Hannah Valentine, Toss Woollaston: something other, held in common
New Lynn, Auckland
I’ve been making good progress with the exhibition. I’m inclined to call it Something other, held in common, referencing a diary entry Toss Woollaston made in 1962. It’s a long quote to repeat, but I think worthwhile since it seems to summarise a strong desire on Woollaston’s part to make his work achieve a likeness to the physical experience of place, while resisting the confines of representation. He writes, “It can’t be invalid to look at nature, and then to paint. One must be a reservoir of sights seen, colours and shapes received; not literally remembered, but nevertheless being the substance of what comes forward … If it is the vertical, or the horizontal, it is so in common with floors or walls, the earth-horizon, height, trees, and is only enriched by such affinity … Something other, but enriched by the life held in common above the material or physical likeness of shape, seems to be what is wanted.” My own work has started with looking at Woollaston’s painting, thinking about the feeling and rhythm with which he was applying his medium. It’s dynamic and intuitive, things that I had in mind while laying down my own medium, in this instance clay. The pressure of the body quickly brought forth rising and falling forms. How to capture a likeness that’s both broad and intimate? My works have developed as a series of body imprints, set within a defined space that extends beyond the body. I made the first trial after spending a weekend at Kuratau, beside lake Taupō. We set out onto the lake one evening as the light was falling. From the centre of the lake, the hills rise as a thin silhouette on the horizon in every direction.
I recently read the popular book Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It was a good reminder of the colossal impact we have had as a species on ecologies globally, and of the almost religious status we have given economic growth. I find it hard to think about the landscape these days, without thinking about precarity. I can’t help but wonder when the land will refuse our demand to perform, or whether we will learn to stop asking. The philosopher Tim Morton argues that we need to stop “shouting” about it. There are headlines in the newspaper most days that proclaim ecological disaster. It’s depressing. In “shouting” about it, however, Morton argues that our energies are so spent in laying blame and feeling guilt that we find ourselves in paralysis. What is called for, instead, is taking responsibility. In understanding the issue, we become responsible, irrespective of whether we caused it in the first place. It’s an interesting perspective that I try to keep in mind, not that it makes it any easier to know how to act in a meaningful way. Part of the issue, as Morton describes, is one of timescales. “Horrifying, terrifying, petrifying,” he calls them. The timescales of global warming are so vast, they account for periods as long as human history as we know it, and beyond. In Morton’s words, “the timescale is a medusa that turns us to stone.”
It’s bleak, yet as I look out to the silhouette of the hills in the west they glow. Their solidity seems to speak encouragement. A mass of land and air with a tension, an emotion, held in the space between it and my gaze. It’s this feeling that Woollaston sought to make visible—the form of his own thoughts and emotions, rather than the physical landscape itself.
I trust the renovations are going well! Look forward to bringing the works into the new space, despite the associated nerves that seem inevitable.
With best wishes,
I started reading some of Woollaston’s letters, written when he was a young man, after receiving yours. The thing that stuck out to me the most is the extent to which people back then lived in the landscape, rather than on it or around it—his letters contain so many casual references to the landforms and climate of the various places he lived, descriptions of seasonal fruit and vegetables and complaints about the manual labour he did as a fruit picker and orchard worker. On the other hand, the way he writes about places, even at an early age, is already couched in terms of art, comparing the Motueka landscape to Constable’s paintings, for example.
There’s a funny juxtaposition in that way of looking—living with these places in such a tangible, practical way, but also romanticising them, making them stand in for our own dreams and desires. I lived in Inglewood for a short while, like Woollaston did, and my main memories are of how cold it was, so cold that bread wouldn’t rise and the eggs froze solid in the fridge. I picture young Woollaston standing in a boggy Taranaki field in winter, icy wind scraping across his bones, thinking how much the hills remind him of a tiny black-and-white reproduction of a painting he’d likely never see in the flesh.
