PRIMARY CONNECTIONS - Exhibition at CoCA (Centre of Contemporary Art) Christchurch, January 2005
Essay by Warren Feeney
Tapestries by Marilyn Rea-Menzies in collaborations with Michael Armstrong, Graham Bennett, Rudolf Boelee, William Cumming, Don Driver, Paul Johns, Julia Morison, Michael Reed and Philip Trusttum.
In the world of high culture artist very rarely agree to share the same canvas in the realisation of a work of art. This was particularly true of art in the twentieth century when European modernism continued to place emphasis on a nineteenth century romanticism that spoke of the ‘uniqueness’ of the artist’s vision with paramount expression given to innovation and novelty. It was not until the late 1970’s and the agenda of the feminist movement that collaborative ventures between artists were accepted as a valid, and in fact, highly political way of working in contemporary art. In The Dinner Party in 1979, Judy Chicago invited friends and colleagues to contribute inscribed and decorative tiles to a collaborative work that revolutionized contemporary practice and witnessed the realisation of a post-modernist ideology.
However, in the twenty-first century such works now seem more important for their politics than their art. Artists, who have followed Chicago’s example in the developing collaborative works, have frequently tended to make images that continue to beg two questions: who does this work really belong to and who is it actually by?
Moreover, when Jean Michael Basquait and Andy Warhol executed a body of collaborative paintings in the mid 1980’s cynics maintained that the union was a perfect coming together of publicity and hype. Warhol’s art became visible to a younger generation of the art world unfamiliar with his screen prints and Basquait was introduced to a number of Warhol’s wealthy clients. (Basquait did however, manage to bring a level of humanity to Warhol’s detached and ironic vision).
In New Zealand in the 1990’s, the best-known collaborative art works have been those completed by Gordon Walters and then recent graduate from the University of Canterbury, Chris Heaphy. Even though Heaphy seemed to address and speak to the 1940’s modernism of Walter’s art, there remained a sense of viewing two works of art within a single picture plane. Similarly, collaborative drawings and paintings by Peter Robinson and Tony de Latour have shared commonalities in their content and execution, but ultimately the signature of each painter stands and looks toward the other.
Consequently, the exhibition Primary Connections featuring tapestries by Marilyn Rea-Menzies based upon working drawings by Michael Armstrong, Graham Bennett, Rudolf Boelee, William Cumming, Don Driver, Paul Johns, Julia Morison, Michael Reed and Philip Trusttum is a unique and compelling body of work. In each instance, master weaver Rea-Menzies has genuinely and sympathetically responded to the artist’s imagery and ideas, realizing a work that is the outcome of a reciprocal relationship. For example, when Philip Trusttum sub mitted his working drawing for consideration to be developed into the Millennium tapestry by Rea-Menzies his sketch consisted of a coloured line drawing on paper. When Rea-Menzies came to complete the tapestry she chose to celebrate the quality for which Trusttum’s art is renowned, his use of colour. Instead of working from the neutral white background of the drawing paper, she chose a dark green tapestry backdrop to heighten and animate Trusttum’s design.
In addition, the development of tapestries based on drawings from Graham Bennett, A Matter of Degrees, and Michael Reed, Living in the South Pacific, saw the artists contribute, not just a working idea, but also adding materials to the realisation of the work, with Bennett constructing a sculptural frame for Rea-Menzies’ tapestry and reed painting on the completed woven surface.
The mutuality of faith and confidence required from both parties in each work has been critical to their success. Rea-Menzies commented that: “The artists I work with put a lot of faith and trust into my ability to interpret their design concepts in an honest and forthright way. I have to be true to their vision of the work whilst including something of my own in the interpretation’ Primary Connections succeeds perfectly in such intentions.