DARRYN GEORGE – Ariki – 31 May-24 June, 2016
At first glance the six paintings in this exhibition seem simply to be geometric abstractions but Darryn George drew on his Maori background, his philosophy and personal experience in the development of this work. Earlier this year he was interviewed by Amanda Greenfield. An edited transcript appears below.
INTERVIEW – Darryn George speaks with Amanda Greenfield in his studio, April 2016.
AG: The large works ‘Ariki #7’ and ‘Ariki #8’ were painted two years ago in 2014?
DG: They grew out of the earthquakes. When the first earthquake hit it was the middle of the night, we tried to get upstairs to get to the kids but couldn’t get there because there was so much movement. In those first few moments I just prayed that our kids would be ok. Then, when we got up there the kids were ok but the phone lines were out and I couldn’t phone my parents and family. I remember just praying that everyone would be ok.
Afterwards, I thought, I want to do something about the earthquake but I don’t want to do broken down buildings. What could I do that was personal to me? I started doing paintings that had the word atua repeated over and over again. They became prayer paintings for me. As time went on I expanded the vocabulary. I thought: Christchurch needs a chief, a leader, a kaitiaki or guardian. So that’s where these words came from. There’s debris in the background representing that feeling of brokenness.
DG: Yes, but it’s also the word used for ‘God’ in the Maori bible. And atua means ‘God’. These works are related to the ‘Kaitaki’ series of work but technically they are more ambitious in terms of really mixing up the paintwork, just throwing paint at the surface, mixing up the fine paintwork of moko designs with the sharp edges you get from masking out.
AG: In the past you have talked about playing with opposites within your work, the hard edges versus the soft, the use of words versus flat colour, symbols and pattern.
DG: I guess I’m also playing off elements of abstract expressionism against hard-edged abstraction. When I put the white spray paint around the outside of letters it knocks back the colour, puts a haze over it. When it is just the dark, splashy stuff, there is a real blackness, a Franz Kline kind of feel to it.
AG: You had told me earlier that the soft edge or glow around some of the letters represented emergency lights?
DG: Just after the earthquake I remember flicking on the news and seeing medical centre lights. I thought, I’ll use that. The glow softens the look, stops the hard edges taking over, so it’s a formal device as well as a representational one.
AG: Tell me about the intricate paintwork that runs through the centre of ‘Ariki #8’ ?
DG: They started out as moko designs. Moko were a mark of prestige or reverence and these designs reference that this is something significant. I tend to use it to give the subject of my paintings a preciousness, which is especially pertinent to these paintings as they relate to prayer. The particular design in ‘Ariki #8’ doesn’t have a specific .
AG: In ‘Ariki #7’ what do the beams of colour represent?
DG: These represent searchlights or flash lights. Ora is the word for ‘life’. The shapes running downwards are ladder forms. Over the years I’ve worked with the ladder a lot in different ways. They could be looked at literally – the rectangles being holes you put your feet into – or could be stairways to heaven. In Maori there is the poutumu design, the ‘stairway to heaven’ design.
AG: So in a way you are evoking the idea of a journey?
DG: Or even just a way out, or a way up.
AG: Many of the formal devices you use seem to contribute to the content.
DG: I always try and have a double hit with it. Sometimes the content drives it from the beginning. I’m always trying to come up with a way of using paint that connects to content.
AG: And you use words as a compositional device. Does the change of scale and orientation effect their meaning?
DG: I guess, in a way… right back at the start of the earthquakes, while I was praying, an aftershock might hit and I’d stop praying. My prayers might be a loud cry, or a whisper. In these paintings sometimes the prayers are quiet or whispered, sometimes they are loud, sometimes they are chopped off, only half the word there. Or the prayers are tumbling around. That is how it was for me in those moments during the earthquakes.
AG: One of the words that appears is Takuta. It means ‘doctor’?
DG: We need a doctor! – in a spiritual sense. The other word for doctor is rata which also means ‘to suffer’. That’s the thing about the Maori language, it’s amazing, you can have the same word but depending on the context it can have multiple readings which is very similar to painting. Takuta does mean ‘doctor’ and it can operate both on a physical level and a spiritual level.
