CURATOR Francis Pound ORGANISER Auckland Art Gallery OTHER VENUES Auckland Art Gallery, 9 September–5 December 1999 PUBLICATION essay Francis Pound
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Auckland painter Richard Killeen is a pivotal figure in New Zealand art—the poster boy for postmodernism. His trademark is the 'cut-out'—a collection of painted abstract and/or figurative image fragments, hung in a cluster, in any order. By inventing this novel painting format, Killeen escaped the relational logic of traditional picture making—referred to, ominously, in discussions of his work, as 'the frame'. Curator Francis Pound compares the cut-out to 'a dizzying array of nouns, with not a single conjunction or verb to connect them into the coherence of a narrative'. Instead, the viewer can't help but supply their own associations, their own stories, to make sense of the collection. The first cut-outs used simple silhouette images—the first, Across the Pacific (1978), had eight pieces in the shapes of tools—however the images became more elaborate and their treatments diverse.
Stories We Tell Ourselves takes its name from a 1987, 129-piece cut-out that combines styles of representation and subjects from across history, from a Hopi Indian Goddess to a workboot.
While the show focuses on the cut-outs, it includes earlier realist and abstract paintings, understanding them, in retrospect, as steps towards the cut-outs. A selection of realist paintings—made as a student at Elam School of Fine Arts in the late 1960s—address picture making, with frames within frames and pictures within pictures. In Tiger (1968), a tiger is 'framed' by the bars of its cage; in Braque Man (1969), a man in a sweater poses next to his modernist painting.
Killeen's realist works become increasingly flat, stylised, and complex, like the choreographed crowd scene Street Corner (1969), whose graphic look shows the influence of Killeen's father—a sign-writer. In the wake of the cut-outs, we can understand these scenes as allegories of framing, with subjects both locked into oppressive compositions and turning into free-floating shapes. Killeen has it both ways: his subjects are alienated in being framed and alienated in having no frame.
In the 1970s, Killeen works with stencils to produce his abstract Combs (1973–4). Stencils will inform his early silhouette-based cut-outs. He also steps away from the organising principle of the picture 'frame' by combining geometric abstraction and figurative images in works like Pea Beau (1976), which locates two bugs and a butterfly in the margin of a tightly checkered grid.
Looking like encyclopaedia plates and taxonomic museum displays, the cut-outs play on the way the world is both ordered for us and something we must map and frame for ourselves. This idea is explicit in Book of the Hook (1996)—a cut-out consisting of images of 253 purported artefacts from a fictitious Hook Museum. It implies these diverse fragments are historically and culturally linked, but the nature of their linkage remains unclear. An accompanying artist's book, Objects and Images from the Cult of the Hook, by the fictitious 'C.M. Beadnell', reinforces the idea that the objects are implicated in a 'cult', but clarifies little. A credulous viewer tries to contact Mr Beadnell at the Hook Museum, to no avail.
In the Evening Post, critic Mark Amery calls the retrospective 'a glorious sweep across Killeen's thirty-odd year career of adventurous image-making ... Killeen's drawings always have the catchiness of looking like they're the product of both an addicted doodler and a stylish designer, it's the depth of the ideas behind them that marks them out.'
In a nod to international blockbuster exhibitions, a range of accompanying merchandise emblazoned with Killeen imagery is for sale in the gallery shop, including sushi dinner plates and umbrellas.