West to East
[exhibition catalogue text by Zoe Reeves]
There's an utter, utter joy and pleasure in
working with paint
Clare Reilly and her husband, the painter Max Podstolski, together
are the Primitive Bird Group - a group they formed in 2002, after
27 years of living and painting side by side, in order to 'symbolise
our shared artistic passion, and to enable us to generate synergy
through focusing on what we have in common: a primitivist affinity
and a love of and predilection for depicting birds
As these works in West to East testify, Reilly's artistic vision is a highly selective and resoundingly optimistic one. In a conscious, yet instinctive, desire to counteract the negativity of the world around us, particularly as presented by the media, Reilly, in her brightly coloured, semi-naive paintings of the New Zealand landscape, flora and fauna, presents us with a world in which the prevailing forces are not chaos and suffering, but those of joy, lucidity, freedom, calmness and order. That is not to say, however, that this is an entirely idyllic world - at times troubled skies hint of storms to come, and nature is shown to be at the mercy of humankind.
The paintings on show in West to East are Reilly's direct and personal response to two specific, and contrasting, South Island locations: Banks Peninsula on the East Coast, and Te Kinga, near Moana, on the West Coast. Whether depicting the vigorous, playful tuis flying and feeding in the lush and abundant wilderness of Te Kinga, or the more earnest shags, herons, and pukeko in the barren beauty of Banks Peninsula, Reilly has approached her easel with the same intent: to translate into art her emotional, intuitive response to the scene that has inspired her. Reilly talks of the dreamlike state that she often finds herself in when she is inspired by a particular physical environment, and it is her experience of this that she seeks to communicate in what she refers to as the 'naïve, childlike, magical qualities' of her painting. It is not an objective recording of the facts of the landscape that she is after, but an evocation, a feeling - her feeling - of the place, the scene, the spirit of the landscape and the living forms of nature within it. 'I'm not particularly interested in things being an exact representation,' she has said. 'It's more of an emotional response to the place, the light.' And, more than anything, it is an emotional response that Reilly hopes for from her viewers.
Thus although paintings such as Tui From the Mist, Silent Morning Tui, and Tui on the Harakeke were very much inspired by a specific location - Te Kinga - they are an interpretation of it, not an imitation. Seeing is itself a creative act, and Reilly is adept at picking out the salient features of the landscape to produce images that are recognisably of a particular place without needing to be topographically accurate. 'Maybe as you go along,' she says, 'you hone your skills in looking and experiencing and finding the elements that really interest you in the landscape.' Here it is the hills, the lake, the kahikatea, kanuka, harakeke, and of course, the tui, which, combine to successfully convey the spirit of the West Coast wilderness. In Ascension, Rainbird, Pukeko's Morning, and Heron, for example, it is the rounded, rhythmical forms of the hills, almost completely bereft of their native bush and flanking a tranquil expanse of water, that speak immediately of the Banks Peninsula location. Seen together, these two bodies of painting make a poignant statement about the necessity of conserving our natural heritage.
Environmental concerns are integral to Reilly's art and nowhere is this more evident than in the Banks Peninsula paintings, where pitiful remnants of native bush dot the hillsides - sad visual reminders of the widespread destruction of the forest and clearing of the land that took place in colonial times. 'I'm interested in the whole impact of human activity on the environment the way that we use the land to suit our own purposes for the moment. I can't get over the fact that they [the settlers] thought it was all there for the taking; there just to be used, and to be moved.' However, while the felling of the native forest and the dramatic impact this had on local bird populations (for example the South Island kokako) are typical of the concerns that inform her artmaking, Reilly has no desire to be didactic: 'I want to find a way of expressing my concern in a way that people either take on board or they don't. If a painting is working well, people should be able to take it on the level they want to, to access it.' Thus Reilly seeks to allow room for various possibilities in her work, and invites her viewers to experience her images in their individual way.
Reilly presents her carefully chosen, often iconic, images of the landscape within compositions that are memorable for their poise and simplicity, and in a style that has become recognisably her own. The distinctive Reilly style, evidenced in all its glory in these West to East paintings, is one characterised, above all, by exuberance and vibrancy of colour, significant simplification of form, and an emphasis on sharply defined rhythmical contours. Her images are deliberately stylised. Underpinned with a strong sense of formalised, at times decorative, orderliness, they transcend the unruliness of nature. In her treatment of every visual detail - the leaves of the harakeke, the rocks at the water's edge, raindrops on the surface of the sea, the contours of the kahikatea, Reilly applies a designer's eye for pattern and order.
Resulting in part from this sense of order and balance, and from the sharp definition of each form, as well as from the characteristically tightly painted picture surface on which brushmarks are seldom conspicuous, there is an entrancing quality of stillness to Reilly's paintings. It is as if in each of her images Reilly has captured her vision, frozen in a moment of time. Not even the varied atmospheric qualities of light have the capacity to dissolve the precise outlines of her forms.
Reilly is fascinated by the expressive power of colour, and in her painting over the years she has repeatedly used colour not only for its descriptive function - its ability to resemble nature - but also for its potential to convey moods and qualities of feeling. Nowhere is this seen better than in her treatment of light. In many of her works - Spring, Ascension, Silent Morning Tui, for example - it is the golden, hopeful light of sunrise, or the warm orange glow of late afternoon that creates with poetic intensity their spirit of joyful freedom and harmony. In others it is the cool magic of moonlight that casts a reflective, dreamlike mood over the scene; and in the Lost Shag Triptych it is as much the ominous purple-black tones of hillside and cloud-laden sky as the marked feeling of space that gives this work its lingering sense of loneliness and disquietude.
Reilly's images of the natural world are alive with feeling. She confesses that she spends her life forever looking at what's around her, very intensely, and by combining colour, form and line in her own particular and identifiable way, she succeeds in carrying us, enchanted, into the landscape of her artistic vision. To articulate this vision, shaped by the land forms of Paremata, just north of Wellington, where Reilly grew up, as well as by the characteristic hard-edged realist style of New Zealand painters such as Rita Angus and Robin White, and the modern primitivist influence of such diverse artists as Henri Rousseau and Frida Kahlo, Reilly has, over many years of prolific painting activity, developed her own personal and distinctive language. For Reilly, the 'rather selfish pastime' of painting is all about expressing this 'individual voice': 'Most of the time that I'm painting I'm in a state of bliss I do it for myself, ultimately, absolutely, first and foremost, every single time.' However, if in the process she produces visual images that her viewers can respond to emotionally, passionately, then she has 'significantly communicated to another person' and her artistic purpose is fulfilled.
One walks away from these paintings in West to East with the reassuring conviction that for as long as she has colour to paint with and a surface to paint on, Clare Reilly will continue to jubilantly wing her way, like the tuis at Te Kinga, over this domain in which she takes - and gives - so much joy. The birds say it all.
When I look back on my life, I'll be happy to
All other quotations taken from an interview with the artist, December 4, 2003
Zoe Reeves, December 2003
Tuis at Te Kinga, Left Bank Art Gallery, Greymouth, 3 Oct
- 12 Nov 2003
West to East, Gallery Lavaud, Akaroa, 27 Dec 2003 - 23 Jan