Art book captures Robert Ellis' life and work

Robert Ellis
by Hamish Keith, Elizabeth, Hana and Ngarino Ellis with contributions from Ian Sinclair, Tasha Haines and Stephen Higginson
Standard Edition $135 Collectors' Edition $295 in a slipcase with four art prints
Only 100 signed and numbered
Only available from Ron Sang Publications

As with many significant artists the work of Robert Ellis can be seen as an elaborate diary of his life.

He has built up a personal visual language which has allowed him to address more and more complex issues in paintings which are remarkable for their combination of description and insight.

Over the past decades his paintings have addressed issues of New Zealand identity in which he draws together threads of European and Pacific cultures. These works make observations about the two cultural threads from a personal as well as social perspective.

The images deriving from the West include the horse, chair and chalice and medieval geometric designs. The Pacific imagery features the Ratana symbol and the koru while there are a number of others that cross boundaries such as the hand, the fish and the stars

Each of the series of paintings that he embarked on reflects his personal and wider social and political concerns from the early Motorway Paintings to his recent Shielded Histories. Ellis is a graduate of the Royal College of Art, London who took up senior lectureship at the Elam in 1957, was eventually awarded a personal chair at the university, and retired as an emeritus professor in 1994.

During those years he held over 60 solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group shows as well as providing inspiration to generations of art school students.

The book at 312 pages, with over 200 images of his paintings numerous photographs of his career and family provides a comprehensive overview of the artist and his work. The text written mainly by Hamish Keith, with other contributions from the artist's, wife Elizabeth, his children Hana and Ngarino Ellis as well as Ian Sinclair, Tasha Haines and Stephen Higginson provides insights into the artist’s development.

They elaborate on the ways in which the artist's own experiences, his interaction with his wife’s iwi and his research has contributed to his art. There are also extensive reminiscences and comments by the artist himself that help give a more rounded view of the artist.

Keith, through interviews, documentation and commentary, has provided valuable material on the artist as when he writes about Ellis and his approach to landscape, “The connection between realms of land and modes of experience has interested Robert Ellis since his visits to Spain in the 1960s and his short time spent as an aerial survey photographer in the RAF. However, Ellis is exploring much more than the obvious issues of sovereignty of land or language as a cultural commodity: “Land is a body. It is the site of collective and infinite experience.” As Ellis himself has said, “I’m trying to convey a philosophic viewpoint. So my paintings are full of all sorts of things, symbolic conundrums that tempt the person looking into trying to seek and therefore to get more out of the paintings. I use disparate images I change the scale and because they are juxtaposed they assume a different kind of identity. They become something else.”

The production values of the book itself are of the highest quality showing great attention to design and detail. The book also contains several fold-out sections which allows for generously sized reproductions. The fold-outs include his large tapestry hanging in the Aotea Centre and the set of stained glass windows (executed by Suzanne Johnson and Ben Hanly) in the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland.

This is a book which is an art work in its own right and a valuable addition to the both an understanding of Robert Ellis and his work as well as an appreciation of the New Zealand cultural landscape. A new exhibition of Robert Ellis works entitled land is currently on show at Milford Galleries, Dunedin until March 11. This collection of paintings addresses the concept of tūrangawaewae – a deep connection with land that is both spiritual and physical.