It’s not exactly a profound observation to say that a lot of New Zealand art has involved trying to make pictures of places that are really about something else. I wonder if that’s why Woollaston’s paintings of people can be slightly disappointing, on some level—he saved his characterisation for the landscapes, which are portraits in themselves. From reading him, I think he had a genuine love of and interest in other people, and the landscapes are a way to “capture a likeness that’s both broad and intimate,” as you said in reference to your own practice.
I like the idea you mentioned of a “bodily imprint.” It makes me think of a snow angel, or a flattening of grass, an unaffected gesture that leaves a mark on the landscape, but one that’s ephemeral and temporary. It’s still important to have ways of talking about the natural world that aren’t couched in terms of doom and despair, as you say—those narratives are, sadly, grounded in fact, but it’s also valuable to have reminders of why nature is worth preserving in the first place. It’s the small, utilitarian moments that stick with people, rather than the broad romantic vistas. There’s a parallel to the timescales of climate change that you mentioned in your letter—the problems humans create are too big and stretch both backwards and forwards in time too far for any one person, country or government to deal with them. So, we just don’t. The real solutions must happen on a personal, individual level, because that’s where we have agency.
The photos you sent us so far look amazing—I like how your sculptural forms are echoing the kind of overlapping, structural gristle that makes Woollaston’s paintings so absorbing to look at, while also addressing the concerns of scale and perspective (both figurative and literal) that you wrote about. I don’t want to say too much more until I see the full works, though—I’m very excited about what will emerge.
New Lynn, Auckland
The final scene of a 1987 documentary on Toss Woollaston (part of the arts series Kaleidoscope) is a shot of the artist alone on a beach, sitting on a small stool with notebook and watercolours at hand. I get the feeling that a large part of his practice was looking, as he describes, but also being in a place. Living in the landscape, as you mention, on a day-to-day level but also using this as a primary tool in his practice.
The climate then, I guess, was very different to now, which I’m sure plays a part. Born in 1910, Woollaston lived through both World Wars, refusing to serve in World War Two on ideological grounds. His youth was grounded in a needs-based society, very different to that of our consumerist-soaked present.
I like that you bring up Woollaston’s overlapping structures in relation to my work. It’s something I was thinking about a lot in the making. Given that I wasn’t working with colour, pressure, structure and rhythm felt important. The works feel, to me, like drawings. Despite the set-up and processes on either side of the act, the actual moment of making was intuitive.
I found myself thinking about the work of artist Maya Lin while formulating the show. I was particularly interested in her use of topographies, both in a formal sense and in the way she takes something from the world, freezing it into a material state at a scale that makes it easier to comprehend. She raises environmental concerns through works that are materially, and often physically engaging.
I’m finishing up work on the show this week and will have further images for you in due course. I’m looking forward to getting into the space!
I’m glad you mentioned Woollaston’s pacifism and his status as a conscientious objector, something that was linked to his religious beliefs and got him in hot water with both his family and the Church. It’s easy to forget that making avant-garde art, especially at the time and in the place he did, was also an inherently political act. Figures like Woollaston make me question the idea that Modernism involved an abrogation of social and political responsibility; in New Zealand, at least, I wonder if that was really the case.
Maya Lin is an interesting point of reference for the work, as well. She’s often connected to the Land Art movement, which is an appealing model for thinking about relationships between artworks, people and places. That idea of direct bodily access to a place, sort of shortcutting the old discussions about maps versus territories, has a lot of merit. Woollaston’s works are something different again, of course; however, I think they’re connected, in that his relationship to the landscape seems to have been experiential, as well as aesthetic.
I’m always fascinated by the way painters construct their pictures—in the case of the best ones, you can sort of mentally backtrack and get a sense of how they did it. I find myself less drawn to art that scrupulously covers its tracks, although there’s value in that kind of making, too. I’m looking forward to seeing how you tackle the formal and sculptural problems involved in putting everything together—the web of associations and connections between the various ideas you’ve outlined in your letters seems very rich. Layering, drawing, pressure, rhythm, structure, topography, body, environment, time, emotion—these are powerful and timely ideas, and ones that I think are worth the effort.