City Gallery

Remembering Vivian Lynn

Christina Barton remembers the life and work of Wellington artist Vivian Lynn.

I met Vivian Lynn soon after arriving in Wellington in 1992 to take up the position of Curator of Contemporary Art at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, when it was still at Buckle Street. My first shows there responded to the 1993 centenary of women’s suffrage. Key among them was a presentation of Lynn’s G(u)arden Gates (1982). The Museum owned one of the GatesSacrifice—which Curator Tony Mackle had acquired from Janne Land Gallery when the set was first shown in 1982. At the same time, the Curator of Prints and Drawings, Anne Kirker, had interviewed Lynn and acquired her bound volume of documentation to add to the Museum’s nascent collection of artists’ books. She would go on to include Lynn in her ground-breaking history New Zealand Women Artists, first published in 1986. My idea was to present all seven Gates together, as closely as possible to the way the artist had envisaged—and to acquire the remaining six for the national collection.

Visiting Lynn for the first time was my introduction to an approach to living that I now think is quintessentially ‘Wellington’. She and her artist partner Jürgen Waibel live down a long drive in a villa, complete with a turret, just a block away from the shops in Newtown. Their home is a treasure trove, with walls lined floor to ceiling with art works, books, and an array of ancient, exotic, and extraordinary things. Jürgen collects old prints, textiles, ceramics, artefacts, shells, and memorabilia, arranging them in striking constellations, like some walk-in cabinet of curiosities. The elegant but comfortable rooms are lit by the dappled green light from windows that open onto a small, established garden. Such interiors are places where the life of the mind can flourish and refuges from Wellington’s fierce weather, to which my Auckland sensitivities had then not yet become accustomed. I’ve since encountered many such homes of the quietly private people who make up the capital’s intelligentsia. They are so unlike shiny, bright Auckland homes, with their wall-to-ceiling glass and ‘inside-outside flows’. 

I’ve come to know that house well—and the studio where Lynn’s paintings, prints, drawings, and installations are stored, and where she worked until her health made this impossible. I’ve spent many hours there, in deep conversation, discussing Lynn’s life and her experience as a woman artist of her generation, and going through her archive and the beautifully conserved and stored art works still in her possession. Out of this, I have gained a picture of someone deeply committed to the artistic life, fiercely alert to the power structures of the art system, proudly secure in her convictions about the quality and content of her work, and thoroughly ‘up with the play’ with what was going on in the world. Conversation would flow in several directions but always around our core topic, and, even as we grew familiar with one another, we were always talking as professionals: she the artist, me the historian/curator. 

Our contact ebbed and flowed in the intervening years, intensifying during the gestation of the Lynn retrospective I organised for the Adam Art Gallery in 2008 and the subsequent preparation of the only substantial publication on her work, which was finally delivered in 2010. I, Here, Now was the first solo exhibition to take up the entire Gallery, an exercise made possible by my appointment as director the preceding year. With around eighty works, it was an opportunity to connect the dots of a practice that tracked from loosely representational paintings and drawings of her natural surroundings (made while living in rural South Canterbury) to an intensive period of printmaking (conducted in the South Island and then in Wellington, after she settled here in 1973) to her installations utilising human hair and other found materials to the more recent bodies of work that explore a complex mix of environmental, medical, mental, material, and philosophical concerns. I saw and tried to convey her struggle to recode the logic and language of modernism to engage her deeply felt sense of what it meant to be in the world. This struggle entailed finding visual and material means to set in play a dynamic and irresolvable tussle between the codes and conventions of socially prescribed language systems and behaviours and an ecstatic immersion in what might be thought of as a kind of ‘vibrant matter’, which was her means to articulate the mind-body paradox. 

It was exciting to bring her work into the public arena in such an extensive way, and sobering to realise how quickly artists can be forgotten if they are not constantly in front of people. Having suffered several bouts of debilitating illness, and always making work that confounded expectations or refused easy consumption, Lynn had nearly slipped out of sight, or, worse, was pigeonholed as a certain kind of ‘feminist artist’ whose moment was the 1980s. 

Now, a decade after that exhibition—which had limited exposure and did not tour—it is worth remembering that Lynn was a well-represented artist with a strong, urgent presence in the Wellington art world. Leaving aside the string of shows she had in the South Island and in Auckland, she showed all over town, at Victoria University (in 1973 and 1982), with a raft of dealers (Bett-Duncan, Janne Land, Legard, Southern Cross, Brooker, Brian Queenin, and Mark Hutchins), at the National Art Gallery (in group shows in 1979, 1980, 1981, 1984, 1986, 1989, 1992, 2004, and 2008), at the Dowse Art Museum (in 1983), and in one-off events like F1 Sculpture Project (1982). Her work was even included with several much younger artists in Robert Leonard’s early pop-up show, Monsters from the Id, at City Limits café in 1988. 

City Gallery Wellington also often hosted her over the years. She was in the inaugural show in 1980, in the Gallery’s first space on Victoria Street. In 1982, she was invited to restage her survey exhibition from New Vision Gallery, Auckland, adding the second of her human-hair installations (Hair Trigger, 1982). She also realised two solo projects there (Caryatid in 1986 and Spin: Versor, Versari in 1997) and her work was included in several of the ambitious curated shows that characterised the Gallery’s programme in the early 1990s, such as Art and Organised Labour (1991), The Sacred Way (1992), and Alter/Image (1993).

This summary can hardly do justice to the various ways in which Lynn contributed to the local scene. Although there are others who knew her better and for different reasons—including her students and colleagues at Wellington Polytechnic’s School of Design (now Massey University), where she taught for many years—I feel grateful and lucky to have found my way into her circle and trust I’ve conveyed my enthusiasm to younger women artists and curators, who can continue engaging with her legacy. History relies on such efforts, and that’s what keeps me busy.

Vivian Lynn was born 30 November 1931 and died on 1 December 2018.

—Christina Barton

Christina Barton is Director of the Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University of Wellington.