John Pule exhibition explores the Pacific and the personal

John Pule: Hauaga (Arrivals)
Auckland Art Gallery
Until March 25th

Hauaga: The Art of John Pule
Edited by Nicholas Thomas (Otago University Press)
RRP $120

John Pule's show at the Auckland Art Gallery brings together works spanning 20 years since he began exhibiting in the 1990s. One of the few major New Zealand artists who has had no formal training and little education, Pule has developed his art as a way of explaining the world in which he feels isolated

He was born in the village of Liku, Niue, and immigrated to New Zealand at the age of two in 1964, only returning to the island in 1991. Since then he has made a number of trips to Niue, developing his interest in the history and mythology of Niue.

He had a difficult early home life and lack of interest in school led to wild behaviour, including burning down a school which led to him being put into care. However, in the late 1980s he had a few epiphanies and began to paint and write.

His early work of the 1990s (which should include his novel The Shark That Ate the Sun) showed him developing ways of understanding his environment, heritage and history.

The exhibition begins at this point with some of his simple, direct pieces which were influenced by looking at traditional hiapo, a cloth beaten out of mulberry bark, felted into rectangular sheets and then painted freehand within a grid-like pattern.

Early works
Among these early works are Mafola (1991) in which we can see many of the images he would continue to use; the figurative elements which often refer to Christian stories, Niuean patterns, abstracted natural images of plants and fish, obscure narratives and European art. There are even images that will take on the cloud formations of his later work and his intentional scrambling or blurring of images is also there.

Other early works such as the Pulenoa Triptych (1995) included images which were essentially metaphors that combined the threads of the artist’s personal life, the history and mythology of Nuie as well as the impact of Christianity on Nuieans both there and in New Zealand.

The elements he uses appear to create narratives or document the artist’s life but it is a daunting and probably impossible task to extract a coherent narrative or set of ideas from these works.

The little Christian vignettes which are mainly descriptions of the story of Christ’s crucifixion are used throughout his works in an ambivalent fashion telling of the introduction of Christianity to the Pacific as well as the way in which Christianity has become ingrained within the culture with both negative and positive consequences.

New mythology
Rather than see them as merely the records of the artist's life and encounters, what he has created is a new mythology which links the contemporary with the past. The readings of these works become personal to the individual viewer with the collection of images acting as an aide memoir in creating our own explorations and histories.

The use of the symbols is something like the way we view hieroglyphics; individually they are simplistic but assembling the various images creates the idea of an extended narrative or a collection of voices.

The influence of Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere can be seen in his work partly in the way he includes words which are often taken from his own writings. Like McCahon he uses the ideas and images of religion to deal with wider social and political issues, but not because of a religious belief but that they provide a useful set of images with which to tell stories and make comments.

Another influence appears to be aboriginal art with works like Clear the Pathway to Walk On (1999) where he uses the long strips of colour and pattern employed by aboriginal artists. These paintings are also are akin to the work of Shane Cotton, who used a similar layered landscape approach which also included story telling element.

Varied sources
Over the past two decades Pule has created his own set of geometric motifs and figurative elements. Some of them come from the Niuean hiapo, some from other Pacific traditions while others are from European and Maori sources.

With all of them he has made adaptations and transformations in much the way that many contemporary artists appropriate other works of art. In the end, however, they are all filtered through the artists own imagination.

Over the years one can see the development of the work from the early grid formations which often contained a single image through to the more recent grid approach which is more complex and now includes what could be read as black and white aerial landscapes as in the case of The Splendid Land (2009), which looks like Taranaki.

The exhibition also includes several of his works where he used his poetry. These are political works, written in both English and the Niuean language, allowing him to further express his ideas.

The set of lithographs Restless Spirit (2000) with texts from The Shark That Ate the Sun is like medieval illustrated manuscripts combining words and illustrations. These works read like a cross between a set biblical quotations and private diary entries.

My Father died a bitter man
Our family
State house was burned to the ground on
Easter weekend eighteen years ago.

There are a number of his large recent works such as Another Green World and Kehe Tau Hauaga Foou (To all new arrivals).

Large works
The coloured cloud shapes of Kehe Tau Hauaga Foou, which hover over the landscape could be celestial or nuclear, islands of stability or dangerous giant jelly fish. The painting is like a huge chart that is mapping a Pacific perspective on to the nature of worldwide realities of war and the blight of religion.

These large works take on some of the characteristics of the giant altar pieces of Medieval and Renaissance Europe and are attempts to cope with big issues and concepts.

As in all his works he is dealing with ideas of metamorphosis and duality, of both a physical presence as well as another dimension. The images that inhabit these canvasses are more obvious than they have been in the past and are cinematic rather than individual snapshots.

These works abound with the conflicting notions of love and loss, love and lust, myth and reality, suffering and redemption.

Published in association with the survey exhibition of the artist's work, the book Hauaga provides an indispensable guide to Pule’s work.

It is the first book to deal with his art and ranges over his drawing, print-making and writing – he is the author of two novels and several volumes of poetry – as well as his painting.

Essays by Gregory O’Brien, Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas provide several routes into Pule’s engaging and compelling works, considering his formation as a writer and artist, his meditations on life and loss, and the extraordinary architecture of his visual art.

Pule also speaks for himself, through an extended interview, and in a series of extracts from his poetry and prose.

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