Friday, April 02, 2010

The more things change

It may be hard to believe now, but one of the great upsets in the New Zealand art world happened in the early 1990s when a Gordon Walters painting was hung next to a painting by Sandy Adsett in the exhibition Headlands at the MCA in Sydney. 

The cause of the fuss was whether or not Gordon Walters’ koru paintings had any connection with Maori representations. Walters had always said that he simply used shapes to create balances between positive and negative spaces (“the forms I use have no descriptive value in themselves and are solely to demonstrate relations”), in a way that has been a preoccupation of many modernist painters. Robert Leonard, the curator of  Headlands, had provocatively – although quite reasonably - hung Adsett and Walters in the same room under the grouping Inside out. The juxtaposition infuriated some of Walters’ supporters who found the visual connection insulting. The offence was exacerbated for them by art historian Rangihiroa Panaho who argued in his catalogue essay Maori: at the centre, on the margins that, however much Walters felt his Koru were just abstract shapes, they were in fact inseparable from their Maori context. Tempers flared, letters were written and, instead of being sensibly consigned to the wastepaper basket, were circulated widely - people didn’t talk to people and so on. 

Why are we telling you this? Because if you go up to the fifth floor of Te Papa today you can see Gordon Walters’ 1969 painting Makaro hanging alongside Sandy Adsett’s 1979 painting Matangi and if you look up you’ll notice that the roof hasn’t fallen in.

Image: Walters, Adsett, Nin and Hotere at Te Papa