Bewilderment: on Michael Illingworth

Off the Wall, Arts Te Papa, 2014


The weave of the burlap is coarse as corduroy. The sun is boiling brown, surrounded by a white ring. The circle is the shape that completes this composition: the two gourd-like heads of Adam and Eve, their unequal eyes. Eve has blue eyes. Her pupils are black round pricks. She looks thoughtful, perhaps even pained. Adam’s eyes are lime green. He has no pupils at all and consequently looks like a bit of an idiot.

The artist has paid exuberant attention to their genitalia. This painting is crude but also lavish with longing; even suspended disbelief. A vertical slit runs down Eve’s mound like a crack. Her vagina is an inverted hill.  A few hairs struggle away from the centre. The trunk of Adam’s penis is long. His balls are in the shade. We can’t see his knob. It has dropped from view.

When Te Papa purchased this iconic work from the auction of the Les and Milly Paris collection in 2012 it had already had a long shelf life. Painted in 1965 As Adam and Eve is Michael Illingworth’s defining creation. From its inaugural exhibition in Auckland at Barry Lett Galleries the painting quickly acquired its own mythology. An elderly couple deemed the work obscene. The police requested its removal from view. Barry Lett galleries refused. Illingworth was outraged. The case was taken to the district attorney who eventually dismissed it, but the public outcry had already cemented Illingworth’s dissatisfaction with the small-mindedness of middle class New Zealand. He’d recently returned from an apprenticeship working at Gallery One in London. Abroad, he’d searched for the new style and found it: a heady blend of primitivism and modernism that he perfected in a series of deeply idiosyncratic works throughout the sixties and seventies. I like to think the elderly couple ‘s offence was caused not just by the overripe genitalia, but by the odd rendering of the figures themselves. Adam and Eve appear as totemic puppets.

Is this a good painting? Goodness is problematic at the level of content and form. Illingworth’s technique is intentionally simplified; his brown and ochre colour palette distinctive, even belligerent. His figures are created out of basic shapes: triangles for bodies and noses. Circular heads. The shapes invite a temptation to simplify, to try and make things fit. This is a non-conformist work about conformity. The story of Adam and Eve is central to the Christian myth of creation. It’s a narrative about shame, about what happens when we are not good. Ten years after its debut As Adam and Eve was successfully banished from a group exhibition at the Pakuranga Arts Society in 1975.

“I contend that only lovers will face Adam and Eve,” Illingworth said. He was right. [1]

The art collectors, Les and Milly Paris, bought the work from Peter McLeavey Gallery later that same year and hung it on their bedroom wall.

“It’s humorous. I don’t know why people took such offence at it because, yes, he has exaggerated that area, but if you look into the eyes . . . it’s about the expression in their eyes. That’s what speaks to you,” Milly Paris said. [2]

When I look into the eyes of Adam and Eve I see bewilderment. Adam is startled. Eve disappointed. I don’t need to be told Illingworth wasn’t religious. The evidence is written on the body. Adam and Eve are brown as Kauri trunks; the rolling hills in the background echo their potbellies. They are not painted in contrast to the land, yet nor do they seem at peace in their nakedness. Their fey little arms branch toward the sky. The sun is a point of atomic unrest.

Illingworth’s work is redolent with the ideology of the sixties and seventies. His career has become trapped in its era: a mirror of the mores of the time. Illingworth emigrated from Britain to Tauranga with his family when he was twenty years old. He felt a strong affinity with Maori culture; in the fifties he lived in Matauri Bay, forming a lifelong connection to the area. His work incorporated Maori motifs: ‘most notably the three fingered hand used in representations of the human figure in carving.’[3] In many of his canvases the New Zealand landscape is thick with sexual symbolism: the bodies of men and woman sliced into the earth like molten lava. Land, Land, and Island now reads like a retro mash-up of the myth of Rangi and Papa. The sky above Pah Hill is lit by a psychedelic haze. Illingworth’s oils are frequently described as ‘jewel like’ because they glisten with the lacquered finish of ceramic glazes.

