CURATOR Ian Wedde SPONSORS Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, GP Print, Alan and Jenny Gibbs, Communication Arts
Tony Fomison dies in 1990, aged fifty, at Waitangi, during the Waitangi Day ceremony. Four years later, City Gallery opens the retrospective of his work, Fomison: What Shall We Tell Them? Meticulously researched for three years by guest curator and his friend, Ian Wedde, the show provides a thorough outline of Fomison’s artistic development. It is dedicated to the Fomison family.
Wedde suggests that the exhibition ‘positions the artist within contemporary New Zealand art but also presents an in-depth perspective on the personal and universal issues addressed in his work’. He also writes that the questions asked in his paintings ‘demand not answers but attitudes’.
The show includes over 100 works from public and private collections throughout the country. In addition to paintings, it includes lithographs, tracings of ancient Māori rock drawings, and curios from Fomison’s personal collection. There are also portraits of Fomison by other New Zealand painters, including Philip Clairmont, Mary McIntyre, and Richard McWhannell. A documentary video provides insight into Fomison’s methods and vision, while vitrines display workbooks, photographs, and other supplementary materials.
Fomison led a challenging personal life, which often could be seen in his paintings. As Wedde says, ‘Fomison persisted with thinking and with making art out of his thoughts.’ Following a trip to Europe in the mid 1960s, and a short stint in institutions, Fomison began to paint people on the edges of society, such as prisoners and the disfigured. He would repeatedly return to the theme of the ‘outsider’. Fomison’s work was also often ‘socially committed’, protest the state of the world.
In 1967, Fomison returns to New Zealand and becomes interested in Māori and Pacific Island culture and community. Jim Barr, Director of Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Museum, writes that the exhibition should appeal to ‘any New Zealanders looking to discover more about their cultural history.’
By the 1970s morbidity and the grotesque begin to surface in his work, Wedde says this could have been because of the artist’s fascination with fin de siècle decadence and his own involvement with the drug culture.
Towards the end of his short life, Fomison became more spontaneous in his painting style. His last works were lithographs which drew on early rock drawings and fused both ends of his career together.
Barr says Fomison specialised in making a myth of himself. In the Dominion Post, Louise Garrett writes that ‘when Fomison created his myths, he created them with an audience in mind so we share the same psychological space as the artist himself inhabited. Disturbingly so.’
Fomison’s practice is hard to fit into the New Zealand art canon. Barr writes, ‘while everybody else was getting into pop art, he steadfastly ignored it and became obsessed by Italian primitives’.
Fomison made no preliminary drawings, and preferred to let the painting reveal itself as it changed with each layer of paint applied. Many of his works were painted on coarse hessian. He would record changes made to his painting in log books he kept from 1969 to 1979 or on their backs. This fastidiousness has been attributed to his early archaeological training.
The show is accompanied by a substantial book with essays by scholars, over 200 illustrations, and a chronology of Fomison’s life. The public programme includes lectures by artists, friends, curators, scholars, and collectors from around the country.
Gregory O’Brien writes that the exhibition shouldn’t be seen to show everything, but rather to ‘use his art as a springboard to discuss broader issues of culture and the construction of individual identity’. Not all critics herald the show. Art critic and former Dowse Art Museum Director, James Mack says the paintings strike him as ‘time warped’, but puts that down to being what retrospectives are about.