Max Podstolski & the Primitive Bird Group
Art New Zealand no. 118 / Autumn 2006, p.62-65
The art collective the Primitive Bird Group was the brainchild of Christchurch-based artists Max Podstolski and Clare Reilly.1 Founded in 2002, it was established to provide a forum for the discussion and exchange of ideas in the hope that there would develop a sense of community between like-minded artists. To date, Podstolski and Reilly remain the only members of the cooperative with their partnership central to the PBG identity. Since its inception both artists have exhibited together under the guise of the Primitive Bird Group, although each has been careful to maintain a sense of their own identity within this context.
The 2003 PBG exhibition held at Christchurch's Salamander Gallery, for example, simultaneously presented Podstolski's show Raw, Spontaneous, Pictographic and Reilly's Enchanted Wilderness. The same modus operandi was evident in PBG exhibitions during 2004-5.2 Although the success of the PBG can be largely attributed to the tight working relationship between its two affiliates, here it is the work of Podstolski that I intend to consider in more depth; an artist whose work constitutes a resolutely personal project.
Though only a recent development within the span of his career, the Primitive Bird Group provides a vehicle through which to explore a number of themes that have remained constant within Podstolski's practice. A brief sweep through the artist's back catalogue of work reveals that titles are an important reference point in understanding his paintings. The name of each piece is carefully considered, not tacked on as an afterthought, and as such must be recognised as an intrinsic piece of the puzzle. The same is true of the PBG. Not an arbitrarily ascribed label, this name symbolically characterises each artist's particular attitude toward their art. The Primitive Bird Group, then, incorporates the key ingredients that inform Podstolski's work.
Podstolski was drawn to painting from an early age but only began to think seriously about his practice from the 1970s. Two moments in particular were pivotal in cementing his commitment to art during this early period. After enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts degree at Victoria University in 1971 Podstolski soon abandoned his studies and relocated in 1974 to the Wairarapa where he lodged with a friend who was, in Podstolski's words, living an 'alternative lifestyle'.3 Having for some time neglected his art, it was in this environment that he again began to paint. Six months later Podstolski was back in Wellington and enjoying the company of a small circle of artist and musician friends. The following year he participated, along with others from this dynamic group, in what was to be his first exhibition: Seven Young Wellington Artists, Antipodes Gallery, Wellington, 1976.4 The experience of working towards this show and his time spent in the Wairarapa district were formative influences in shaping the young artist's future direction.
Until participating in the Antipodes Gallery exhibition Podstolski had thought of himself as an amateur artist, producing paintings that were entirely for himself, not for public consumption. This is an important point which needs to be emphasised. As a self-taught artist Podstolski had openly acknowledged that he sees himself as something of a primitive painter. This is of course not meant in any pejorative sense but, rather, describes an untrained approach, raw and intuitive, unfettered by institutional rhetoric. From the outset Podstolski was concerned with a form of painting that was an extension of his own inner being. Certainly this may not have been a fully articulated realization in 1976, but Podstolski has since reiterated the discovery and expression of self as guiding principles in his work. Art school was never a real option then, Podstolski instead determining to embrace the 'primitive' and concentrate his practice on drawing out his own innate artistic tendencies. To return briefly to the Wairarapa, it is also tempting to suggest the rather romantic notion that the more elemental, grass-roots lifestyle Podstolski experienced at the time also allowed him to embrace and nurture the primitive spirit within.
Podstolski's enthusiasm for the primitive has been spurred on by his interest in the work of twentieth century Primitivist artists such as Joan Miró, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and the CoBrA group. He is naturally drawn to the principles espoused by these artists, in particular their desire to create art that was a genuine expression of inner emotion. Stylistically, the surrealist overtones of Podstolski's canvases break with the realm of surface appearance in search of a purity of expression, while the abstract pictographic imaging is indebted to the work of Klee. Podstolski reminded us of his admiration for Kandinsky by appropriating his dictum as the title of his most recent show; Internal Necessity is the mother... opened at the Centre of Contemporary Art,Christchurch in November 2005.5
Notions of truth, subjectivity and origins - all fundamental concepts in Podstolski's art - have proved highly unfashionable in much contemporary art-theoretical discourse. Postmodernism in particular has rendered the search for origins a naїve undertaking and has refused the idea of authenticity. Once celebrated ideals, individuality and 'the self' have become concepts increasingly under pressure. This kind of postmodern cynicism holds no interest for Podstolski however. Indeed William McAloon has rightly commented that, 'Podstolski is not concerned with replaying a style and making ironic references to the assumptions and conditions of that style, but rather continues as if it had never died'.6 For this artist 'the illusion of inner necessity' is as important now as it ever was.7 As Podstolski has remarked, 'the spiritual in art is not a matter of religious belief but of the freedom of the artist to be guided by internal subjectivity, to go his or her own way in defiance of art world fashion or theory, or any kind of externally-imposed social determinism'.8
There is of course a certain paradox in this. To consciously position oneself as a 'primitive' artist is, at the same time, to demonstrate an awareness of the civilised self. Podstolski has become increasingly aware of this dilemma. As his painting practice has matured, so has he attempted to explore the relation between his primitive self and his civilised self. As Podstolski puts it, his art has become a "continual process of pushing the boundaries of the self"; a discovery of the multi-dimensional.9 Where early Podstolski was characterised by a controlled dissection of the picture plane, lines perfectly rendered and forms painstakingly filled, later paintings often avoid this kind of obsessive indulgence in favour of a freer aesthetic. This can be seen in a recent painting like Internal Necessity (Bird) where trademark hieroglyphic forms, drawn in relief using PVA glue, cover the surface of the work. But gone is the meticulous smooth finish, replaced by the rough, gestural application of paint. A work like Totemic Figures from the same series is slightly more contained, however the use of vibrant colour and doodle-like pattern demonstrates a more exuberant and light-hearted personality than is evident in some earlier pieces.
