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Launching Damian Skinner’s Theo Schoon Bio

On 12 November 2018, at Wellington’s Unity Books, Aaron Lister launched Damian Skinner’s new biography on Theo Schoon. This is what he said.

When it comes to giving opening speeches, Theo Schoon set a tough precedent. At the opening of his exhibition at Auckland’s New Vision Gallery on 25 March 1965—described in the book we are launching tonight as a ‘kind of artistic manifesto’—Schoon decided on the spot that he would give the opening address, because he disliked ‘the fulsome praise invariable heard on such occasions’.  He continued, ‘I know I am breaking the rules that say an artist should keep his mouth shut and not speak about my own work … but it is my work and I know more about it than anyone else.’ It was classic acerbic Schoon, and a good opening gambit for him and for me, especially in terms of my task this evening of celebrating the dual achievements of Schoon and Damian Skinner as crystalised in this book.

Until now, Schoon-the-man has been a sketchy figure. His work has been embedded in art-historical and cultural debates but he has never enjoyed the full attention of a major dedicated book or exhibition. This is largely because Schoon has been a cultural problem, someone easier not to touch. Both omissions are now being rectified. Things began to shift recently. New signs of interest can be found in Schoon’s surprise star turn in Michael Parekōwhai’s Detour show at Te Papa (2018) and in his presence in the work of Dutch-Australian painter Matthys Gerber. We can also look to art history, auction houses, and the like. It’s not that there’s been a softening towards Schoon, because it’s the problems his work continues to pose that remains the point of interest. Schoon is definitely back, with new questions being asked of him and his work.

I was going to say ‘enter Damian Skinner’, but that’s not quite the case. Damian has been sparring with Schoon for almost twenty-five years. This is about the same duration as Schoon’s relationship with Gordon Walters, which has taken on an almost mythic quality in our art history. Framed as our Braque-and-Picasso story, it is one of many relationships that Damian’s book fleshes out and makes more understandable, more human—to the benefit of both artists.

The Schoon-Skinner relationship started in 1995 when Damian (semi-reluctantly) made Schoon the subject of his master’s thesis. Really, he wanted to do it on carver Tuti Tukaokao, but was unable to. So, he chose a topic that came at the same territory from another direction—through Schoon’s interaction with Māori art. It was a tricky topic to take on in the mid-1990s, with heightened tensions around cultural appropriation, but it facilitated Damian’s desire to work with Māori art and artists. This resulted in Damian’s PhD and the resulting book, The Carver and the Artist, plus many other well-known publications: Ihenga: The Evolution of Māori Art in the Twentieth Century; The Passing World, The Passage of Life: John Hovell and the Art of Kowhaiwhai; and The Māori Meeting House: Introducing the Whare Whakairo. These are not Schoon books, but in them we can see Damian’s continued grappling with Schoon and his often-problematic interaction with Māori art, especially in his self-appointed role as an authority on it.

If these books may be interpreted as Damian talking back to Schoon, there are other cases of Damian talking with or alongside him. This new book takes great pleasure in charting Schoon’s lifelong project to demolish the boundaries between high art and craft. Damian, too, has taken to this task, evident in his impressive range of craft-orientated titles to match those I just listed. The arguments made in this book about the art world’s blindness to craft could really have come from the mouth of either man. Perhaps this is another form of reckoning with Schoon. It’s also worth noting that contemporary art’s recent rush to embrace craft is one of the reasons why Schoon’s work feels so pressing right now.

Damian continued to work directly on Schoon, producing various texts and the exhibitions Mudpool Modernism and Madness and Modernism: Schoon, Hattaway, Walters. The latter was especially important for surfacing the work and story of Rolfe Hattaway, the Avondale Hospital patient who was both empowered and exploited by Schoon. It threw out a very Schoon-like challenge to culture by asking: how can we respectfully understand and deal with Hattaway’s legacy? This still hadn’t been addressed, until, I would argue, this book, which presents the fullest picture we have of Hattaway, the man, the artist, and his encounter with Schoon. Here, the book offers another kind of reckoning: with Schoon, with Damian’s earlier work on Schoon, and with the culture that both would likely argue often fails to do its work properly.

So, ‘enter Damian Skinner, biographer’. Biography was a dirty word in mid-1990s art history. I can’t imagine Damian, then, foreseeing himself writing a Schoon biography. But, he realised there was unfinished business. The big surprise was that this ultimate reckoning would take the form of a biography. Writing the biography took Damian out of his comfort zone as a writer. And the book takes the reader down some fascinating paths that have previously been little more than footnotes. The sections on Schoon’s two periods living in Java—firstly as a child, and secondly as a twenty-year old running a studio in Bandung (where he was under the sway of the artist Walter Spies and had the freedom to be an artist and a gay man as never before or since)—are game changers in understanding Schoon and the position he would come occupy in New Zealand. The book is full of new revelations and details that let us see Schoon afresh. This is a richer, more nuanced, more complex Schoon than we have seen before. And, for this, we have to acknowledge both subject (for an extraordinary life lived) and writer (for an extraordinary life told). In a book that is in many ways about relationships—between families, between artists, between cultures—I think it’s only right that we acknowledge that of Skinner and Schoon tonight.

One of my favourite quotes from the book is Schoon describing himself as being like ‘a cat sniffing out all corners of a strange warehouse’. That is a perfect description of the type of artist we need now, more than ever. I don’t want to insult Damian by calling him an ally cat, but his work is led by a similar drive to investigate, to seek out and go places others don’t dare to. It was this approach which first led him to Schoon, to much else, and eventually to this book. If the rumour is true, this book may be Damian’s farewell letter not only to Schoon but also to art writing. If this is the case, we are all privileged to be here this evening to celebrate the launch of this book and that long, tricky, and the incredibly productive relationship between Schoon and Skinner that has brought it to life.

—Aaron Lister, Curator

Aaron Lister and Damian Skinner are curating a Theo Schoon show for City Gallery. It opens in 2019.