CROSSINGS – Philippa Blair
For lots of reasons it isn’t the done thing to write about art from a personal perspective and I understand why. A writer’s feelings/responses may have nothing whatsoever to do with the artist’s intentions – they can be way off track. Yet I’m tempted to follow a track.
I first met Philippa Blair when I was an art student, thirty years ago. She had freshly returned from a life in Australia and was making a splash on the local art scene. To me she was daunting. The following year, 1985, only just out of artschool I printed two black and white lithographs for her. Being present as she drew and scribed the stones taught me a lot about drawing. At that stage I could not have told you what but from the vantage of a three decade long working relationship I now have a better idea.
Artists reveal themselves in studio. A sincere approach to viewing involves a similar disarmament – eyes wide open to experience. And by eyes I don’t just mean the two on our faces, I also mean the ‘eyes’ of memory and imagination, those that recall and build new visuals in our minds. Colours, shapes and textures spark reminiscences just as smells do. Our imagination melds what we see with what we know. When looking at art, images often shape-shift as we play with them on our internal screen and that is part of it.
Philippa talks about music, about improvisation. She talks about place. Not just landscape or buildings or streets but the idea of a place, the vibe that surrounds it. Its history, the mayhem, the quiet, loneliness, risk, excitement. She talks about experience. Her paintings are visual allegories of experience. That sentence just rolled out. It sounds good but I’ve got a feeling it isn’t right – way too blithe. An allegory provides a metaphor for something else. Usually there is symbology, there’s talking in code. It occurs to me that I may not be that far off the mark – perhaps Philippa speaks in an abstracted visual code when she is in the studio.
One of those first two prints we did back in 1985 was called ‘Labyrinths’ and, while drawing it, Philippa talked about a tree having its heart in its roots. I assume now that this was about how groundedness is important, how growth comes from depth, the sprouting leaves are an expression of the real stuff, that which is pumped from down low. Today I pulled ‘Labyrinth’ out of the print drawers. It is a mass of lines that swoop in and around each other, anchored by the base line. It has elegance but it is also dark. It appears alive but feels ancient. Throughout her career Philippa has come back to the idea of labyrinth again and again. She doesn’t picture it as a geometric plan, the way the architect of one might. Neither does she depict the internals, that would be walls or hedges – monotonously and confusingly similar – pictorially dull. She is not visually literal in that sense. What I see is an engagement with what it is to be lost in one, only she expresses that feeling from the outside. She is inside and outside the labyrinth at the same time. Lost in it while watching herself being lost in it. Her labyrinths aren’t fixed, they are natural things, as fluid as the movement of her arm. I am reminded of dreams in which I can’t find my way back, am unable to form a mental map. There is a vortex-like quality to Philippa’s labyrinths. I think she is attracted to them, drawn in by them and in the labyrinth she goes to ground. From that frustrating, bound up, thwarting place, she is able to find her roots and bring forth her art, working her way out of the tangle into the light. There are three paintings in this show relate to the labyrinth. They all have titles that relate to safety and recuperation: ‘Nesting’, ‘Repair’, ‘Refuge’. None talk about being lost.
Her work method has gone through many changes. It has revolved, warped, whittled, transformed. Sometimes abruptly, sometimes as a slow evolution. In early works one thing I noticed was that she often reinforced structures, strengthened key lines, her hand following the groove of previous passage. What I see in more recent work is that she doesn’t repeat an action through a previous mark. The work is purer. There is the confidence of thirty-five years behind it, which allows her to let things go. She wipes initial statements out, messes them up, will topple structures to build anew. She drops baggage and moves on.
I want to employ adjectives but there is no need, the paintings supply them. I want to describe actions but you can see them for yourself – it’s all there for the looking. I find myself thinking about life.
The paintings that comprise CROSSINGS span the years 2011 to 2013 and all were made in Los Angeles. During 2013 Philippa and her husband, John, shifted back to Auckland after two decades living and working in LA. It’s a big thing to up sticks and move. The two of them would have traversed the Pacific repeatedly over the years, sometimes in aeroplanes, oft times in their imaginations, separately or through conversation. It is inevitable that Philippa carries the feeling of living in Los Angeles as she and John make a fresh start in Auckland. I see her standing, with the North American continent behind her, looking out to the Pacific, she is at work in her studio in Auckland. Even when one lets go the baggage there is history.
Philippa has said the act of painting is a kind of dance. Each painting has a time to it. Her works aren’t preplanned but neither does she start with a blank. There is already an impulse, a rhythm, before she makes her move. I have a feeling that the painting plays out as a series of in-the-moment decisions with a riff in the background, which sets the pace and feeling. She relies on the paint being wet, the material nature of the stuff. She works with liquidity: pours it, drags it, swipes through to the canvas. She also harnesses paint’s fat viscosity as it is squeezed from the tube. She collects it in the grasping brush bristle, back and forth from palette to canvas, the canvas increasingly weighted with multi-hued daubs. Seldom does the weave disappear completely. And while there may be references to places or objects there is no pretense at illusion. What I see, predominantly, is paint. Now dry, was wet. Life has phases.
For Philippa, landscapes, sights, people, issues, ideas all channel into her work. But not all of this into each work. The under-rhythm is a combination of related ideas that are beating for the duration. When she scribes through soft wet blue with charred umber, pushing through to the weave, she does so for a reason. When two colours ooze into each other and congeal she is there, watching it happen. When a skin forms on a pool of contented green and she reaches for a squeegee there is purpose for her disruption – according to the rhythm of that particular painting contentment had to be unsettled.
There are endings and beginnings within the same work and that seems the way of it. Experience isn’t discrete. Events exist within the context of the past, and the future. Which is what looking at Philippa’s recent paintings has brought me to think about. All this may have nothing whatsoever to do with Philippa’s intention, but I have a feeling this doesn’t matter. Looking at her work now I don’t need to dismantle them. I can give myself over, for the time I am prepared to stare at them, to experiencing a different visual articulation. I go with it.
 In 1986 Philippa Blair had an exhibition, at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery, called ‘A Tree has its Heart in its Roots’. The title makes reference to a story by the artist Len Lye.
CROSSINGS – exhibited at PG gallery192, Christchurch, 14 April – 9 May, 2015