New Zealand’s obsession with ‘bird art’: Bill Hammond

Article on  Turn On Art: Global Art of the Radar.  21 August 2013.

Predominant focus on Bill Hammond but piece also on Grahame Sydney.

New Zealand art has for years been deeply influenced by the clean, green environment that surrounds its artists. We explore some of the finer examples and themes behind this kiwi fascination for nature in art. In New Zealand there is a long-standing joke from the art dealer’s stock room that says that ‘if you put a bird in it, it will sell for more’. And in a nation renowned for its awe-inspiring landscape and fervent environmental ethics it is no coincidence that art has, and continues to be, highly influenced by nature in its various incarnations.

The tradition of nature in New Zealand art has some of its roots in the British colonialist’s love of landscape painting (dating back to the mid to late 19th Century) as well as in pre-European expressions. Maori mythology for example is concerned almost entirely with personifications of flora and fauna. Through them, the indigenous people sought explanations for the country’s topography and spiritual narratives for its most inspiring landmarks. Some of the stories speak of land and sky having been lovers; entire islands being fished out from the sea; volcanoes rising from the earth due to jealous fits of rage.

As the Thirties rolled around and New Zealand began questioning the particular hues of its national identity, many artists saw nature as a point of difference from their colonial motherland. This pursuit bore, among others, the Regionalists—a troupe of painters focusing on the land as a manifestation of communal identity.

But it was not until the Sixties that this local artistic attraction to nature became tangible and almost all-encompassing. Amongst the many artists working on a traditional form to depict nature and its ever-present avians was Don Binney, Raymond Ching and Grahame Sydney.

Binney’s oeuvre focused, almost solely, on capturing the morphology of many of the over 170 bird species that populate the island nation. The frail kiwi, the wood pigeon, the polyglot and elegantly dressed tui, and even the more plebeian shag all dominate the late Binney’s canvases and his environmental activism. The kiwi’s historic fascination with nature in art remains as strong as ever… And the birds on canvas refuse to fly the coop.

On a similar vein, Wellington’s Raymond Ching began exhibiting bird paintings in the 1960s and continues, up to this day, devoting most of his attention to the feathered creatures. His photo realism and devoted study of avian morphology has lead him to illustrate several books on the subject (including the seminal Book of British Birds). Like Binney, Ching makes birds the central focus of his works on canvas, often peppering it with text and, unlike Binney, often mixing it with equally realistic human portraits, or exploring intricate compositions of several birds in mid-flight.

At the same time the burnt-coloured, desolate and perfect symmetrical horizon of the South Island has become synonymous with painter Grahame Sydney. His work took the land’s remoteness, emptiness and other geographic characteristics and turned them into psychological landmarks. Sydney’s work—vast, silent, desolate—made solitude and harshness, nostalgia and isolation into a recognizable feature of the South Island’s quotidian.

Recent artists have kept this habit of firmly grounding their easels on the land, and the land has lent itself well to such imaginings. New Zealand’s wilderness is a sublime, impenetrable paradise. The ‘bush’ in winter is made up of many shades of temperate green ferns, palms and clumps of toetoe (Austroderia): long sharp grass with fluffy white plumes that sway with the wind. Summer brings with it the extravagant, bright crimson flowers of the P?hutukawa trees (metrosidero excelsa): a type of myrtle the Kiwis have come to accept as the land’s apology for a summer Christmas. Contemporary artists are still much in tune with that environment and are using it to engage in conversations with larger themes, farther lands and an overall deeper engagement with a globalised art community.

The cultural politics of increased migration from China, Korea and the Pacific Islands (John Pule, Shane Cotton, etc); re-workings of history from Maori, female and minority perspectives; various forms of economic and environmental activism (Shigeyuki Kihara, Brydee Rood, etc) are now permanent splashings on the gallery walls. Judging by the work that has recently received the biggest contemporary art awards and represented the country in the largest fairs, nature remains a crucial, core symbol of how New Zealand reflects itself through art.

Yet, perhaps the one painter who, since the early Nineties, has been seminal in re-interpreting and encompassing this local obsession with the wilderness is South Island’s Bill Hammond. His zoomorphic menageries have somehow synthesized and, in a way refined, some of the best traits of this kiwi love and long tradition of nature in art. In Hammond’s somewhat eerie large paintings, many of them named after pop songs – half men, half bird creatures interact in mundane activities: a game of pool, playing in a jazz band, expectantly looking at the horizon. His visceral and elegant works turn New Zealand into a spooky, beautiful bird land of lanky ghostly foliage. The land becomes a postmodern outpost of local flora and fauna mixed with foreign traditions and the dark undertones that have suffused much of the country’s cultural output. Hammond’s work is an exciting stage (perhaps a coming of age?) in the long, methodical visual study of nature and what it means to its inhabitants. The themes have undoubtedly diversified within the contemporary art scene in the past few decades. By the very nature of our increasingly globalised world the imagery has become eclectic and multicultural. Yet the kiwi’s historic fascination with nature in art remains as strong as ever… and the birds on canvas refuse to fly the coop.