NZ Books, Issue 110, Winter 2015
Myself, Looking Back is Grahame Sydney’s extensive memoir of his childhood and formative artistic years up until his sell-out solo exhibition in 1975. Early on in this detailed and reflective piece, Sydney’s boyhood self asks: “Weren’t all lives like ours?” This question is rhetorical and it hits the right elegiac note, but ultimately the answer is no.
Central Otago has been described by Gregory O’Brien as Grahame Sydney’s “ground zero”. This new beautifully produced box-set from Craig Potton publishing includes two substantial texts that articulate Sydney’s direction and influences as a major New Zealand “regionalist”; the first by Sydney, the second by author and friend, Vincent O’Sullivan. But the bulk of the book lets his paintings speak for themselves in immaculate, full-colour page reproductions. Examining the stark, haunting paintings of Otago that define Sydney’s oeuvre, I couldn’t shake the memory of the desolate Texan plains that form the silent backdrop to the Coen Brothers film No Country for Old Men. This ‒ admittedly idiosyncratic ‒ reading was sharpened by the cinematic format of the book, which matches the horizontal shape of the typical Sydney canvas, designed to showcase those stretched rural horizon lines.
There’s already a well-established narrative about Sydney’s place in New Zealand art and New Zealand’s place in the art of Sydney, the environmentally proactive “Southern Man”. Five books on his work and interest in the Otago area pre-date this latest publication, which is addressed to the same sympathetic ‒ market-proven ‒ “everyman”. As O’Sullivan put it: “we come to these hundreds of images that begin as his, but end as ours.”
O’Sullivan’s essay, “Getting it Right, Bringing it Back Home”, builds a case for how Sydney’s public approval has been used against him by the art establishment: “it is a difficult smear to shake off this reputation for being popular.” There’s a presumption that “fashion’s vigilantes, the dealers and commentators and tertiary instructors” are not the primary readers of or for this book. Sydney’s choice to work as a realist “goes against the grain” of contemporary art; he’s described as an “outsider” and a “loner”, misunderstood as a craftsman who merely offers “a good likeness”. Yet lurking behind the abandoned wooden façade in Railway Red (1975) and the corrugated Dog Trials Bar (1977) is the colonial narrative of another popular genre, the Western, where the stakes are high and death – like the shadow of a hawk across the downs – is real.
In No Country for Old Men Tommy Lee Jones plays a local Sheriff pitted against a series of violent drug crimes he struggles to understand. The unfathomable desert landscape acts as a metaphor for his character’s ability to endure and comprehend. And Javier Bardem is the psychopathic stranger, Anton Chigurh, prowling the dusty, derelict highways with a captive bolt pistol. Life turns on the toss of a coin, held in Chigurh’s hand. The Coen Brothers film is based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel; early in his career McCarthy was also pinned as a regionalist, albeit of Southern Appalachia rather than Central Otago.
“What business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo?” Chigurh asks the owner of a country petrol station in one of the film’s most squirm-inducing scenes. The humble “down-home” portrayal of this battered petrol station and its owner, reminded me of Sydney’s equally derelict country locales vividly rendered in egg-tempera. However Sydney’s landscapes are characterized by human absence, that’s the source of their aching disquiet. Traces of troubled inhabitation remain: broken windows, worn weatherboards, the sunburnt paint peeling back, a covered road sign, and a stripped-out Chevrolet, its doors open onto tussock grassland. Sydney’s unfriendly landscapes seem to ask similar questions: what business do you have to be here, friendo? Or, as O’Sullivan phrases it: “what does settlement mean in a place such as this?”
Denis Glover’s poem “The Magpies” about a farm gone to wrack and ruin offers a more patriotic point of comparison. The indifference of the magpies is captured in many of Sydney’s empty sheds and station buildings, including the rounded room of the Killing House (1983): “Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle,” the magpies say. For O’Sullivan, “the artist who writes or paints as a regionalist is implacably a defender of that world.” He describes Sydney’s approach to finding a style to match the place as “a moral choice”. However, the perspective of the magpies exists outside morality.
