Empty and silent are not negatives for Central Otago painter Grahame Sydney, who past four decades of work have been collected in a new book.
The Listener. 17 – 23 January 2015. Sally Blundell.
Artist Grahame Sydney looks out on silence. Where once some 600 miners crashed and clanged their way into St Bathans’ buried gold, the Cambrian valley now stretches out towards the Hawkdun Range with barely a sound.
Some would be terrified of that silence, says Sydney. “Others find it hugely fascinating and compelling”.
This is Sydney country, the vast expanse of Central Otago made familiar through half a lifetime of paintings, prints, photographs and reproductions, an expansive territory where the past stalks the present in a catalogue of abandoned buildings, broken fences and weathered signs within, as Vincent O’Sullivan writes, the “emphatic agelessness” of the landscape.
“Things fail more here than elsewhere” say Sydney. “Until recently, it only took a couple of seasons of rabbits and people were walking off the stations. A really hard winter could put whole towns out. There is that desolation, but I find real beauty in that, always have. Nothing has thrilled me more in pictorial landscape terms than the raw, barren and austere places I’ve seen in Central.”
That austere beauty permeates Grahame Sydney’s Paintings: 1974 – 2014, a weighty boxed survey of 40 years of works in oil, egg tempera and watercolour. There is a smattering of portraits, largely in profile, lost in thought. There are figure studies, all women, eyes closed or hidden to the viewer. And there are landscapes, page after page of unpeopled big-sky vistas laying ou t the haunting desolation of Waipiata, Ida Valley, St Bathans, Wedderburn, Bannockburn, Gidding Downs, Pig Root Pond.
Calm, composed, spare. “I don’t mind people saying they’re empty. I don’t see that as a perjorative thing. But if people see emptiness it’s not just an absence of activity or human figures – it may be some emptiness in me. I absolutely believe paintings are, if they’re any good, a mirror of their creator.”
The youngest of three children, by a gap of five years, Sydney learned to be comfortable in his own company. As he explains in the autobiographical introduction to this book, he drew untiringly, copying comic characters, learning to paint first from an aunt, then, as a sporty 14 year old with a passion for art, from artist and tutor Harry Vye Miller (King’s High School did not teach art at the time). A battered blue suitcase holds this history: sketch pads, exercise books, Sellotaped pages full of comic character, watercolour renditions of boats and bays, angsty teenage portrayals of suffering Christs. An output that could easily have led to art school.
“But I didn’t think any of the art schools had the tutors and knowledge I wanted. I didn’t want to be an art student and I’d read enough to know there were a lot of precedents of people turning their back on an established route and an establishment route. Was there an art school in Dunedin? I don’t even know.”
He read, he studied, he learnt what he could from a loose fraternity of Dunedin artists boosted by early recipients of the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship: Tanya Ashken, Derek Ball, Michael Smither, Ralph Hotere, Jeffery Harris.
“It wasn’t about discussing art. It was more to do with getting to know them, watching them work, having that sense of sharing the same problems, understanding what happens inside the frame. And the sense that they were brave enough to swim against the tide – and I should be too.”
This was the 1960s. The only people surviving as full-time artists, he says, were the scenery school: Douglas Badcock, Aston Greathead, Peter McIntyre. “There were no dealers, just art societies and art shops full of English reproductions: lakes and ducks by Peter Scott, flouncy Spanish maidens by William Russell Flint. The painters I liked all had other jobs. Unless you got a fellowship you had to leave if you were going to triumph.”
So he left. For England. No return ticket. Penniless. He prowled the public galleries, developing a method of going into a room “and spinning around to decide which painting was calling me loudest. Then I’d try to work out why it was so good – why did this one sing a song that I loved but that one didn’t – and write it down in my little red book. I’ve never looked at that book but the act of doing it, of having to think about what was happening inside the frame, must have had some influence.”
But poverty and homesickness got in the way and in 1974 he came home to a growing sense of cultural nationalism and an outbreak of dealer galleries. “Coming back I realised if I was going to have half a chance at surviving as a painter I had to do something to lift my work above the prevailing art society level. I realised early on if people don’t know you exist, your chances of existing as a painter are pretty slender, so you had to do something to get attention.”
He was introduced to that something in a Life magazine reproduction of an early work by US painter Andrew Wyeth. As he writes, the painting seemed to “contain real air.”
“A lot of [Wyeth’s] things I thought sentimental – I hope I’ve never been guilty of that – but it is exceedingly subtle. I thought it that’s what egg tempera could do, I wanted to know about it.It was popular in the early Renaissance but had almost completely disappeared from favour – only [US artists] Wyeth and George Tooker and a few others were doing it. It seemed to me then it could do landscape in a manner no one else had. It was a strategic decision, as much as a heartfelt decision, that tempera was my best chance of getting some attention”.
