Janice Gill: Painter (index)

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

Challenges to the Comfortable

Janice Gill: The Narrative of the Marginalised


The following review was written by Richard Dingwall in 2004, but not published. It is reprinted with his permission.

One of Janice Gill’s recent commission was to paint the hand of God in a rosy glow, and to repaint Jacob’s ladder, and to add four symbols to an existing panel in the local Masonic Hall S a chalice, an anchor, a cross and an alms bowl. She was originally also asked to paint over a pair of angels but it was decided to leave these where the original artist had put them. After all, it was explained to her, although they had no specific symbolic meaning for the Masons, angels are all around us.

This commission to repaint the panel at a local lodge came via the doyen of Nelson painters Jane Evans who was originally offered the commission but declined, suggesting Gill as a substitute. That Gill accepted is a testimony not only to her status as hard-up artist but also to an affinity that she feels with the untutored hand of the original panel painter.

In 1969, as a nineteen-year-old in Winton keen to paint a scene of local interest, Janice Gill exhibited a painting based on the story of Minnie Dean, the notorious baby farmer who was hanged for the murder of one of her charges. Her painting showed Dean descending from the train at Winton railway station, clutching an ill-starred infant. The work caused controversy at the local Art Society. The death and secret burial of society’s unwanted children was an event that both horrified and fascinated Southlanders, but it was still only ever discussed in hushed whispers, and was obviously not the proper subject for a painting. This was the first of a dozen or so paintings on this theme including a commissioned work for the cover of Lynley Hood’s book on Minnie Dean

There was another sense in which this first painting offended against artistic decorum. Not only did the railway lines, in the artist’s own words, climb all over the surface, but she seemed not to care.

Gill moved to Invercargill where she attended night classes with the artist Jim Gilmore who is an enthusiast for so-called naive art. He showed her reproductions of Grandma Moses (Ann Mary Robertson) and Henri Rousseau (Le Douanier). In these works she discovered the principles that have governed her art ever since : she would have no formal training, and what she painted would mostly be drawn from everyday life. For example, in a group composition painted in the year 2000 of a Nelson market (she has lived in Nelson for almost twenty years) one customer carries a newspaper on which the headline “Crisis in Fiji” can be clearly read, while in the background a caravan sports a banner for local National MP, Nick Smith.

The power of this insistence on the contingent can be fully measured looking at some of her early paintings. In the series Waiting for the Southerner there is much local detail. In the waiting room a New Zealand Railways (remember them?) official enters with her function emblazoned on the breast of her blue uniform. She is a hostess. Youngsters play guitars and sing while a matron drinks tea from a flask. These details evoke an earlier time with surprising potency. They have as much immediacy as those thick rimmed white tea cups that turn up in second hand shops, and because the artist’s interest is with actual events, the images are largely free of sentimentality. The woman in the blue uniform may have the title of hostess but she is not exactly welcoming.

Like Le Douanier Rousseau, Gill has arrived at a style that is distinctively her own. She makes light of her shortcomings as a representational painter, even making a virtue of them. Recently she has used masking tape to make her buildings sharper, giving her figures, painted freehand, a contrasting softness. Her men and women are either in profile or face on, and over the years she has devised a distinctive five tone modeling technique to give solidity to their bodies. The effect may appear toy-like, but this is a sophisticated and highly-developed system for displaying ordinary life and, because it allows her to describe what she sees without the art getting in the way, it is far superior, for her purposes, to the realistic rendering of figures.

Gill’s proud claim to be untutored should not be mistaken for ignorance or innocence. Early portraits of tradesmen working in her native Winton show the printer of the local newspaper and the shoemaker in their workshops and are in a venerable tradition of craft portraits. One thinks of the Zoffany portrait of the optician John Cuff that was part of the selection of the Queen’s pictures that toured New Zealand in 1994. Furthermore, Gill’s paintings often contain social commentary. Many of her works rail against financial institutions and those who grow rich through them, contrasting their uncaring affluence with the plight of ordinary people. One satire features a terrifying bag lady walking despondently past the glass window of a dealer gallery where invited guests at an opening are sipping wine and talking. So preoccupied are they with themselves that they stand with their backs to the art on the walls. They are equally blind to the poverty in the wider world around them.

The bag lady represents the outsider, a frequent figure in Gill’s group paintings. A child stares balefully at the viewer amid the crowds outside the Winton pub. A man at the back catches our eyes amid the bustle of the station. These are disturbing figures, momentarily detached from the flow of everyday life, yet they animate the scenes they inhabit by catching our attention and challenging our right to spy on these lives. Gill clearly sees herself as something of a misfit, an artist who has ignored the flow of contemporary practice. There is some truth in this. Her achievement is to have created a remarkable body of work that is entirely distinctive and fully realized within its own terms.

There is an increased urgency about her hopes for wider recognition. It seems the damage to her arm limits the time she can spend painting each day. Sadly, Autumn Market, a painting that took nine months to complete, may be her last large scale painting. It would be nice if one of those angels that are apparently all around us, maybe the one that according to legend helped St Matthew write the first gospel, could, as he did with the saint guide her arm, and help her keep painting these fascinating records of our everyday life.

Richard Dingwall (1984)

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