New Revised Edition catalogue, City Gallery Wellington, 2013
Consider the lettuce (Lactuca sativa). It is good for you. Healthy. A lettuce is not calorific. Commonly associated with salads and slugs, the lettuce is a humble vegetable, first cultivated by the ancient Egyptians, who turned it from a weed used to produce oil into a plant grown for its leaves. Lettuces are divided into those that form hearts or heads, and those that are loose-leaf.
“Heirloom names are often enigmatic and beautiful. They can have a story in their title,” Nick Austin says.
Lettuce Poems is a painting of four manila folders on a brown background. Each folder features a hand written title that spirits the reader away from the bland world of administration into fancier, frillier realms.
“I hope the work allows for different, shifting, ways of imagining a relationship between lettuce and poems.”
Austin’s favourite artists include text in their work enigmatically. Ree Morton established her career in the 1960s as a “funny, brash, but still rigorous voice in a sea of Minimalist high seriousness.” Morton’s early drawings referenced different habits and characteristics of plants and featured inscriptions like ‘snake grass’, ‘forget-me-not’ and ‘swamp cabbage.’ Morton’s life was cut short; she died in a car accident, aged 40.
Find relief, in the tale behind a lettuce leaf.
In 1977, 90 year old Chloe Lowry named this family heirloom lettuce after her grandfather, George Admire, a Civil War veteran. Bronze-tinged leaves form large, loose heads. Mild flavor, slow to bolt, even in extreme heat.
Bronze-tinged leaves form large, loose heads. Mild flavor, slow to bolt, even in extreme heat.
The ideal reader matches Austin’s art whim to whim. His work is endearingly introverted, a snail half in, half out of its shell. His titles range from the oblique to the inanely literal. A crossword can be cryptic or aimed at the beginner. Similes and metaphors run along the horizontal and vertical axis like clues. This is art made out of ellipsis. ‘Ambition’ is incognito, trivia prioritised. Austin offers diversions, a chance to read for pleasure, the pleasing punctuation of a pun well placed. His visual conundrums are rendered simply, economically.
Mood is important. Austin’s frivolity errs on the side of melancholy. Each exhibition creates a contemplative climate. His works are occasionally aloof, but never less than cordial. Austin looks for a triangle of factors in artworks: the funny, the sad and the strange. “Consistency of tone is something that I am concerned about maintaining. I want my work to have just the right pitch. I am pitching for that triangle plus a z-factor (you can’t say x factor anymore) and if I get it there then I am happy.”
A snail inches along a leaf, dark green, slightly savoyed sweet, succulent flavor.
image: Nick Austin, Lettuce Poems, 2012. Acrylic on canvas.