Toss Woollaston along with Colin McCahon are old enough and dead enough to be regarded as the grand old men of modern New Zealand art. McCahon always got the lion’s share of recognition and adulation, mainly because he was the more innovative and conceptually daring. He was forgiven his religious obsessions from a largely secular and disbelieving public on the grounds of his pioneering, evolving style and inventive means of addressing his audience. His influence lives on, even in the form of parody. Michel Parekowhai, for one, had a go at the famous, I AM.
No such legacy lingers around the work of Woollaston, perhaps because it lacked any existential or intellectual angst to provide academic leverage or traction to serve ongoing interest. What the artist served up was essentially a visual feast to do with colour, form and composition. No angels of annunciation hover over Woollaston’s landscapes. No finger wagging biblical text waves in front of the foothills.
What Woollaston presented us with was essentially bravado with the brushstroke, the manipulation of a reduced palette and a manoeuvring of perspective to do with panoramic views, things which no longer capture our attention beyond being shrewd practice with expressionist form.
There has, however, been a recent fascination with surface, but this has been essentially for its own sake rather than providing a means to present a subject. Added to that, landscape, at least in this format, has done its time. And when one sees these topographical sites strung together, repeated 30 or more times on the gallery walls, a certain recurring sameness in the works becomes apparent.
Thus I was mildly disappointed by the collection at the Wallace Gallery, Morrinsville, apart from the surprise at seeing such a plentiful array of works all gathered in one place.
What did take my attention, however, were the portraits. Some of these were stunning.. In particular the work, Woman with Necklace, painted in 1989. It was a standout piece, large, imposing and rendered with the artists trademark loose and rough stroke that incorporated an audacious treatment of the face, blocked out in broad triangulated form. Compared to the handling of landscape, it was as if the more definitive form of the figure presented the artist with extra structure to work with and thus the opportunity for the creation of more varied tension and drama with mark making. The challenge of restriction thus provided opportunity for him to reveal his extraordinary skill with the brush.
Woman Reading was another work that demonstrated the artist’s bold fearless with form, engaging in it with an almost provocative impudence.
What was instructive about the exhibition as a whole was the historical sweep of the show that began with the very early works beginning in the 1930’s. Works like Taranaki, 1933 and Mapua, 1934 served as a marker for how far Woollaston had progressed. From the tightly controlled handing of paint and form in these tentative small pieces, it’s instructive to see how he’d moved on to the more expansive, confident and abstract treatment of the mature works, using Cezanne as his template.
The inclusion of watercolours on paper, as in Otago Cub Cottage, 1964, demonstrated quite strikingly that the medium provided a greater fluid energy to the brushstroke in contrast to the oils on canvas, which by comparison sat a little stiff on the ground.
Another figurative work, Portrait of David, 1976, saw Woollaston, in a rare gesture, extend his palette, going beyond the normal ochre’s, browns and creams, which provided further visual interest and colour dynamic.
The larger landscape works, like Tasman Bay, 1986, seemed to work best, where the artist could let rip and allow the brushwork space to breathe and pronounce its own individual strength. Toward the end of his career, this is exactly what Woollaston did, which provided a more encompassing grandeur to the work.
Woollaston is entirely empirical. He is a man, unlike McCahon, completely of the earth, and this is what he paints – the sun-drenched soil in muted browns, blues and yellows, without any metaphysical gloss or political perturbations
For all of the above reasons, this is a show well worth a look.