While not a painter of birds in any strict representational sense, the bird form has nonetheless been a recurring and important symbol in Podstolski's work throughout his career. Of course the bird is a common motif within contemporary New Zealand art practice; one need only think of the stylised bird forms characteristic of Don Binney's paintings or the primeval bird-men that inhabit the landscapes of Bill Hammond. The work of Pippa Sanderson and Tom Mutch too is populated by strange bird-like creatures, while the paintings of Joanna Braithwaite explore relationships between birds, animals and humans. In each case there is a grappling with identity; an interrogation of nature/culture distinctions.
To an extent these distinctions are important in Podstolski's work too. His work is constantly engaged in dialogue between his innate artistic tendencies (nature) and the experimental urge to expand his practice (culture). Podstolski thus considers the bird an object of symbolic import capable of representing the state of mind to which he aspires in the act of painting. He states: 'part of my "bird" nature is continually seeking new freedoms, having an inbuilt claustrophobic aversion to being trapped in a cage of my own making'.10
In a more literal way Podstolski has suggested his connection to an avian sensibility by creating his own species of hybrid 'birdmen'. Developing his own visual lexicon of stylised forms and improvised symbols that exploit a bird-like character, works such as Identity (People are Birds) (1996), Figure with Wings (1998) and Birdman (2002) [later repainted] directly express the conflation of identities experienced by the artist.
To be an individualist and follow a distinctly personal path is not always an easy choice, and Podstolski has at times felt this burden. An important factor behind his decision to set up the Primitive Bird Group was the artist's sense of being an outsider and the collective was in some part hoped to counter this feeling of isolation. Certainly there are a number of ways in which he might be seen to assume this outsider identity, although like other aspects of Podstolski's philosophy there are slippages and contradictions that complicate his position.
As I have already suggested, Podstolski's primitive painting practice has been a significant contributing factor to his sense of working in the margins. Devoted to the representation of his own psychic interiority, his work occupies a peripheral space outside of the dominant concerns of the contemporary art world. Rather than capitulating to the most recent artistic trend, Podstolski has remained steadfastly committed to realising his own idiosyncratic vision; a vision predicated on the belief that his art must be a genuinely personal rendering of his inner world.
Within the domestic context specifically Podstolski has, ironically, felt something of a foreigner. Yet whether or not this position can be sustained is arguable. The artist's Polish heritage might most obviously be pointed to in his defense. In 2001 Podstolski held a joint exhibition with his sister, Julie Podstolski, in Perth, Western Australia. Called Poles Apart, the show alluded to the conceptual distance between the artists' respective practices, as well as the physical distance between the two siblings now living in different countries. At another level,the idea of separation and difference suggested by the title might also be read as a broader reference to the dislocated identity of the immigrant family. However, this is not a position Podstolski has sanctioned.
Podstolski is more inclined to reconcile his outsider status with his interest in the primitive. However, like the paradox inherent in his self-aware primitive status, to label oneself an outsider but continue to work as an exhibiting artist within mainstream art institutions is problematic. Similarly the outsider persona sits awkwardly within the shared identity of the Primitive Bird Group collective. Even to talk of being an outsider is to be associated with, and part of, a peculiar sub-culture. Podstolski seems to recognise this when he states that, 'I don't depict primitive landscapes from the "outside in", as much as inhabit my own primitive landscape "from the inside out".'11 And despite finding little commonality with much New Zealand art there is a strong tradition of the outsider artist in this country to which Podstolski might be aligned; from the 'otherness' experienced by indigenous artists in post-contact Aotearoa to the Dutch immigrant Theo Schoon or the late Michael Illingworth. But none of this invalidates Podstolski's work. On the contrary, such incongruity simply mirrors the complexity of his venture.
Podstolski's oeuvre is marked by paradox and contradiction. It is at once a journey to discover the self and an attempt to break free of individual constraints. There is an intuitive primitive tendency that belies the self-consciousness of this approach. His work embodies the tension between his identity as 'outsider' and the humanist desire to be linked to a wider collective identity. Despite this apparent incommensurability, Podstolski remains dedicated to the idea that his art must be an authentic expression of his true self; a self that is endlessly difficult to pin down, often conflicted and shadowed by doubt. Many of the ideals that are important to his painting had their 'golden day' in the modernist era and have since been challenged and reformulated in contemporary discourse. No matter for Podstolski who pursues his own agenda with a singular vision. Even if the innate, authentic self to which he appeals is naught but a chimera, a completely illusory concept, it is for Podstolski the very necessary illusion that governs his art.
2The Primitive Bird Group exhibited at the Aigantighe Art Gallery, Timaru in 2004 and held two shows in 2005 at the Orion Powerhouse Gallery, Akaroa and Salamander Gallery, Christchurch.
3Max Podstolski, e-mail correspondence, 10 January 2006.
4Also included in the exhibition were Reilly, Stuart Porter (founding member of the Wellington based experimental jazz outfit the Primitive Art Group), Peter Baker, Prue Donald and Peter Bennett.
7Max Podstolski, Imperial Clem: the Scapegoat of the Contemporary Art World, *spark-online, no. 6.0, March 2000.
8Podstolski quoted in Warren Feeney, Internal Necessity is the mother...
9Max Podstolski, e-mail correspondence 10 January 2006.