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               > Leigh Davis' Place > Art Knowledge > Reynolds' Opening Speech
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Speech at the Govett-Brewster Gallery
for K Rd to Kingdom Come

Leigh Davis, 13 October 2001

Being asked to speak at events like this is like being asked to be the designated driver. It is nice to enjoy the confidence of your colleagues, so that they get to party, and you get to have all the nice orange juice.

My great thanks on behalf of you all as guests to this wonderful gallery and to Greg Burke, Hanna Scot, Gillian Irving, and the installation. We are here because of you.

As a special matter I also want to say a public thank you to John McCormack. John ran his leg of the Govett-Brewster gallery relay race some time ago, and shifted the tradition of this place to a new level when he did. He has often stood in the place I am standing in tonight.

There are several great pleasures with occasions like this, which always somewhat overwhelm me. I am certainly a person for whom these occasions generate pointing behaviour. You know it when you see it and you will see it in these remarks; I engender the lolling tongue, the energetic goodwill, and the lack of knowledge, of a red setter dog in the midst of general excitation.

That means that your designated driver is well-meaning but clueless. Oh dear.

Here is one of the pleasures of this occasion: one has a certain warm confusion as to what the occasion is. We are here as a gathering, in a beautiful, historic, New Zealand, city, in good spring time, with the artist’s family and friends, the gallery’s family and friends, wannabes, supporters, charlatans, and poorly guided enthusiasts, like me. There are speeches and there is a little feeling in the air. And we are at something that it is hard to know what it is.

This occasion has many of the more normal ceremonies we take part in, and know how to make complete sense of.

It has some of the aspects of a funeral, with its solemnising and scope for outbreaks of high emotion and sonorousness, only of course it is much much happier.

Neither is this occasion a wedding, although it has some the features of one.

And so you could say to yourself, what is this warm occasion and gathering all about? And in my case, My God, how did I get here? People have come from big distances.

Another great pleasure is that this wonderful occasion is that it is happening to someone else. Clearly this pleasure is part of the melancholy charge at a funeral. It is also a happy feature of going to another’s wedding not your own. Although with weddings there is also the pang and the tingle of being part of one of the great set pieces of foreplay in public. But there is a secret relief and gaiety being part of an act where someone else has had to bear responsibility for the setting and the carriage of the emotional tenor.

But we are unsettled, in this vague way, nonetheless. It is because one of the huge and particular feelings of this occasion is that it is not about someone, even someone called John Reynolds. This wonderful show, K Rd to Kingdom Come, is about something. And it is a very different occasion than we are generally used to seeing.

This something is in part a thorough and beautiful takeover of the whole gallery. Large visual artworks activate the walls here and cannot be seen all at once by the viewer. They strongly solicit attention. We glimpse here and there the strong abstract pull of the work while we are having our conversations and various distractions. This show is a wonderland, and we are unsettled, because we feel ourselves to be as Alices.

So what is this particular work as something to look at and think about, and what difference does it make?

Of many things possible to say, or which could be said better by others who are here this evening, I will comment on four things about the work; its largeness of scale, the way movement appears as an idea, the use of text, and the nature of minimal strategy.

The largeness of scale is a common and distinguishing feature of Reynolds’ painting. It is a feature only successful if it is driven by naturally large and concrete frameworks of meaning: K Rd is a streetscape; the Office of the Dead is derived from a distribution of yachts in a race upon the sea; Kingdom Come is about a change to the world; Western Springs/Bloody Angle is about a theatre of war, and a park; Nietzsche on White’s Beach invokes a beach scene, sort of, and so on. The point is, each large work here is both a painting, or is a developed visual idea, and also retains strong linkages with objects in the world. There is a literalness to these paintings, together with the abstraction. This gives them their particular Reynolds beauty, which is a vernacular quality.

They also surface a particular aesthetic emotion, which is their principal value: they are large enough to get lost in as a viewer, which is idiom for, you cant see them all at once. They sustain endless viewings, particularly if see them in close-up, from an ideal viewing distance of approximately 8 inches.

The idea of movement is central to the works success. Nietzsche on White’s Beach, for example, is the sort of poem I would like to write. It presents itself as something to be read, as a serially unfolding group of lines. It is hugely suggestive with movement, across the face, and downward. The modulation of colour in the wall drawing does this too. The Office of the Dead overwhelms as a sea of vectors of speed and direction taken from roadsigns. Kingdom Come is a radiation pattern, and so on.

Reynolds placement of painting on a boundary in common with the world of text is also a regular device. In many works here painting becomes drawing becomes writing. What is this all about? It is an abstract pleasure, like everything else. Words and texts are defamiliarised - by bad writing, or defeating length, or by being hard to decipher because they are written in pudgy oilstick - so that they blur and appear as images; as a teasing luxury of repeated texture and thought, and register of thought.

There is an increasing minimalism to Reynolds painting, which is not yet acknowleged, and which this show makes obvious. The strategy works the way minimalism always does: by reducing its narrative content art sharpens the search instincts of the viewer, and drives basic aesthetic states – of speed, texture, dispersal, thought - more solidly home.

But there are other things, apart from the paintings, that I wish to name. This occasion is about two other large themes: art values, and the tradition of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery.

When an art show comes to achieve a particular authority, power and quality, which this one does, it sends out huge wafts, to touch the broadest of states of feeling. We sense in such a show as this the invisible presence of all of the things we care about most. K Rd to Kingdom Come takes its place with the truly significant shows of the past in these rooms, and with them makes plain, yet again -

  • What labour means
  • the value and nature of innovation, made as always, in boldness and independence of thinking
  • how courage or its objects always capture our affection
  • the civic nature of strong artworks, which bring a glory to the region in which they are made; and lastly,
  • how joy gets into the world

This is the bridge that leads directly to the meaning of the Govett –Brewster Gallery. It is an institution famous for its championship of the above list of qualities. It has a commitment to high culture in contemporary visual art and an independence of thinking, together with a professionalism of approach, that allows New Plymouth to recruit artists like John for shows like this.

So this is not a wedding or a funeral although it has some of these features. It is painting enveloping its viewers. And it is a city performing an act of leadership.

The familiar things are the traditional values we love about such art: the fact that they are paintings, and in your face, that they are dynamic, rich in materials, and dense with things to look at and think about. There is another familiar too: they need viewers to wander around them, with limited attention spans and busy heads, that is, in various kinds of difficulty and proximity with the paintings, over a lifetime.

The strangeness comes in the disguise of directness, angularity of vision, and a certain extremity in the use of scale, visual elements, lines, and materials. I call this the rudeness.