Wanker, Allen Maddox, 1979

New Zealand Art at Te Papa (Wellington: Te Papa Press).


Does this artwork deserve to be called a ‘wanker’? Well, it is nothing if not colourful. Four rows of crosses shake and shudder within their lattice boxes. The oil paint has a slapdash appeal, each stroke thick and lustrous as though it has been applied in a rush. The composition is as loose and spontaneous as a game of noughts and crosses. It’s easy to imagine the slicks of paint are still wet even though it was completed in 1979.

Perhaps the profane title is a nod to the finale of a tumultuous decade in world politics and the death of the hippie dream? Or is it personal? Is the viewer who stares at this canvas searching for meaning a wanker? Maybe Maddox is making a stab at the pretentiousness of the art world, notorious for being up itself. It’s tempting to interpret these crosses as a negation. A cross is the annotation given to a wrong answer.

But Wanker also epitomises the joys of expressionism. Every swish of Maddox’s brush is alive with the pleasure of paint. And the title could easily be self-deprecating. Maddox’s career is an example of the dislocation of New Zealand art. He worked in Napier, three decades after the original abstract expressionists, like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, had come to prominence in the post-war New York of the 1940s and 1950s. So what? X marks the spot, Maddox seems to insist, again and again.

Originally a Liverpudlian, Maddox became notorious in the national art scene for his hot temper and Scouse humour. In the 1970s and 1980s, Maddox, Tony Fomison and Philip Clairmont were a trio who formed a loose alliance which they semi-humorously called the Militant Artists Union, characterised by their uncompromising approach to life and painting.(1) Maddox’s own work was inflamed by alcoholism, drug-taking and attendant bouts of psychosis. His gestural crosses are also ‘performances’, reflecting how he lived for the moment. Art critic Ian Wedde said the crosses could be read ‘…as the crazed acting out of an idiot savant; or as calculated pastiches of self-expression.’ (2)

Maddox’s first cross canvas began as an accident. In 1976 he cancelled out a failed painting and discovered his signature ‘crosses in boxes.’ The compositions that he wrought from this simple structural framework are endless: random and in sync, nihilistic and joyful, repetitive and variable. Even the ‘X’ on the end of Maddox’s surname is satisfying; as though it was purpose-built for him to paint.

  1. Tegan Dunn, ‘Allen Maddox 1948–2000’, Paige Blackie Gallery, Wellington, www.pageblackiegallery.co.nz, accessed 22 March 2015.
  2. Ian Wedde, ‘Hung, Drawn and Quartered’, in Allen Maddox, exhibition catalogue, Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland, 2006, p. 11.
  3. Richard McWhannell, ‘Allen Maddox: Painter’, in ibid, p. 33.