Jessica Scott, ‘Strive towards Your Destiny’, 2008 (catalogue essay)
Strive towards Your Destiny, a title taken from featured artist Douglas Stichbury’s work Strive, samples a selection of new painting by three Wellington artists. These three artists play with painting’s long and illustrious history, drawing their influences from a diverse range of sources; from portraiture, motivational slogans, geometric abstraction, and the principles of academic history painting. They each have an interest in skewing the traditional approach towards long-established painting styles and conventions.
Irene Ferguson’s portraits are dark and unsettling. She paints characters who appear to be disfigured or contorted, which make them reminiscent of American painter John Currin’s works of the late 1990s. While Currin altered the subjects of his paintings in order to critique and satirise wider society as well as his specific subjects, the ambiguous gender and freakish proportions of Ferguson’s subjects seem capable of eliciting both empathy and revulsion. In The Fly Catcher, the subject’s face is obscured by shadows from backlighting, creating rich and dramatic tonalities, which give the eerie appearance of it having been painted by candle light. The abnormally large ears and dramatically sloped shoulders of the figure give it a disquieting feeling. In The Sister, the figure’s distortions are more pronounced, as if their face has been stretched in different directions. The title adds to the work’s sense of unease and confuses the viewer’s initial impression of the subject’s gender.
Arie Hellendoorn’s paintings are wide ranging in the influences they draw from. Although they are eclectic in their final form—geometric abstracts, portraits, still-lifes, or surrealist objects—each work seems to begin its life as a portrait. In many of his abstract works, which seem to focus on crystalline forms and floating hexagonal shapes, one can make out faces or human shapes. In the two small portrait works shown here, Frenchie and Nom de Plume, Hellendoorn has based these paintings on old photographs of distant family members. Elsewhere, he uses imagery from historical paintings as the basis of his compositions. Another method Hellendoorn uses is to take bought or found paintings and layer up paint on top of them changing the work until it is unrecognisable from the original, such as in Osama. The flattened planes of colour and thick paint application give the works an almost naïve appearance.
In Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman, we can see the beginnings of this process of moving towards abstraction. All that remains of these portraits are the dark shapes of the sitter’s jackets, the different forms of which denote the gender of the subject. The blue cloudy sky in the background seems to make reference to the surrealist works of Rene Magritte, his famous 1964 work The Son of Man in particular.
Douglas Stitchbury, too, references the history of painting in his practice. In his diptych of paintings, Destiny and Anywhere, we see details of historical works. Although rendered in sketchy, monochromatic oil paint, they are immediately recognisable through these images’ proliferation and repeated references made to these works in popular culture. In the case of Destiny, a detail is appropriated from Raft of the Medusa, and in Anywhere the reference is made to the work Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Both these early nineteenth-century French historical works are best remembered for their heroic and idealised depictions of recent events. They both combine elements of romanticism, which broke with the reigning neo-classical style of the times. These are representations that, today, we view with a certain amount of cynicism.
The text Stitchbury incorporates into the works at first appears to have an ambiguous relationship with the images. Its sentiment is aspirational, like a corporate slogan or motto a college or university may employ to inspire its students and engender them with a sense of history and purpose. However, removed from such contexts, the words seem overblown and clichéd, and their motivations insincere. This hollow emotional drama links text and image together. As with Hellendoorn’s paintings, we are drawn into the works by a process of filling the gaps with our existing knowledge and are asked to critique these subjects in their new contexts.
With all three artists’ work, the viewer has a sense that the artist is playing a game. By drawing on pop culture and art historical references to complete the work, we are let into their game with the history of painting. Although eclectic in subject matter, the works in Strive towards Your Destiny possess a dry and witty reinvigoration of contemporary-painting practice.