South Light

(Catalogue text for Victoria Chambers, Dunedin International Artist Residency 2006)

It is a narrow four-storey building clamped between larger structures on the main drag into Dunedin from the south. The façade is a faded yellow that I associate with public works, and there is a dignified but unpretentious solidity to the architecture. This is reflected in the name ‘Victoria Chambers’, a reference no doubt to the British monarch presiding stonily over the gardens nearby. I imagine a history of tenants engaged in earnest pursuits – small firms of lawyers, accountants, and shipping clerks long since gone. The current occupants feel more marginal: a transport workers union, a nurses association, and various other support groups. There has been a shift from middle class to grassroots but the earnestness persists. 

    Four windows and an arched portal form the ground floor frontage, which is elevated from street level by two or three steps. The arch over the entrance features the stylised keystone emblem of Art Deco and the narrow curve extends in a small barrel vault sealed by a simple skylight. This is an elongated semicircle of clear glass segments, the texture of which compounds the fluorescent lights of the foyer in an unexpected flare of brilliance. The bevelled glass panes of the main doors reveal an interior staircase flanked by a plain, dark, wood-veneer banister, which curves back on itself in an austere flourish. On the façade each floor is linked to the next by a continuous pilaster rising to the roofline where other classical references only partially conceal a corrugated iron roof. This colonial practicality was echoed in later modifications as each floor was divided into progressively smaller units: interior windows allow light into partitioned spaces several removes from exterior light; small offices have been built around stray columns which reveal the structural grid on each floor; ceiling levels are unpredictable.

    This is not faded glory. The carved up, rundown humility of Victoria Chambers reveals modest architectural intentions. Here we have a distant cousin, very distant, to the Art Deco glamour of early-twentieth-century Europe or America. There is a sense of reduced scale and compromise in the use of materials which is endearing in contrast to the overbearing character of the grand cinema and hotel foyers of the 1930s. And yet it is more substantial than the prim domestic Deco villas of the 1930s or the rather drab semis that were once ‘affordable’ in suburban Sydney. Victoria Chambers belongs to the depression years, that period between World War I and II, when the nineteenth century was still imaginable and the Holocaust was not. This is where I found myself, in an office on the first floor, at the end of the Easter long weekend in 2006.




When the first Scots settlers arrived in Dunedin in the mid-nineteenth century they must have recognised something equivalent to the place they had come from, caught between the wild waters of the Atlantic and the North Sea. There is a toughness to the locals that one is tempted to identify as protestant, but it predates the pakeha. Maybe it’s the climate. You can see it in the early photographs of the Ngai Tahu. These are not the ‘dying embers’ that Charles F. Goldie painted at the turn of the twentieth century but the ancestors of the most resourceful iwi in modern New Zealand.

    Winter in the south of the South Island has a feeling of interiority and darkness that is unique. I am reminded of films by Josef von Sternberg or, closer to home, the dark mood of Vincent Ward’s Vigil. The chiaroscuro registers as European and yet it is not. It finds expression as a tendency to the ‘gothic’ in local culture, which is played out in more or less self-conscious ways across different art forms. Music, literature, fashion, design and all manner of visual arts thrive with an odd mixture of pragmatism and introverted intensity. 

    In the northern hemisphere painters traditionally sought studios with a sunless northern aspect which gives the most even and constant light conditions for working. Here in the southern hemisphere conditions are reversed and a south light is desirable, albeit chilly especially in Dunedin. Partly due to the northern aspect of the Victoria Chambers studio, I found myself often inclined to work late into the night. The slight melancholy of the unoccupied offices and deserted foyers made more sense of the local taste for "gothic" drama. I felt it required acknowledgment, however I was also inclined to resist and, if possible, renegotiate it via my own taste for the down to earth and the particular.




