Is this New Zealand’s Greatest Living Painter?

The Press, Mike Crean. 15 November 2014.

He may be New Zealand’s greatest living painter. Many people say he is. But Grahame Sydney claims his work is disdained by the nobs of the art world.   Public and critical acclaim means little against what Sydney calls art’s “elite curatorial and institutional set”.   The Central Otago painter is a fulltime professional, renowned by critics for his intricate craftsmanship and revered by masses who stare at his work and mutter in awe that “he has got it exactly right”.Crowds flock to his exhibitions. Canny collectors pay big money for his originals. He was appointed an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit for services to art. He is vastly popular but regrets “a stigma in popularity”.

“My work is not in the leading public galleries,” he says [correction: all of New Zealand’s major galleries and museums hold his work including the National Museum Te Papa, Auckland Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery and Dunedin Public Art Gallery].

Curators and managers have “moved on from the likes of me into a more contemporary, conceptual realm. I am a representative of the ‘painting-is-dead’ school, to the academic avant-garde. [It is] a game without rules on a field without boundaries [where] craft and skill have been left behind”.

Sydney never attended art school but he notes the positive side to that. He learned to work in isolation.

He has seen promising painters emerge from their academies only to stumble for the lack of stimulus they were accustomed to in crowded classrooms.

His triumphs are many. National tours have set records for attendance. Ninety-thousand viewers filed through Porirua’s Pataka Gallery in three months for an exhibition of his landscapes. His enigmatic portrait of his first wife, Rozzie at Pisa, was headed only by Rita Angus’ Cass in a Listener magazine survey to find New Zealand’s favourite painting.

He would have reason to sound bitter but Sydney remains a man of charm. He exudes urbanity even as he revels in rusticality, in his home at the foot of the Dunstan Mountains. The world outside his window is “a daily cinema” and he has the best seat in the house.

Changing scenes on the broad screen of his living room window entrance him: the fleeting characters of lights and shadows, hues and shades, hawks and clouds and vapour trails, from dawn’s frost sparkle to dusk’s star twinkle.

The view pans from the Dunstans, across rumpled Mount St Bathans, and along the flattened top of the Hawkdun Range. It is “a natural theatre”, he says.

But this theatre-goer’s inner urge drives him to his gallery to take up his brushes. Self-imposed solitary confinement is part of his drive for perfection. He is a professional, consummate and proud of it.

Sydney fans may have no idea where Cambrian Valley is but feel they know the scene intimately. Central Otago features in many of his works. His paintings have pierced a million hearts with a realisation of man’s insignificance in the grandeur of the natural world.

Writer Vincent O’Sullivan terms it: “this shiver of our brief occupancy”, and said: “how brilliantly Sydney presents it to us”.

We gaze with reverence through the window. Then Milo the dog stiffens, bristles and whimpers.

“He’s seen a rabbit in the garden,” Sydney explains. He opens the door and Milo bolts.

His wife, Fiona, brings coffee. “Thanks, Sweetheart,” he says. An aura of mutual devotion surrounds the couple.

“Bye, Anton,” he calls, as old friend Anton Oliver slips out on an errand. The former All Black captain is staying for a few days on a brief return to New Zealand.

This is the real Sydney, at home and at ease. But not for long. In two hours he must flee. There is a plane to catch, a book to launch. His new book is a collection of 40 years of paintings, from 1974 to 2014, with an autobiographical essay and a commentary by O’Sullivan.

But for now, Sydney has time to talk. He speaks of his feeling for Central Otago.

“It’s a simple sense of belonging,” he says.

“It feels that this is where I should be. It is felt most strongly when I am not here – the notion of it calling to you – a feeling of dislocation. My feeling for it is immense.” He laments changes in the region, the loss of features that contributed to its distinctiveness.

It is “becoming homogenised” as environmental and social factors alter the landscape and the seasons.

“I pine for what Central Otago used to be. You knew when you arrived in Central. It lingers like a knot in the stomach.”

He and poet Brian Turner have become recognisable faces for a crusade against adaptation of the environment. To them, dams and wind turbines are the spoilers of landscapes. His arguments have garnered considerable following and kindled reactionary fire among developers and economic pragmatists.

Sydney and Turner have much in common. Similar in age though not knowing each other as they grew up in Dunedin, both moved “up-Central”, to a land they had learned to love in their youth, a region fabled in their minds for its history and the hardships deposited on it by a unique geography.

Both were prominent in sport – Sydney in swimming and lifesaving, Turner in hockey. Both chose isolation, separated by the raggedy range. Both love the outdoors and cycle regularly.

Sydney’s talent showed from a young age. He could draw. He was drawn to paint. The youngest child of a well-off family enjoyed the unstinting support of his parents.