AG: The vibrance of the purple around the letter K in ‘Ariki #7’ makes the work sing. In terms of using colour in your work how do you go about making those decisions?
DG: When I was a student I was really into colour. Later, I thought: what happens if I strip all the colour out and just go to red, black and white, just go with traditional Maori colours. There was a long period six, seven years of only doing red, black and white paintings. As time has gone on I’ve seeped a little bit of colour in here and there but it’s not extravagant. It is just bringing in subtle purples or a bit of gold. Not wild, still pared back.
AG: You have used the metaphor of ‘mining’ an idea to explain your process…
DG: That’s the way that I was taught at art school. Once you find a little gem, you then start branching out to find variations on that one idea. It’s important that you don’t rush over a really great idea and only make one work as the more you dig into the area, even though the parameters you set are quite small, out of that that comes really awesome creativity. Before I start a painting I will go through a whole lot of drawings and trials, there are so many permutations.
AG: I have read in the past that when you are working on paintings with words you also work on a more minimal body of work?
DG: Yes, minimal paintings like ‘Register’ … I love making those works. Sometimes I want to just pick up some paint and throw it around and not get things perfect but these ones involve a lot of attention to surface, sanding back and a labour intensive process to get things right.
AG: Those glossy surfaces remind me of your installation at the Venice Biennale in 2013. You have talked about your role as being an ‘architect’ of those works and it struck me that in the past you have often used language from that architectural world when you talk about your practice.
DG: I like that world. There was a big shift for me about ten years ago. Architectural projects had started to come up and I started to think: do I physically have to make every aspect of this work? There are people who can make things better than I can; joiners and builders. That’s when the team idea came in. So, for these types of projects, I’m the architect, designing things on the computer, coming up with the conceptual framework and making decisions about where everything sits. When it comes to the fabrication I get experts involved.
AG: Even within the canvas works we are looking at the moment I see elements of architecture. I got the impression, when reading an interview you did with Lara Strongman, that she felt your work envelopes the viewer, similar to the feeling of being inside a wharenui. [i]
DG: I love walking into a meeting house and you’ve got a vast array of designs around you. You’ve got all sorts of things going on, so much noise. The painted rafters, the tukutuku designs, the pou and amazing carving. To me it’s not western, it’s got a completely different feel, patterns on top of patterns. In a sense the new works for this exhibition are like that. Some parts are like the tukutuku panels, some parts are the pou, some parts are the painted rafters.
AG: When I look at these works with words in them, and hear you talking, I can immediately visualise someone telling stories from the Maori oral tradition. What are you exploring in ‘Water from the Rock’?
DG: It’s the start of something new. I’m looking at the Exodus story from the Old Testament. Moses is taking the Isrealites out of slavery and they are leaving Eygpt. In this painting maybe they are going through the Red Sea, maybe the waters have just piled up and they are walking straight through the middle of that divide.
Or maybe this is the water from the rock. The people are out in the wilderness, parched because they have nothing to drink, they are crying out. Moses hits the rock with his staff and water pores out. Maybe this painting is of that. And then we’ve got the words down the centre: toka which means rock and the words ariki, ariki. The painting links to a specific story, a biblical story. But for Christchurch people an exodus could come out of the earthquakes and we are all off to the promise land!
The line straight through the middle references Barnett Newman, who is an American artist I have looked at over the years. He always talked about a shaft of light. You might take it on a spiritual level or you might not.
AG : So you don’t feel you need to lock down the interpretation?
DG: I have my intention as an artist. There has been a lot of thinking that has gone on in the background, notebooks, drawings, I spend ages working out a framework for making decisions before I start. But people are free to take the painting however they want. Whatever background they come from, they are going to bring that to the table. People will come up with their own readings.
And for me, if I’ve made something that is reasonably easy to speak about, I like to speak about it. I like the idea you mentioned before, of being in a meeting house, and having a korero and telling a story.
Maybe I told that whole thing about the first prayer paintings from the earthquake too simplistically. I remember there were times when I thought: what am I doing? But sitting down with my notepads and re-thinking it I’d decide: No, that is where I got to, that’s what I was thinking, that’s how the series developed and grew, so I’m just going to tell it. I’m going to tell it like it is.