But it’s his portraits of the Piss Quicks that really stick. Mr Piss Quick is often suited. His triangular body adorned with a jacket and tie. Mrs Piss Quick occasionally has the luxury of a dress, but is just as likely to be stark naked as though the fundamental state of woman is in the nude. Illingworth embodies the heterosexual vision of man and wife. The Piss Quicks are his critique of the petty bourgeoisie. They come in pairs like novelty salt and peppershakers. But are they just piss takes? And what does it mean to take the piss quick? ‘The most literal explanation of the Piss-Quicks was told to Steve Rumsey by Illingworth himself, who said the figure represented a specific type of middle aged man he observed in London, who would move quickly through art exhibitions barely glancing at the art, before asking directions to the toilet.’[4]

Man and Woman Figures With Still Life and Flowers is lewd with innuendo: it’s also the kind of painting that can’t be easily brushed past on the way to the loo. Two flowers in the foreground of the still life arrangement jut across the man’s chest like yellow tasseled nipples. The bowl before the lady of the house brims with lemons. Her bust is shaped like a neck comforter, something worn inflight to aid relaxation. Illingworth clearly had great fun with these satirical paintings. They smart. But the Piss Quicks are empathetic too. Even endearing. The orange glossiness of their round heads denotes Illingworth’s high style and the mustard colour palette ties his work irretrievably to the past. If the Piss Quicks had zippers for mouths they’d look exactly like Zippy, the loud mouthed puppet from the nineteen seventies children’s TV programme Rainbow.

The theme tune is well known to a generation of children:


Up above the streets and houses,

Rainbow climbing high.

Everyone can see it climbing

Through the sky.


A rainbow arches drolly over a row of pastel houses. Each house is similar, a bland face, bewildered by itself. Illingworth’s vision of suburbia isn’t easy to decipher. Has the rainbow fallen flat? TV had only been broadcast for five years in New Zealand when Illingworth finished Painting with Rainbow 1 in 1965. Illingworth didn’t approve of television: he thought it was a second hand experience. Considering his life and art from 2013 it’s hard to imagine he would think that society has progressed: The Internet.  Facebook. Twitter. This year New Zealand legalised gay marriage. Would Mr and Mrs Piss Quick have been pleased?

“The little faces in my paintings with no mouths and with hands waving signify two things; the feeling of a lost quality – what am I doing here? Where do I belong? – and the feeling of a possibility, purity, an ideal that may become something but is certainly nothing at the moment.” [5]

I moot that the key word in this often-quoted speech is ‘little.’ Illingworth was considered an unusual addition within the exhibition Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art.  Staged in 1992, the show was a landmark exhibition that took an ambitious view of the evolution of art within the national consciousness. Illingworth was included in the show post humously. His practise was considered significant by the critics, but not central to the creation of a distinctly New Zealand art history. Illingworth was always the odd ball, the stranger in a strange land. Or maybe a land that was not strange enough.

In his catalogue essay Mod Cons Robert Leonard writes, “from the beginning of colonisation New Zealand was framed up as some kind of paradise, a natural wilderness where the last of England could have another crack at building the ideal society. ” Leonard describes his canvases as sub-divided, ‘separating nature, suburb, city, work and love.’ [6] Illingworth’s neo-primitives inhabit these paintings like plastic figurines moved around the squares of the board in The Game of Life. They wave to the viewer, are framed between trees, and drive cars through traffic lights: stand in’s for our own lives, dreams and aspirations.

Illingworth’s art has become emblematic of spiritual exile: the  struggle to fit into society. Headlands included Tawera: a carving of a lone figure staring out of a window. He greets the viewer from the recessed frame of a white windowsill. In the backdrop, a painting of an island is glimpsed over his shoulder.  Is Tawera happy? Does he want to come outside and play? Or is he trapped inside a world of his own imagination?

