Masters of art in a galaxy not so far away

Hamish Coney searches through art's -isms and finds three Jedi of the New Zealand order

The contemporary art scene has exploded in recent years with relentless new media and new distribution channels, the art fair phenomenon showing no signs of letting up, and cyber terms like accelerationism creeping into the dialogue.

Like the Star Wars franchise on a loop, it is getting hard to tell what came first, who did what when or whether the sequel really came before the prequel. Some art followers are hitting the hyperspace button and punching back into the clear air of the modernist galaxy.

I first got an inkling of this in 2013 at the Venice Biennale. That year Bill Culbert represented New Zealand with a stunning installation at the Istituto Santa Maria della Pieta, around the corner from Piazza San Marco. At the same time British sculptor Anthony Caro’s exhibition at the Museo Correr got me thinking… the old new that used to feel really old (in the context of contemporary art) was starting to feel new again, or something like that.

It was a bit like that moment in the original Star Wars film when R2-D2 broadcasts Princess Leia’s plea for help to Obi Wan Kenobi. Suddenly, the present is asking the past to save the future. In the digital age of hacking, fracking, ransomware, and wedding-crashing drones, the analogue allure of modernism is reasserting itself as a form of conceptual grappling hook to confront the sheer payload of contemporary art.

Pinning down just what modernism was or indeed still is can be a bit tricky. It began life in the late 19th century or early 20th century with cubism and then gathered pace with abstraction, constructivism, futurism, De Stijl, Dada and one or two other isms. Early peak modernism was in the 1930s at the Bauhaus. Architecturally speaking Le Corbusier is primetime modernism. Was abstract expressionism modernism? Minimalism certainly was but Pop definitely wasn’t. By the late 1960s modernism was beginning to fray around the edges with the rise of movements such as Arte Povera and conceptual art in the hands of the German shaman Joseph Beuys (key work How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965). Then everyone seemed to agree that modernism was over in the mid 1970s, felled by Post- Modernism and the generation of artists that followed Andy Warhol.

I’m on reasonably solid ground in suggesting most agree contemporary art began on or around 1988 with the now legendary London exhibition ‘Freeze’ curated by Damian Hirst (of shark, diamond encrusted skull and flyblown horse head fame). Next stop the YBAs and the rest is now history. And that is why some cracks are now showing in contemporary art: after nearly 30 years, the shock of the new is starting to reek of tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. The punters, the critics, and indeed the artists themselves are all getting a bit restless, stuck in the groove of ‘acute diversitarianism’ of the endless now.

But what drove modernism in the past and what makes it so alluring as a concept today is that the bedrock of modernism was the idea of the future as a fundamental good and that art’s best self was about to be found there. Modernism at its core is a striving for an ideal. Today such ideas can be, and are, routinely dismissed as charming, addled utopianism at best. The dark side appears to hold sway.

These thoughts have really been crystallised in the last few weeks in a New Zealand context by three superb exhibitions that have that the fingerprints of modernism over every inch of their pristine, elegant surfaces. Exhibits A and B in my ‘Modernism Fights Back’ hypothesis are two small but perfectly formed presentations at the Christchurch Art Gallery -  Carl Sydow: Tomorrow Never Knows (until July 23) and Don Peebles: Relief Constructions (until September 3).

In Auckland at Michael Lett is the recently opened exhibition Ian Scott: Sprayed Stripes and New Lattices (until June 17) which reads as a glorious last modernist hurrah.

Carl Sydow (1940 – 1975) is a little known figure in New Zealand art circles, spending many years overseas and by dint of dying tragically young at the age of 35 his output was limited. That he was a favourite of legendary Wellington dealer Peter McLeavey should be recommendation enough to make a point of visiting this exhibition. While pop art sits outside the modernist discourse, one of the first chinks in its armour so to speak, op art with its delight in optical phenomenology has modernist blood coursing through its veins.

The prescience in Carl Sydow's art gives him relevance now and in the future. Photo: Christchuch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

To my eye Sydow does two things very well. His sculptures sit at the intersection of industrial and electronic circuitry design. His surgically-precise 'drawings' ‘see’ the future.

Don Peebles (1922 – 2010) on the other hand is an artist of some reputation, sufficient that his obituary in the Guardian described him as ‘a pioneer of abstraction in the Antipodes’. He was an artist whose practice was transformed by the then-obligatory OE in London in the 1960s. The hand of British modernist Victor Passmore is writ large in Peebles' work but the influence is by no means overbearing. It could be argued that Peebles' supple constructions surpass Passmore at his own game. His pristine, angular assemblages are powered by a virile spatial confidence that only a grand modernist master can muster. Time is doing wonderful things to works such as Relief Construction No. 3 from 1972.

Vibrant, large-scale inverted canvases add another page to the book on the artist Ian Scott. Photo: Michael Lett Gallery

Ian Scott (1945 – 2013) is an artist whose career spans both pop art and the last gasps of modernism. He is well known for both his ‘girlie’ paintings from the swinging sixties and his unique 1970s series of lattice works, wittily introducing colourful ‘weaving’ into hard edged abstract formalism. The current exhibition at Michael Lett is a complete revelation, including unseen works from the artist’s estate - vibrant, large-scale inverted canvases that add another page to the book on the artist. These works from the final years of the artist’s life posit as a last glorious, glowing ember of modernism. Purity of thought, purpose and execution meets Scott’s playful shifts of palette to realise some of the most celebratory and cerebral canvases I have seen for some time. Scott was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 and it is telling that in his final years he turned to a modernist framework for a final burst of production: it is a body of work that feels profoundly life-affirming.

The X factor in the work of all these artists is our place Aotearoa New Zealand. When looking at our modernist abstraction it is important to acknowledge the most complex and culturally rich seam of source material sits within the visual lexicon established by tangata whenua. For many Pākehā such as myself, our formative education led us into the world and away from our stupendous local Māori art traditions. It takes some doing to get back to the beginning and join the dots to the works illustrated here. But in the tāniko borders, the intricate woven whāriki, kowhaiwhai patterns, the structures of tukutuku panels – in the spiral of the Koru is located the unique DNA that underpins so much of New Zealand’s visual arts genius and specifically Kiwi modernist abstraction.

It is there in Sydow’s microscopic mesh, Peebles’ constructions and, perhaps most clearly, in Scott’s lattices. These are the foundation stones, ‘the Force’ if you like, of New Zealand modernism as much as the international ‘-isms’ that we look to as comparative models. These vital exhibitions by three diverse ‘Jedi’ demonstrate that the galaxy of ideas that most deeply informs their work is not one far, far away but our own fertile ground.