City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Past exhibition

Peter Peryer: Second Nature

10 May–7 July 1996

CURATOR Gregory Burke, Peter Weiermair PARTNER Frankfurter Kunstverein OTHER VENUES Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, 30 March–14 May 1995; Ludwig Forum fur Internationale Kunst, Aachen, 31 May–6 August (or 10 September) 1995; Auckland City Art Gallery, 12 November 1995–18 February 1996; Waikato Museum of Art and History, Hamilton, 1 March–28 April 1996; Manawatu Art Gallery, Palmerston North, 6 September–3 November 1996; Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 17 February–30 March 1997; Dunedin Public Art Gallery, April–May 1997; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2 September–29 September 1997; Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui, October 1997–November 1997 PUBLICATION publisher Edition Stemmle and Frankfurter Kunstverein; editors Gregory Burke, Peter Weiermair; texts Gregory Burke, Helen Ennis, Peter Weiermair

Neenish tarts, a dead steer, a model pa, and New Zealand drawn on the ground and shot from above as if from a satellite. Second Nature surveys twenty years of Peter Peryer’s photography, from 1975 to 1994. It features sixty works, spanning landscapes, animal studies, still lifes, and portraits.

‘The quintessential photo-tourist’, Peryer is known for his idiosyncratic take on national iconography. In the catalogue, Weiemair describes his works as ‘like pictures in an illustrated lexicon of the country’.

Peryer seldom works in series. Each photograph is an individual, yet compositional and thematic echoes recur. Second Nature reveals the breadth of Peryer’s influences, from Edward Weston and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to botanical photography and scenic postcards. Local landmarks and stock tourist destinations—such as The Alexandra Clock and zoos—are favourite Peryer sites.

Peryer trained and worked as a schoolteacher, and became involved in photography through his school’s camera club. In 1974, aged 32, he attended one of John B. Turner’s Photoforum workshops at Elam School of Fine Arts and was hooked. Despite his late start, Peryer quickly established a reputation for his intense, theatrical portraits, many of which were shot on a cheap toy Diana camera. In 1975, he was included in The Active Eye, the first survey of contemporary New Zealand photography, and, in 1977, had his first solo show at Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Museum. It was the first solo show of a contemporary photographer at a New Zealand public art gallery.

Second Nature featured iconic early works, such as The Divided House (1975), Erika, Winter (1979), and Self Portrait with Rooster (1977). The Self Portrait was staged. Peryer borrowed the rooster and bought the secondhand suit for the occasion. The portrait has been interpreted as a study in male anxiety, as feminism was ascendant. Or perhaps it refers to his lapsed Catholicism—St Peter denying Christ three times before the cock crowed.

Critics likened such expressive early works to passion plays and psychodramas. Peryer himself said they were like film stills, but later dismissed them as ‘the moody blues’. By the early 1980s, he had moved away from expressionism and from portraiture in favour of a cooler formalism. Neenish Tarts (1983), Jam Rolls (1983), and Jam Doughnuts (1983) are presented in a row; these sweet treats lined up for display in irregular grids. Peryer said, ‘If there is a political message in my work its that I have great respect for non-humans.’

In the Listener, photography critic Peter Turner wrote, Peryer ‘transforms the world into a series of contemplative still lifes that take their cue from the canons of modernism and show an endless fascination with the ambiguities of space and time.’ Peryer often plays with scale. For The Meccano Bus (1994), he paid someone to fabricate the model remembered from his childhood. The model bus is shot on a real rocky incline as though it might be lifesize. Peryer describes his oeuvre as autobiographical, yet also says his photographs are visual puzzles that play on the tension between the natural and the artificial, the real and the replica.

Second Nature accompanies the New Zealand group show Cultural Safety to Germany, opening in Frankfurt, touring to Aachen, then going on to venues in Australia and New Zealand. The twin shows are billed as the most significant New Zealand art project yet seen in Europe. Sponsors include Creative New Zealand, the Tourism Board, and Air New Zealand. Air New Zealand's manager in Germany says, ‘We do not just want the sheep and landscape image of New Zealand. We want to emphasise the quality, the intellectual and cultural side of New Zealand.’

That is the plan. However, when Dead Steer is used for the exhibition poster, it provokes concern. Meat Board Chairman Warwick Bishop tells the media, ‘up until now New Zealand has remained aloof from European fears concerning red meat, such as mad cow disease’. Peryer’s image is seen as a threat to New Zealand’s ‘clean, green image’. Agriculture Minister John Falloon writes a complaint letter to the Cultural Affairs Minister Dough Graham, gaining enough cabinet support to ensure New Zealand’s overseas diplomats do not officially open the show in Aachen. Of the furore, Peryer jokes, ‘They had a 747 waiting to fly the exhibition back home.’

Second Nature is accompanied by the documentary Peter Peryer: Portrait of a Photographer, directed by Gregory Stitt and filmed by Leon Narbey for the TVNZ series Work of Art. It opens with Peryer attempting to photograph a bull in a paddock. In 1997, Peryer will receive an ONZM for his services to photography, and, in 2000, an Arts Foundation Laureate Award.