Melser at Wairarapa re-Views

By Paul Melser October 2013

I recently read a short article in the last issue of Ceramics Quarterly from an Auckland Potter raising some interesting questions about the nature and definition of domesticware. Suzy Dünser’s discussion revolved around a much-heralded exhibition at Masterworks Gallery in Ponsonby, Auckland.

Called ‘The Last Supper’, it had the ambitious aim of establishing a new 21st century ‘ethos’ for contemporary domesticware. Masterworks considered that in most other areas of the arts a 21st century approach could be seen but in handcrafted domesticware it was not.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Featherston Guerilla Gardeners

Featherston Guerilla Gardeners  October 2013 reviewed at Wairarapa re-Views

Featherston October 2013

I’m not sure the Featherston Guerilla Gardeners were attempting a piece of performance art when they clandestinely set up a garden in the vacant lot where a new supermarket is supposed to be built in the near future.

The essential events as they unfolded was that the group of activists in the dark of night planted a small garden as well as erecting a wind sock and placing a sign on the fence saying “World Seed Day.”

They invited the Wairarapa Times Age’s editor to interview them and explained that they were raising awareness of World Seed Day and being against genetic engineering.

While the photograph taken by the editor for the story showed the activists from behind, therefore maintaining their anonymity, another photo of two of the participants standing/dancing naked holding garden implements was posted on facebook and picked up and republished on the Wairarapa Times Age’s facebook page.

Ignoring any shock value, in fact the two naked people completed this piece of performance art, a play on the concept of “seed.“ The metaphor of seed (germination of life) was expressed by the naked male and female (with echoes of Adam and Eve).

The windsock, intentionally or otherwise, looked like a condom and hence was a direct reference to the seed metaphor, in this case the suppression of it (corporates forcing farmers to purchase genetically engineered seed from them, rather than using seed collected annually from their own non-genetically modified crops)

Obviously the protest was intentional, but how intentional were the added layers of metaphor? We will never know.

Featherston Guerilla Gardeners October 2013 reviewed at Wairarap re-Views –

INTERSECTING/ INTERSECTIONS: Four approaches to the landscape – Barry Ellis

Aratoi Museum of Art & History August 2013

“This exhibition is about how the painted images meet and interact with one another. It is in 4 parts, dealing with 4 different locations, Greytown, Central Queensland, The South Coast & Southern Highlands of New South Wales, and Carlisle Beach in Patea, South Taranaki.”


Barry Ellis is one New Zealand artists who has for the most part flown under the radar, at least in comparison to many of his contemporaries, for instance Rhondda Grieg of Carterton. Perhaps, this is due to his peripatetic lifestyle, never seeming to stay in one place that long.

He’s also straddled art and design, a foot in both camps, in terms of his art as well as his income. Ellis started out as an apprentice sign-writer at New Zealand Railway studios in Wellington, eventually becoming head designer. From there he went on to the Industrial Design Council, promoting design education in both schools and universities, then a design consultant and part-time Wellington Polytechnic tutor where he met graphic artist Gerad Taylor.

When Taylor moved to the Wairarapa, Ellis made the region his home for a short while with exhibitions at Gerad and Anne Taylor’s short-lived Reform Gallery in Carterton. Since then Ellis has had at least one exhibition at Aratoi Museum of Art & History which I reviewed here. In Christchurch Ellis was “an electronic entrepreneur”, producing over 250,000 posters promoting the electronics industry as a career (source: Wairarapa Times Age).

I’m not sure where Ellis lives now and what he does for a living, but judging by this exhibition, his is still a gypsy lifestyle, with some paintings inspired by the beach at Patea in South Taranaki and others parts of Australia. A few years on from his last exhibition, Ellis still displays some of the same qualities of his earlier works. There are no paintings dealing with life on the road specifically, but as always, there is a sense of restless movement.

Whether you call it an “influence” or not, there is something of the 1950s American Beat movement in Ellis’s paintings. And really, his work has more in common with the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s than any other movement. Ellis veers wildly between the semi-figurative and the pure abstract, much like the out of control boy racers in his previous show at Aratoi.

And the standard of the works veers wildly too. But at his best, Ellis achieves something that is extremely rare in contemporary New Zealand art and difficult to achieve – convincing works of pure abstraction. In this he is like Max Gimblett, however different the trajectories of their lives have been.

Gimblett arrived in New York just in time to connect directly with the last flourishes of the Abstract Expressionism and some of the movement’s leading proponents in the early 1970s (in this Gimblett has a bit in common with Billy Apple vis a vis Pop Art). Ellis never escaped Regionalism, physically, nor in his painting, and this sense of localised place is imprinted on his art, where Gimblett’s is High Art Internationalism, and so belongs firmly in the Modernist tradition.

Ellis has been forever been driving the back roads of the art world. Given that he has undoubtedly moved into his later decades, the fact that he has managed to continue producing successful shows is to Ellis’ credit, whereas others in a similar position within the New Zealand art hierarchy have creatively withered.

Ellis’ works in this show are full of restless energy, but the abstracts succeed because the have a calming centre. They also have a brighteness and warmth to them that makes me wonder if they might have been inspired more by the Australian landscape.

The figurative works, which largely revolve around coastal scenes such as the stunning coastline at Patea, are first interpreted as abstracts until their title and some time spent looking at them, reveal the paintings to be essentially figurative works done with some of the gestural paint strokes one might associate with De Kooning, for example. They pull the eye in different directions but don’t quite hold the soul.

I like the fact that Ellis interprets the coastal scenes in his own unique style which in some ways matches the wildness of South Taranaki coastline, but there’s also a cold, hard edge to his painting technique that always evokes more of an urban experience (to the point where the wreck on Patea’s beach above resembles high rise buildings).

Few artists are equally convincing in both the figurative and abstract, Vera Jamieson being one local an example. As far as I know Ellis has oriented more towards the former, but based on this show, I think abstraction is where he really shines, at least in this show.

NB I also noticed that the prices being asked were in no ways excessive, a reflection no doubt of Ellis’ limited recognition and pragmatism around this