My work in the two or so years before the Dunedin residency had involved a return to the human figure in a series of portraits and some interiors based on Vermeer’s figure paintings. In these beautiful little paintings Vermeer presents domestic interiors which are occupied by a solitary human figure in a particularly serene and neutral way so that the human form appears as if balanced between subject and object. This balance seems to gesture towards a possible resolution of the dualism inherent in the Cartesian model of human subjectivity, that it might be resolved in the space of individual reflection. It is as if the most profound of human paradoxes is suspended in the resin of oil paint like a fly in amber. Vermeer presents two imaginary spaces as a kind of doubled interior: on the one hand, an illusion of physical space, reliant on pictorial conventions; on the other, a psychological space, articulated in the muted subjectivity of the figure, engaged in some interior task. As a kind of homage, the paintings I made aimed to explore the way the human subject registers as object within the space of contemporary painting and drawing, how this is affected by formal considerations such as scale and composition, and the role of photography as research tool in contemporary realism. These paintings of people reading and thinking in muted interior light left me more than usually conscious of the metaphorical force of architectural space. While I arrived in Dunedin with no particular plan in mind, I anticipated with some pleasure the luminous spatial potential of under-occupied and low-rent urban buildings in the town centre and on the old waterfront. 

    The BNZ gallery, where the work from the residency was to be exhibited, has a low ceiling and two main walls running at right angles to each other. The space almost immediately suggested the solution that I eventually chose: a sequence of large paper scrolls, regularly hung, the physical identity of each punctuated by a strong spatial illusion. The initial impression relied on a sense of the physicality of the paper, which would also need enough body to endure extensive working with charcoal. Charcoal, in particular willow charcoal, seemed the obvious medium to use for such large drawings. While it does not offer the deep blacks of compressed charcoal, there is a depth of grain to even the lightest application of willow charcoal which more than compensates for this slight limitation in tonal range. The complex organic structure of a charred willow twig behaves in a variety of ways according to its individual character and the way it is handled. Willow has a responsiveness, tactility, and tonal subtlety similar in some ways to paint and, while it is very effective for line and gestural drawing, it is equally appropriate to the more tonal and atmospheric applications that interest me. 




One of the reasons I continue to work with still life is the opportunity this genre offers to paint ‘from life’. This quaint phrase, which harks back to nineteenth-century academicism and ‘plein-air’ painting, refers to the act of transforming three-dimensional perceptions (or ‘sensations’ to use Cézanne's term) into the traditional two-dimensional forms of painting or drawing. This transformation is a much more subtle and complex process than is commonly acknowledged, especially in an environment where photography and digital imaging are increasingly central to both concept and process in contemporary painting and drawing. My recent work with portraits and interiors reopened a conversation with photography that I had withdrawn from years before, and about which I still felt quite ambivalent. It was difficult to manage two-metre-high scrolls of paper in the various corners and narrow corridors of Victoria Chambers. This meant that I had to work with photography, giving me the opportunity to further explore this ambivalence, and once again confirming for me that it is the results that count. Relying on photographs too heavily reduces the sense of mobility and uncertainty that accompanies embodied vision, and which painting and drawing can articulate so well. On the other hand, any kind of essentialism in this matter, which avoids photography and new technologies on principle, can be just as limiting in the contemporary environment. 

    The scale of the drawings was not governed purely by considerations relating to the dimensions of exhibition space in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. To give adequate force to the sense of silence and isolation I sought in the work required a certain degree of monumentality. The large scale also enhances the play between spatial illusion, or depth, and flatness, borne out in the materiality of the charcoal on paper. I am fascinated by this "play"of object and illusion: that a smear of charcoal can be anything at all.  It is carbon on wood pulp or cotton fibres, and it is the way light hits a grimy window or the semi-gloss paint in a stairwell. It is both a layer of velvety black substance on the soft ivory of high-quality paper and the deepest imaginable shadow. It is, and it is not, at the same time. This experiential paradox is central to the endurance of drawing and painting as contemporary art forms. For me it is as though the spatial qualities that can be generated in painting or drawing – the paradox that it generates – create a space of imagination (rather than just symbolising one). Working in charcoal on this new scale seemed to offer me a way to enlarge this imaginative space, and hold the paradox in a more open balance.

    I chose to make drawings based on a series of views from within Victoria Chambers, architectural interiors (with the exception of the drawing of the entrance) which are free of human presence, but filled with its absence which is a kind of haunting. As such they partake in the local taste for drama and darkness, but I hope there is also a plainer and more mindful element to this work. This is simply based on the illusions of space, light, texture that arise in the mind’s eye just beyond the reality of charcoal on paper. If there is any sense of the preternatural in the work I would like to think it is just the result of a slight shift in the attention: not what you see but how you look at it.   


Jude Rae 2006