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