The dramatic arc of the Western – stereotypically populated by good old boys, misfits and outlaws – also examines moral choice. But the goodies and baddies have changed. Man once triumphed over the Wild West, but our relationship to the land is now fraught. At the ambiguous ending of No Country for Old Men, the weathered Tommy Lee Jones ‒ acting in character ‒ describes a dream of his dead father, once the sheriff before him, riding through a mountain pass: “and in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead, and he was fixing to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold.”
The flickering presence of our founding fathers is just as present in Sydney’s barren and beautiful paintings of expanses of unyielding farmland. Maybe it’s this dream of our fathers, those early gold miners, that keeps tourists riffling through the postcards for sale in the Oturehua store, in what’s now called “Sydney Country”. One of his most reproduced paintings is a bird’s eye view of the rolling and wrinkled Hawkdun Range, Timeless Land. Author, Kevin Ireland, in an earlier catalogue essay wrote: “Time is everywhere a subtle and secret theme in Sydney’s work.” Ireland identifies Sydney’s tropes not as testaments to timelessness, “but to time’s remorseless and devastating measurability.”
The elegiac tone of Sydney’s autobiography also speaks of time’s remorseless measurability. He captures a pre-television childhood; the Dunedin Street of his family home is filled with the open doors of Aunties and Uncles. Sydney charters his artistic voyage through after-school drawing classes taken by artist Harry Vye Miller and teaching “close observation”. His childhood story is illustrated by charming sketches of Pluto and Donald Duck, saved in a box by his Mother. Awareness of mortality is a persistent theme. The death of a local teenager from a shark attack causes the young Sydney to dismiss God: “Good luck or bad luck – it’s all chance.” Turning on the toss of a coin?
Despite his atheism, I get the feeling that for Sydney this new book is also about going on up ahead and “fixing to make a fire”. Cormac McCarthy’s title No Country for Old Men is taken from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem about aging and the soul’s passage into art. Sydney did not attend art school, yet artists thread throughout his life story ‒ from local recipients of “the fanny” (Sydney’s nickname for the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship) like Ralph Hotere and Michael Smither to his more obvious stylistic counterparts like Canadian Regionalist Christopher Pratt to the towering ancestral presence of Andrew Wyeth, whose use of egg tempera proved exemplary.
At the back of the new book is an exhibition history alongside notes on Sydney’s paintings and an uneven chronology. In 1970, his early egg tempera painting Peninsula Storm was rejected from The Young Contemporaries exhibition at Auckland City Art Gallery. Four years later, when Sydney returned to New Zealand from London, he decided to take up this old-fashioned medium again, realising that every artist needs a point of difference to attract publicity: “Although I knew I was swimming alone with tempera, far from any comforting shore, it felt right.” This sentence contains an unintentional echo of that earlier fatal shark attack; there’s a strong sense throughout the book that Sydney has always run the risk of not being current.
But his art world omission is overplayed. In 1974, art auctioneer, Peter Webb knocked on Sydney’s door in Dunedin and offered him a solo show. This opportunity hinged on Webb’s memory of Peninsula Storm. And the formal “abstract” properties of Sydney’s canvases are well argued for in O’Sullivan’s essay. Sydney alters his empty vistas and skies to create the “intellectually determined sense of volume in his compositions”. The book features reproductions of his major paintings, including the Antarctica images, “How little does a painting need?”. Sydney does not record strict reproductions of the landscape like a photograph. His “implied” abstraction is potent because it is rendered specifically as place. The viewer, looking in on each silent landscape, experiences that human sense of being part of ‒ and not part of ‒ the natural world. But in Sydney’s vision of New Zealand it’s the silences that hurt the most.
image: Grahame Sydney, Road West, Ida Valley, 1999.