As with the medium, the subject matter was presented to him. Sydney recalls the allure of the rocky, tussocky terrain of Central Otago that his family drove through between Dunedin and school holidays in Arrowtown “It was like going to another country. That notion of the mysterious faraway was always very beautiful to me.”
He taught for two years at Cromwell District High School; he spent a freezing winter in a mud-brick hut in Naseby. But it was Grahame Sydney the triathlete and Coast to Coast veteran who was invited by a farmer in St Bathans to design a triathlon course as a fundraiser for the historic Vulcan Hotel (the resulting course was called the Ghost to Ghost). “Triathlons were just right for someone like me – you don’t have to be terrific at anything, but so long as you are pretty good at all of them, you can do well.”
That same farmer later sold hi a corner of land overlooking the Cambrian Valley. In 2003, a house originally built there as a bolt-hole from city life became home. The first week, he says was hard. “I thought I’d made a mistake. I’d never been that alone. Here I was in all this silence I thought ‘What the hell am I doing here?'”
That feeling lasted just a few weeks. The house is now shared with his partner, Fi, and it is hard “to be anywhere else” he says. “Some people wonder how we can stand it. We think, ‘How could you be anywhere else?’ So much happens. It’s like watching a different show ever day, even within days.’
In his essay in the book, O’Sullivan quotes Allen Curnow: “The harder you look at something, the harder it looks back.” It is a succinct summary of the intensity of Sydney’s paintings and the unrelenting demands of the environment.
“The more intimately you know something, the richer it is,” says Sydney. “The longer I’m here, the less I have to travel to find work I find important to do.”
There is a staunchness in Sydney’s account of his work: shades of southern-man stoicism; determinedly, perhaps defensively independent.Training as a triathlete, he admits, was obsessive, hugely competitive – he and poet Brian Tuner would cycle 80 – 90km twice a week “just to get out of the studio.”
Living in Central, he has taken on a range of environmental battles. He campaigned against a proposed 176 turbine wind farm on the Lammermoor Range. He rails against the spread of intensive dairying and the resulting homogenisation of landscape. He witnesses the move from small family owned holdings to large scale corporate ventures. Many of the buildings featured in his earlier paintings, he says, are now ruins.
“I don’t like the idea that my paintings have become a sort of documentary relic. I don’t like nostalgia being attached to them, but that is the role they’re starting to play.” Now he’s part of a group trying to stop wilding pines from blanketing Central. “As they will do in a very short time. The Central Otago landscape is about to become Tokoroa forest”.
With a similar tenacity he has carved out a highly recognisable – and saleable – art-market niche, comfortable now in his disregard for much contemporary art. “Most art nowadays isn’t about looking and responding, it’s about thinking, and the idea is more important than the experience. My work is very much based on first hand experience and in the 21st century that’s no longer the dominant basis of appreciation and acceptance.”
He is not interested or persuaded by surging tides of contemporary art theory. “I’m remote from it now, perhaps always have been. It’s a separate world. I get sent things by friends. We have a laugh. The notion of internationalism doesn’t appeal to me at all. It seems to run counter to all the things I believe in and love – that we are in New Zealand remote and separate and hopefully different, and it’s the job of the artists, writers, songwriters, musicians and film-makers to not only explore that difference but highlight it and help us to be proud of those differences.”
In art, he points to Smither and Harris: “There’s something in them that just smells like New Zealand.” In literature, Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry; “I thought ‘This is us’ – I could taste it in every sentence.” In music Dave Dobbyn: “He sings like a New Zealander. Overseas, if a Dave Dobbyn song comes on, all New Zealanders cry – or they join in. They feel together and they feel proud. That’s real art to me. Universality doesn’t come out of trying to be universal. It’s just what comes when you believe in your own instinct and you don’t feel obliged to be like anyone else or jump on any bandwagon. You can dismiss it as just regionalism, but I’ve never found that an insult – I’ve worn that badge quite proudly because great regionalism is always universal. Think of Edward Hopper. Think of Vermeer – he hardly ever left the room.”
He says his natural instinct was to be a “so called realist” – with all the complications that label brings. “Realism is usually used these days as a cudgel to whack you around the head – it’s an easy label and the art world operates on labels.”
But realism is a style, like abstract expressionism or impressionism. “It has been spoilt by the ability of people in this computer age to project photographs, scale them up, draw around them. It has become a matter of reproducing in paint what the photograph does.”
The works included in this book are not photorealism – a low-flying hawk mirrored in a lake veers towards surrealism. Wide landscapes, famously stripped of their power poles, slide into abstract compilations of light and shadow.
Rather than the camera’s “dumb responses, where there is no history, no heart, no chemistry”, Sydney’s work is filtered through his own experience and the formal requirements of the painting to reproduce “almost persuasively that whole notion of seeing, so you could usher people into a world that you pretended was the world you wanted”.