|Art advisor and curator Helen Klisser During is native to New Zealand. She’s lived in the New York City area since 1986, working with artists, art institutions, and collectors since 1991. Her reach is vast, as it runs through Europe, the U.S., Asia, and the Middle East, yet a big piece of her heart and soul is still connected to New Zealand and its artists. Klisser During sees New Zealand as the gateway to the Pacific. After looking through a number of books that featured detailed visual histories of New Zealand’s painting, she made the case that, for the most part, European artists and art movements directly influenced New Zealand’s artists up until the middle of the 20th century.|
D. Dominick Lombardi
Art advisor and curator Helen Klisser During is native to New Zealand. She’s lived in the New York City area since 1986, working with artists, art institutions, and collectors since 1991. Her reach is vast, as it runs through Europe, the U.S., Asia, and the Middle East, yet a big piece of her heart and soul is still connected to New Zealand and its artists. Klisser During sees New Zealand as the gateway to the Pacific. After looking through a number of books that featured detailed visual histories of New Zealand’s painting, she made the case that, for the most part, European artists and art movements directly influenced New Zealand’s artists up until the middle of the 20th century.
Eastern Polynesians arrived in New Zealand as far back as 800 A.D. These early settlers, the indigenous people of New Zealand, are called Maori. It was more than 800 years later that Europeans came to the country, when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman first saw the island and its inhabitants in 1642. Subsequently, the British explorer James Cook mapped the coastline of New Zealand in 1769. Residents of European extraction form the majority of the populace today, with the Maori as the largest minority. An influx of Pacific Islanders (Samoans, Cook Islanders, Tongans, and Fijians) and Asians has added new cultural richness to the country. Klisser During says, “It’s a small country of about four million people, but it’s very diverse. The Maori language is taught in all schools. White European New Zealanders, known as Pakeha, use Maori greetings as a show of respect for the Maori and their culture.”
When asked to put New Zealand’s culture into perspective, as most Americans are unfamiliar with its offerings, Klisser During was quick to note, “It’s more indigenous, it’s more Maori, it’s more Polynesian, it’s picking up on cultural motifs. Maori carvings are a big influence. Rangi Kipa is a contemporary Maori artist who shows with Goff + Rosenthal in New York. His work is wonderful, as it references Moku (facial tattoo) and the Maori Pa, the meeting house that he recreated in a very contemporary way with a very compelling installation. He also references the Koru, the spiral that signifies new beginnings. That shape you see in young ferns, for instance. It’s very much about identity, about identifying the symbols and the meaning, then blending that into the contemporary aesthetic. You can see the same leanings in the mesmerizing works of Chris Heaphy.” She adds, “Colin McCahon (1919-1987) is arguably, one of the greatest New Zealand (Pakeha) artists, he addresses the landscape, the isolation, faith, language—there was a major retrospective of his work at Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 2002. But if you are looking for a New Zealand-born artist who blends the East and Western influences, you have to look at the work of Max Gimblett.”
A significant aspect of New Zealand Art, as Klisser During goes on to explain, is landscape. The history of painting there is rich in landscape works, and this continues today. In the modern period, key figures such a Christopher Perkins (1891-1968) and Rita Angus (1908-1970), were brilliant landscapists. Among contemporary artists, Klisser During points to a few outstanding examples. “One of New Zealand’s greatest Pakeha artists,” she says, “is Gordon Walters (1919-1995). He employs the essential Maori shape, the Koru, a spiral, in all of his mature minimal works. Ralph Hotere (1931-) is New Zealand’s greatest living Maori artist. He’s had a profound influence on many artists, most notably Peter Robinson (1966-), who has embraced Hotere’s habit of painting written words on his canvases. As well, a line can be drawn from the text-based works of John Reynolds (1956-) to Hotere. They share a keen interest in how language and landscape work together.”
There is much to praise in contemporary New Zealand art, and Klisser During notes that, “The works of action/process painter Judy Miller (1957-), and the strange figurative sculptures of Francis Upritchard (1976-) will be in the Venice Biennale 2009, which is very exciting.” But she is equally excited about two new artists, who are moving beyond the shores of New Zealand into the international art world. Samoan-born Shigeyuki Kihara (1975-) explores her culture, heritage, and transgender experience through vintage-style photographs that feature classic poses in intimate settings. The second artist, Hye Rim Lee (1963-), came to New Zealand from Korea in 1993. Lee recently had an exhibition at Max Lang Gallery, showing some of the best digital prints I’ve seen in a very long time, and her lone animation runs like a futuristic fantasy combining sexual desire with cartoony fun—a crisp mix of sex, beasts, and beauties. I ended my visit with Helen Klisser During with a much better sense of the art of New Zealand, and I look forward to discovering new layers of myth and meaning that lie beneath its surface.