Lennox Design Studio and Gallery, Masterton
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.
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.