Selections from the Rutherford Trust Collection

 Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History

Till 16 August 2015

Gordon Walters, Neil Dawson and John Drawbridge
From left: Gordon Walters, Neil Dawson and John Drawbridge

Selections from The Rutherford Trust Collection is a very pleasant stroll through the history of New Zealand art from around 1930 to 2000. Understanding the collection is easier if you know its history, which is actually quite recent and quite short, despite the age of some of the works on display.

The Rutherford Trust was established in 1988 as part of the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand’s commitment to “encourage and enhance New Zealand’s cultural life and heritage.”

ECNZ’s history is interesting in its own right. It was born out of the New Zealand Electricity Department, a government department that controlled and operated almost all of New Zealand’s electricity generation, and operated the electricity transmission grid.

It became ECNZ, one of the first New Zealand state-owned enterprises (SOEs), in 1987, as a transition entity in the process of deregulating the New Zealand electricity market. All that remains of ECNZ is a shell of its former self that manages its remaining hedge and debt obligations.

So in essence the Rutherford Trust Collection was the last ejaculation of the spirit of community good that was once the norm for government departments – a (sadly) dated notion even by the time it was established.

The aim of the Collection was reflect the development of 20th century New Zealand art and making this collection available to the public who could see it displayed on the walls of Rutherford House, home to ECNZ, in Wellington. Over a decade the Trust built up a rich and diverse collection, all chosen by just the one person – Lyn Corner.

I don’t have any details of the machinations that lead to it being housed at Aratoi, but with ECNZ evaporating it certainly didn’t have a future at Rutherford House. Just as obliquely a decade later it ended up on permanent loan to the James Wallace Arts Trust after an exhibition at Pah House in Auckland.

A smaller selection of works are still housed at Aratoi, although a part of the James Wallace Arts Trust, and I assume this is what we see here.

The fact that all the works in the collection were purchased in just 10 years and chosen by just the one person may be why this exhibition has such a harmony about it. There’s little in the way of awkward juxtapositions and the choices are relatively safe in the best possible meaning of the word.

Nearly all the 40 artists represented already had solid reputations by the time the paintings, and small number of sculpture, were purchased. Sometimes the works would only have been recently completed when they were purchased but they are nearly always typical examples of each artists’ work.

There are a few exceptions. For example Gordon Walters (1919-1995) is represented by an untypical abstract as well as one of his better-known koru designs.

Gordon Crook
Gordon Crook

Gordon Crook (1921-2011) may not have had the stature of some other artists represented (although I expect his reputation will continue to grow over the coming years) but Corner was acute enough to purchase a very nice wool tapestry, Home Leave, 1988, by him.

(I always remember Crook walking around Wellington in a good pair of sneakers looking nothing like his true age).

In pretty much every work, there is a very appealing aesthetic. There are strong elements of abstraction, even in the earliest works like an undated water colour coastal scene by T A McCormack (1883-1973) and gouache on rag Rakaia River Valley, Canterbury scene painted in 1941 by Sydney Lough Thompson (1877-1973).

Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) is represented around the same epoch with the watercolour Shells, 1934 but it feels like her abstract drive is boxed in by an inability to escape a figurative framework.

Hodgkins was born pre-abstraction whereas Rita Angus’ (1908-1970) is an unconscious child of it who contains it within the comfort of a figurative framework in Clouds Over The Bealy from 1930.

In fact, you could almost say all the artists and works are Modernist in flavour from John Tole (1890-1967) with a Still Life with Hydrangeas from 1941 to an abstract High Modernist like Milan Mrkusich who is represented with an excellent Segmented Arc on Maroon 1983.

Younger artists like Julia Morison (born 1952) with Codex 43, sand/silver gilt on plywood from 1992 and Neil Dawson (born 1950) with his powder coated steel painted wire mesh work Touchdown, 1989 represent the tail end of the movement.

In fact despite works for the Collection being purchased through the 1990s there is almost no hint of Post Modernism except perhaps in Anne Nobel’s (born 1954) Swan No 15.

Consciously or unconsciously, the character of the exhibition is divided by the two spaces it inhabits.

The larger space primarily inherits the Impressionist gene which most of the already mentioned works are hung.

The smaller space has more of an Expressionist feel to it with artists like Buck Nin’s (1942-96) acrylic on board painting Ngaruawahia,, Jeffery Harris’s (born 1949) Head with Birds, 1988, and Robert McLeod (born 1955) with Is It? from 1988. McLeod was one of New Zealand’s few convincing late twentieth century abstract expressionist who unfortunately hasn’t been as convincing since converting to figurativism).

Somewhat undermining this theory, the large space also contains a typical work Philippa Blair (born 1945) that captures her abstract expressionist energy plus there’s your standard Gretchen Albrecht (born 1943) abstract, Small Winter Sunset, from her classic early 1970s period that is really Expressionist in character despite its cool demeanour.

All in all, it’s a pleasurable show that anyone with a modicum of knowledge of New Zealand art history should be able to enjoy.