He was mentored and inspired by Dunedin’s notable artists, including Ralph Hotere and Michael Smither. He studied the history of art. He took painting lessons, he experimented, he hung around artists and watched and listened, he bought books and read about painting. Most of all, he painted.

After winning Otago swimming titles three years in a row, he gave up competitive swimming so he could spend more time painting. And playing guitar. And roaming around Central Otago on family holidays.

He tells the story of tramping beside the Arrow River with a friend and finding a large rock overhang. The boys hatched a plan. They scuttled back to Arrowtown and bought a can of house paint and a brush. Back up the river they went and painted bogus Maori cave art on the stone wall, planning to break their “discovery” to an eager news media.

The media took no notice. It was, perhaps, a forerunner of rejection for Sydney’s art.

After graduating in English and geography from Otago University, he taught at Cromwell District High School.

In a rented a farm cottage he spent evenings and early mornings painting. He quit teaching over a senseless bureaucratic decision and headed overseas to extend his art education. From the other side of the world, the call of Central Otago rang even louder. Back home he dived into painting fulltime with just enough faith in his ability to succeed.

His travels had brought him an appreciation of Dutch master Vermeer whose work demonstrated that everyday actions, such as pouring milk from a jug, can be elevated to art.

Desolate images of Andrew Wyeth and the surrealism of Salvador Dali exerted their influences on him. He discovered a medium he had not previously known, egg tempera.

No one in New Zealand was using it so Sydney had to import it, with instructional books, then work out what to do with it. Subtleties of light and translucence that people most notice in his clouds, skies, reflections and skin tones, so difficult to achieve with oils or water colours, seemed to sing in egg tempera.

Sydney married Ros in 1978 and they had two children. He was obsessed by triathlon then. He looks back with dismay at his selfishness, leaving Ros to raise the children while he trained. He ran from Arrowtown to Macetown and back before breakfast each day, then cycled 40 kilometres and finished his daily workout paddling a kayak around Lake Hayes.

“Obsession”, “stoicism” and “competitiveness” pepper his description of the triathlon years. He says they reflect his attitude to art as well. In both endeavours: “I could never cruise”.

Obsession with triathlon brought him respectable placings in two Coast-to-Coast races but cost him in family terms. Obsession with art spawned success that brought him a new start, in a new house up Cambrian Valley.

We move through the snow-chilled air of early November to the studio, a separate building behind the house. Paintings in various stages of progression hang from walls and roof beams. A self-portrait peers at him, as through a mirror. A painting that to me looks complete will take a couple more months, he says.

He takes a seat at his crowded desk and launches a soliloquy.

“I get a huge sense of personal pleasure. It’s a good feeling that I am leaving behind beautiful things, contributing objects of beauty to the culture. I like the idea my life is being charted by the things I make, that they are enjoyed by some people and add to the value of life for some. This may be a fantasy of my own but it is a driving force.

“I can do it better than I can do anything else. And I am still getting stronger. I now produce fewer (paintings) but I think about them more and they matter more. I want them to matter more, to make it more worthwhile for the people who support me. I have never been able to be careless or take for granted the people who support me but I do not think about them when painting. It is important to be fair and reasonable but there is a compulsive aspect [to painting].”

He dislikes commissions and has done only four.

Being called a realist painter bugs him. Realism is for the camera, he says. He studies a scene and alters it to suit his impression. If a power pole stands in a painting, it does not mean a power pole stood there in reality.

His works range from studies of dead birds hanging from their feet to surreal religious iconography. He resents being dubbed a landscape painter.

“I am more than that and I want to be known for more. I have been influenced always by more than scenery. I have always loved the great traditions of painting through the centuries: figures, portraits, still life. It is a little disappointing that landscapes garner the most attention,” he says.

“I want to bring something to show I am different, a different personality, to add something to a scene that is crammed.”

Sydney enjoys the encouraging friendship of fellow painters and the chance to mentor promising talents. He dismisses the slap-dash amateur who churns out paintings of pretty scenes and chucks one in when it isn’t going well.

“I always start a painting optimistically. Something always goes wrong. Excitement is replaced by struggle. I find a way to fix it. I have learned how to salvage things. That is the difference between a professional and an amateur. A professional knows how to finish. You never give up.”

At 66, Sydney still feels painting “is what I am here to do”. So why publish a book that looks like an-end-of-life story?

“It occurred to me that it was my 40-year milestone. I did not want to wait until I was dead, so I would do it now while I could have some input,” he says.

He has done previous books and they had greater impact than exhibitions.

“There is an authority attached to books. I wanted another book.”

This boxed volume is massive, containing more than 200 of Sydney’s works, beautifully reproduced. Most importantly, it does not mark the end of his painting.

Grahame Sydney – Paintings 1974 to 2014, Craig Potton Publishing, $99.99 (de-luxe edition $150).