Out Damned Spot, oil on canvas
Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder , Year1562 , Type: Oil on panel, Dimensions: 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 64 in)
My painting was inspired by this masterpiece: The Fall of the Rebel Angels, painted in 1562 by the Netherlandish Renaissance artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The original work depicts Lucifer along with the other fallen angels that have been banished from heaven. As the angels fall they fight with ungodly hybrid creatures that Bruegel created. I was taken by this artwork when thinking about the historical introduction of outsider species into New Zealand.
Out Damned Spot
This painting is from my Battlelines series. The series began with a concern for the fate of our native species which are being decimated by predator species introduced by our forefathers; the rabbit, possum, hedgehog, rat and many other flora and fauna. It depicts a melee of consumer items, animals and everyday products all intertwined in a battle for limited space and resources.
The forefathers that arrived in New Zealand from overseas, whether for nostalgic yearning and/or commercial venture, created acclimatisation practises of animals and plants that decimated the local inhabitants and habitations. These choices, that were once considered modern progress for a burgeoning new country, have now become polarising issues needing urgent attention to try and save the dwindling populations and habitats of the native species and environments.
The composition is circular although the painting is stretched onto a square frame, it can be hung from any side as there is no 'up' or 'down' in the work. The content is a spot or blemish, contrasted against the crisp whiteness of the background. The entwined flora and fauna depicted revolve around the central figure of the recently acclimatised White Faced Heron. All share a kindred history of human intervention through land development, consumerism and/or importation.
In connection with Bruegel's artwork, the living creatures are often categorized in a dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Words like native, indigenous, endemic, foreign, coloniser, pest or introduced are used to determine their qualitative human value, but all; introduced or native, are simply living authentically to their nature.
The title: Out Damned Spot is drawn from the guilty words uttered by Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth trying to remove guilty blood from her hands. As a New Zealand European, I am also a hybrid, my heritage confounded by the people before me. Their reasons for being in this geographical location decided long before, yet today all animals introduced and native must via for the same limited space alongside man’s ongoing ambitions; playgrounds, factories, leisure activities, roading, housing and all of the other scattered debris of modern living ~ and all are intertwined in a melee of contorted limbs and angles, relying upon the other for survival.
The latest work which carries on the Battlelines series. This idea has spent years in the concept stage. The content represents an imagined meeting between predator animals arriving in New Zealand and the indigenous natives watching them approach. It's about curiosity, foreboding and a moment before everything changes. This is also a metaphor for western colonialism and the havoc this has caused those lands newly 'discovered'.
The painting commemorates General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River with the Continental Army on the night of December 25–26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War.
The idea was to create a similar concept to the Landing Party - another rendition of an imagined encounter between opposing forces but this one in a painting language designed to invoke a sense of grandeur in the portraits of the subjects. I wanted the same pretension of authority and righteous ownership that the painting by Emanuel Leutze inspires. Yet in this case, the participants are the invading animals and the geographic location is a shore of New Zealand. I was also interested in recreating the same hierarchical order between the prominent (and highly destructive to NZ foliage) possum and the lowly mouse - rowing the boat.
the Landing Party, 84 x 59 cm, mixed media on paper, 2016, sold
For a group exhibition titled: Works on Paper which was held at NorthArt in 2016, 20 artists were given 2 large (A1, 840 x 590mm) sheets of watercolour paper to create a work in whichever fashion they so desired. My first design for this show was the Landing Party (above), a sketch of a meeting between invasive predator mammals dressed as members of Star Trek and native wildlife come to investigate their demise. As a companion piece to this work I looked to a powerful painting by Emanuel Leutze titled Washington Crossing the Delaware. A great work of hierarchy and the display of power.
I refashioned the concept of the painting, substituting Washington and the Continental Army for anthropomorphic predator animals, the rat, possum, a rabbit carrying a sprig of gorse, a hedgehog and mouse with the Endeavor anchored in the background.
Are we the Baddies?
The same year the format was expanded for another show called Works on Paper. It included A1 sized sheets of watercolour paper (840 x 590mm) which allowed for a greater scale of work than the limited size of an A6 postcard. 30 artists were each given 2 sheets of A1 Hahnemule watercolour paper to create their works upon. I had the idea of creating a Star Trek landing party bravely beaming down onto a strange new world. The initial sketches depicted native New Zealand birds dressed as the crew of the starship Enterprise (pictured) and I played with various scenario’s of the concept… but nothing would consolidate into a composition I was happy with and I couldn't comprehend why.
Then I realized - I had it backwards! The endeavors of the Starship Enterprise, boldly going where no-one has gone before could be interpreted, in the concept that I had devised, as a metaphor for the colonisation of the world by the European empires and the initiation of connections with species that decimated the local inhabitants and habitations. Once the roles of the away team were exchanged for introduced predators and the inhabitants of the undiscovered world became New Zealand’s native birdlife - it all fell into place.
The crew of the Starship beaming down to a strange new world became the possum, rat and stoat. These 3 have each done irreparable damage to the biodiversity of our islands and the initial meeting between the away team and the curious natives come to investigate is captured in The Landing Party (below).
I dressed the crew in the same red shirt of the security detail uniform in a forewarning of their future fate (a hopeful prediction of the battle we have yet to win)
Our existence relies completely upon the biodiversity of our earth, we live directly from it - it nourishes us with the food that we eat, the air that we breathe and the water we drink. We are of the earth, a part of the biodiversity of all living things; inextricably interconnected. I believe that we are moving to a societal perspective that realises the importance of our biodiversity for our own subsistence, as much as for the lives of the animals we face with extinction - we are the problem which also means that we are the solution and I think we can find the answers.
*Richard Holdaway, 'Extinctions - New Zealand extinctions since human arrival', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/extinctions/page-4 (accessed 23 November 2021)
The Battle Begins
There is a quiet struggle going on in the creeks behind the factories, in the long grass of new suburbs, within the dissection of land for commercial and residential use, it is a battle for survival over increasingly limited resources. A displacement of our native wildlife for agriculture and suburban sprawl and as the world becomes smaller, the need for a home for each of us (animal as well as human) is becoming more intensified. Left unchecked and with enough resources, populations grow to fill a space and if they continue to expand, those resources become depleted, scarce and the lives of the inhabitants come under threat.
In 2016 NorthArt Gallery held it’s annual Pocket Edition - Small Works for large Walls exhibition. They invited 28 artists to variously paint or draw up to 10 artworks each, in oil, acrylic, pastel, pencil, gouache, watercolour or ink, all on the same A6 postcard-sized Hahnemühle paper (105 x 148 mm). The content was completely open to encourage a diverse exhibition within this small structured format.
I had just joined a local community of dedicated people trying to reduce the damage that introduced animals had made on the native fauna and flora, every few weeks going out to our designated track, checking the traps for possum and stoats and rebaiting the stations. I wanted to draw attention to the plight of the native wildlife and the battle they were having for their survival - the first works in this series were imagined armies of anthropomorphic rabbits, rats and possums, as well as native birds - all combatants in a war instigated by our ancestors. I named it the Battlelines series and as the shows continued, the military concept was expanded upon to incorporate cultural aspects of colonialism and the exploration and exploitation of ‘new’ territories utilising different genre; television, movies, portraiture and historical paintings.