The Flight of the Primitive Bird Group

[Text accompanying the Primitive Bird Group exhibition at the Salamander Gallery, Christchurch, 6-25 May 2003 - Clare Reilly: Enchanted Wilderness & Max Podstolski: Raw, Spontaneous, Pictographic]

In April 2002 we - my partner Clare Reilly and I - held our first exhibition as the Primitive Bird Group, at the Left Bank Art Gallery in Greymouth. That was followed by a second PBG show at the Gallery Akaroa in January 2003, and now this third one at the Salamander Gallery, Christchurch. Prior to that, from 1976 to 2001, while we had exhibited on numerous occasions in joint and group (as well as solo) shows, mainly in Wellington and Christchurch, we had not identified as a group.

Our rationale for forming a group - 'a number of persons or things considered collectively' - was to overcome the relative isolation that goes with the territory of being painters. We became the Primitive Bird Group 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, albeit expressed in totally different ways.

Clare's painting can be categorised as semi-naïve, in the tradition of Henri Rousseau, shading into the magical realism of her 'enchanted wilderness', while my 'raw, spontaneous, pictographic' style sits more comfortably in the tradition of modern primitivists like Klee, Miro, Dubuffet, and the CoBrA Movement.

This is how we arrived at the name Primitive Bird Group … In late 2001, after a joint exhibition with my sister Julie Podstolski in Perth, I had been dreaming of making contact with other artists like myself, assuming I could find any - those able to identify with counter-mainstream groups like CoBrA or the ROAR Collective in Australia; probably because I was reaching the end of my 40's, and looking back a quarter century to my impressionable years in Wellington, circa 1974-75.

Around that time I had dropped out of Victoria University, done my 'alternative' stint in the Wairarapa, and was hanging round with some other young artists cum musos cum poets cum dilettantes (as my concerned father thought I was). One auspicious day a friend took me to a derelict house in Everton Terrace, next to the Cable Car, which some artists I hadn't met were renting and using as a studio.

And bumped into Clare, just returned from visiting Europe, who was one of them. Aside from the fact that it was love at second, if not strictly-speaking first sight, between the two of us, the studio (as it was referred to) was to become the gathering point for the participants in our first proper exhibition, Seven Young Wellington Artists, at the Antipodes Gallery in 1976. Later that year we moved to Christchurch and got married. Despite continuing to exhibit in Wellington, we gradually lost touch with the scene there.

One of the other exhibitors and habitués of the studio, Stuart Porter, was later to become a founder member of the Primitive Art Group, the Wellington-based fringe jazz group that achieved notoriety and posthumous 'legendary' status. The anarchic improvisations of the PAG had much in common with the free creative spirit of the studio and the exhibition that came out of it: primitive, bold, experimental, colourful, quirky, and daring to 'just do it', even if it meant being dismissed as ill-disciplined and off the wall by mainstream standards.

In 2001, some years after the Primitive Art Group had metamorphosed into Six Volts and whatever permutation after that, I began to dwell on the resonance I still found in it. Here were a bunch of courageously free-spirited musicians who enigmatically called themselves an 'art group', and a 'primitive' one at that. They had represented something that I, a primitivist painter feeling out of place in a soulless postmodern era, fancied myself belonging to if only I could find my way back to it - to a sort of chimera that no longer existed apart from the record albums left behind as evidence.

But then the realization dawned on me that the communality I sought might already exist, right under my nose, if only I could see beyond the surface dissimilarities of Clare's and my art. When I suggested the idea Clare loved it, and after much discussion we substituted 'bird' for 'art' to create the Primitive Bird Group: a name with its own unique connotations which nevertheless does maintain a convoluted link with our Wellington background.

In December 2002 we set up the Primitive Bird Group website at A Google search on "primitive bird group" or "primitive bird" retrieves this site along with many more on long extinct primordial birds, such as archaeopteryx - essentially feathered dinosaurs which could fly, if only rudimentarily. People searching for scientific information on primitive bird fossils might be momentarily diverted to find our site coming up as well.

Then there are the more recently-extinct primitive bird groups such as moas and dodos, and still existing ones including emus and kiwis. On another website can be found A Short History of the World (1922) by H.G. Wells, which states in the section headed The First Birds and the First Mammals: "That peculiarly primitive bird, the New Zealand Ki-wi, has feathers of a very simple sort, and neither flies nor appears to be descended from flying ancestors."

It is peculiar that such a primitive bird as the kiwi - virtually wingless as well as flightless - is our national icon. On a symbolic level, it seems, we Kiwis as a people constitute yet another kind of 'primitive bird group': handicapped by our collective psyche of flightlessness, isolated from the rest of the world by vast oceans, and having to resort to no. 8 fencing wire to do the best job possible under the circumstances. But necessity is also the mother of invention.

The question is, how do we manage to fly symbolically, to transcend the entrapment of our particular human predicament, if we are symbolically bereft of wings, or have been led to believe that we are? A short story by C.K. Stead provides a beautiful take on this, updating and recontextualizing the myth of Icarus. Julian Harp is a young Aucklander who figures out how to fly like a bird, with home-made wings fashioned from umbrella struts and fabric, and thereby manages to rise above pedestrianizing Kiwi society once and for all, vanishing into the distance never to be seen again:

He rose a little higher with each stroke of his wings and even when he seemed to try for a moment to come down and almost went into a spin I didn't understand what was happening. I didn't think about whether he intended to go on climbing like that I was so completely absorbed in the look of it, the wings opening and the sunlight striking through the fabric showing the pattern of the struts, and then closing and lifting the tiny figure of Julian another wing-beat up and out and away from us. (C.K. Stead, "A Fitting Tribute" in: Five for the Symbol, Longman Paul, 1981, pp. 61-62.)

This can be read as a parable for the rite of passage that people, not just artists, must undergo if they are to achieve originality and break away from conventional mediocrity, where being different makes you an oddball, where everyone should learn how to do things 'properly', and where the tyranny of unmitigated common sense can reduce everything to the lowest, commonest, dullest denominator.

To persevere in one's folly or madness, to keep doing things in your own idiosyncratic way despite the knockers, may be a path strewn with obstacles and dangers but also brings with it the possibility of symbolic flight and transcendence. The Primitive Bird Group is about realizing and communicating this vision of symbolic flight.


Max Podstolski, 2003