“In the paintings I am building a façade for my own world, against the establishment façade, the façade of hypocritical suburbia.” [7]

Illingworth’s career was often characterized by complaint. At worst he can come across as naïve, too much of an idealist. Boiled down to their essence his ideas about the ills of contemporary society can come across as black and white. Nature = good. The establishment = bad. It is hard to imagine a contemporary artist now describing their practice in terms of the ‘primeval self.’ [8] Yet, Illingworth was also ahead of his time. His 1967 exhibition at Barry Lett galleries was the first sell out dealer show in New Zealand. He believed in the economic rights of the artist. He fought for the independence to work full time as a painter when the national art market was still in its infancy. It’s still a tall order to be a full time artist. The odds are stacked against success. Illingworth became the inaugural Frances Hodgkins fellow in Dunedin, but left halfway through the fellowship, claiming he could not create art in the studio circumstances that were provided. His early battles with the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council are well documented. He poked fun at Hamish Keith, its then chair, and is known for his public gripes about living in poverty. His life and work charters the professional growth of the New Zealand art scene.

Illingworth’s paintings of the 1980’s put a different spin on the Piss Quicks. Their inflatable faces became pinker, ready to pop. These peculiar people stare at new fangled sculptures and hang out at art openings, occasionally equipped with glasses of wine. Illingworth’s frustration with the hierarchy of the national art world is at its most pointed. The Colin McCahon Expert is a one eyed bigot, dressed prissily in a jacket and tie like a school prefect. His mauve balloon rises above the two McCahon artworks in the background. This image is buoyant with sarcasm.

The balloon is a recurring trope. The balloon has a curious fragility, its function is decorative; the balloon is built for play. In Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Piss Quick, the gentleman holds a yellow balloon above his head like a bright happy thought. Landscape With Balloons is fringed with green balloons high above the hills in the sky, like clouds protecting the gods.

One by one the balloons burst. In 1971 Illingworth relocated his family from Puhoi, outside of Auckland to a remote area of the Coromandel. Life at Coroglen was meant to create more space for creativity.  Instead Illingworth’s focus was divided between painting and farming. He fell out with Barry Lett Galleries over the ownership of the property.  His artistic production slowed. In the eighties Maori artists claimed their own place at the centre of the canon and the work of an earlier generation of practioniers, including Illingworth, was critically reevaluated. The Rainbow Warrior was bombed in 1985. Illingworth put in an unsuccessful application to create a public memorial at Matauri Bay[9]. He died of cancer in 1988. Only fifty-six years old.

Illingworth’s work endures because it is bewildering. His best work resists too much knowledge. Each bubbled head asks a question. Look into their eyes: surprise.


[1] Illingworth, draft letter to New Zealand Listener (Pacific Biology Book, Illingworth Estate Archive)

[2] Stuff website, Artistic Vision Builds Something Special, Sophie Speer, 30.8.12

[3] A Tourist in Paradise Lost: The Art of Michael Illingworth, Aaron Lister and Damian Skinner , City Gallery Wellington, 2001, P22

[4] Steve Rumsey, interview with Damian Skinner, 12 January 2001

[5] Barry Lett, ‘Interview with Michael Illingworth, Barry Lett Galleries Newsletter, 19 August 1965.

[6] Mod Cons, Robert Leonard, Headlands catalogue, Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992, P 161 and 163.

[7] Barry Lett, ‘Interview with Michael Illingworth, Barry Lett Galleries Newsletter, 19 August 1965.

[8] Barry Lett, unpaginated, 1965.

[9] Illingworth’s proposal for a large scale sculpture incorporating the propeller of the boat, a plinth and a human figure bearing witness to the tragedy, is in the Estate Archive, Coroglen. This information is sourced from Aaron Lister’s thesis, Unpacking Illingworth, P114.