Challenges to the Comfortable

Listener: 22 December, 1984.

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

It is strange to recall the public outcry caused by the arrival of abstraction in painting. We now accept that form and colour are relevant and important. Abstract painting is now safe, for while it challenges us intellectually there is – as with landscapes – a distance between the picture and our human preoccupations. Where then does the painter af social realism, the commentator an our lives, fit in? Not in the boardroom or the living-room; paintings which glare at us, challenging the way we live, do. not belong in those places – do. they?

Take far example Nelson painter Janice Gill’s “The Bludgers”, exhibited recently at Wallington’s Galerie Legard. A well-heeled couple holding their superannuation payments are walking past a wall of young people who (though the painting does not tell us this) we know are unemployed. There are overtones of a gang. The young towering menacingly over the elderly pair. The mood of a stream of the nation is captured – but what superannuitant or potential superannuitant is going to put that picture in their living-roam?

Painting after painting of Gill’s challenges us about the world we live in. In “Evicted” we see a madonna-like solo mother standing outside the ticky-tacky house she has been ejected from, while through the door we see the dark-suited bailiffs. In “Pension Day Perks” we see a woman with her pension-day special – a milkshake. Yes, same of the elderly have a right to. be angry too. In “A Crisis of Confidence” the neatness and formality af the day clinic at a psychiatric unit contrasts with the patients’ condition of mind. And before some doctor puts it on the wall, note the hierarchy af authority, with the middle-aged Maori nurse among the patients, and the ward office behind occupied by the Pakeha young doctor.

Not that social realism has to. be grim. Gill’s medium is acrylic on canvas or board, whose bright colours often seem to. belie the message. And there is also humour. Corso supporters will chuckle over the Ceylon tea chest in which the evicted woman has placed her possessions. The day clinic of “A Crisis of Confidence” has an absurd set of houseand-garden-type magazines scattered on the floor. “Women’s Work”, a finely controlled composition, shows a large group of women at a bargain sale struggling for remnants, not unlike a forward pack in the loose, and their men standing outside the shop – on the sideline?

Nor need social realism always be bitter. There is the loving “A Lovely Way to Spend the Day”, showing a 50-ish suited son. pushing his wheelchaired mother around the Klée exhibition. She is enjoying the day, the family occasion, and the paintings – as no doubt did Gill. The humour of this picture is the wheelchair’s rug in colours which Klée would have enjoyed.

There is also the very personal painting “The Face I Was Looking for Was Not There”, showing the Gill family and friends standing in front of her father’s open grave. It is a marvellous composition, with the perspective lines of coffin and grave focusing on the living family, shown. only up to their shoulders. Instantly we recall how in our childhood social and family gatherings we always looked’ for our father’s head, which seemed higher than the rest. This painting I have referred to on more than one occasion recently, when friends have talked about the loss of their father. Not surprisingly the painting was NFS.

Janice Gill is not alone in portraying our social reality. Perhaps it was my naivety but I was surprised’ that the “Anxious Images” of the Auckland City Art Gallery exhibition now touring the.
country are frequently images of the family under stress. Nigel Brown’s realism can be uncomfortable too; as in that print of the Tour, showing the rugby field and a stormtrooper.

But where do we put our social realist paintings? In the case of Janice Gill, “Evicted” should be in the Ayes lobby of Parliament, “A Crisis of Confidence” should be in the office of the Director of Mental Health, “Pension Day Perks”. should be in a students’ association office, and. “The Bludgers” .should be in, say, the Northern Club. We comfortable need to be challenged.

The social realist is painting issues as universal as colour and form – the conflict of old and young, the affluent and the marginal, the comfortable and the disinherited, life and death. These are issues which will not go away with the election of a Labour government. They did not in 1935; they will not in 1984.

Also other reviews of Gill’s work