Janice Gill: Artist Of the Narrative and the Marginalised

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

The first paintings I saw by Janice Gill were at an exhibition at the Gallerie Legard on Kelburn’s Upland Road. I was particularly taken by one based on her previous opening. It looked from across the street through the gallery window at the guests sipping wine, talking to one another, but not looking at the paintings. The exception is the gallery director – presumably the much-loved Kay Roberts, for you can only see her back – looking at the wall with Gill’s paintings across them. Someone is walking through the door: a friend says it was John Drawbridge, although Janice tells me she did not have anyone specifically in mind. Anyway, let’s say it is a fellow artist, who is looking at the street in front, where one of the bag ladies – a painting of another is a part of the exhibition – walks along the pavement. She is oblivious to the ‘beautiful people’ inside, they oblivious to her, or to the painting about her.

It’s a Cartier-Bresson moment, where the artist clicks onto a reality that others of us see only in retrospect. Janice and I both lived in Christchurch in the 1970s (although we never met). Janice saw bag ladies and painted in locations familiar to me, such as Cashel Street. I saw them first in her paintings.

Wellingtonians (and perhaps others) go to openings (and book launches) as social occasions. Often you cant see the works because the patrons stand in the way, looking away from the pictures on the walls, networking instead. Sure – some buy, and some regret they cannot. But how many engage with the works on the night? Especially if they are Gill’s, portraying the lives of the bag ladies and their marginalised kin.

Not that the paintings are exact images of the click. (The gallery door was located differently from the way it is shown in the picture.) But the essence of a Gill painting is the narrative – the representation of both a particular reality and a universal verity. That first painting to take my eye is called – appropriately given its self-referential content – ‘Real, Real, Unreal’ (1981) (you work out to whom the labels refer). However – in a frustration with which many artists are familiar – I think of it as ‘Inside and Outside’. Janice is definitely the outsider.

Renaming is not as serious an arrogance as the behaviour of the patron who thinks ownership of a painting confers ownership of the image – copyright law is clear that it remains with the artist, other than in exceptional circumstances. Sometimes the renaming captures an essence which the artists knows anyway. When I call the painting of the bag lady hanging on the Gallerie Legard wall, ‘The Streets of Christchurch’ – its actual title is ‘Going On’ (1980) – I am recalling Ralph McTell’s “Have you seen the old girl/ Who walks the streets of London/ Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?/ She’s no time for talking, /She just keeps right on walking/ Carrying her home in two carrier bags.”

Yet while there is passion in Janice’s painting – and sly humour, visual and often verbal including in the titles – rarely is there overt anger. Maybe it is her bright colours. ‘Forty Years On’, with its bag lady walking down a dark narrow lane to age, death and oblivion, is the darkest Gill I know. But let not the careful choice of contrasting colours obscure the sharp lines of the geometrical design, often involving overlapping rectangles. Some paintings are Piet Mondrians with a superimposed narrative.

It’s the narrative with which most observers engage. A “Listener” column, for instance, always has some deep analytic propositions – like the disciplines of a painter – over which is patterned a story to engage the reader. Getting the balance between narrative and analytics is harder than it appears. Well done it seems easy – but it aint. The superficial may read (or see) only the narrative and fail to see the underlying analytics.

But neither should the narrative be ignored. Janice first painted Winton, where she grew up, and surrounding Southland: the buildings, local characters, old machinery, workplaces, recreation, railway and Stewart Island scenes, recreating places and events familiar to the locals but hardly known to New Zealanders living to the north. Two local myths are the repeatedly portrayed: Minnie Dean, Winton celebrity and the only woman legally hanged in New Zealand (for baby murder, in 1895); and illicit whiskey distilling in the nearby Hokonuis. Such themes gave Janice an early reputation as a folk painter.

But her entire oeuvre of the time is the creation of a Southland world of its people and its places. One day a retrospective will have the locals saying ‘this is who we are, this is what we are really like’. Expatriate Trevor Agnew, writing about his desire to return to the South, wants again ‘to see the thirty shades of green that Janice Gill used to paint the Southland landscape’.

At the age of 29, Janice moved north to the Christchurch branch of the stock and station agent for whom she worked, where she met a harsher, less cosy, world. The resulting images are more urban and the marginalised appear more often, together with business men from the other end of the social spectrum.

A short stay there has been followed by a quarter of century in Nelson where again the paintings recreate the locality with buildings, shopping, click moments which capture the nostalgia or the pomposity of a ceremony. And people – bag ladies, the unemployed, solo mothers, workers – paintings of those who would not normally expect to be subject of portraits.

I call her ‘Community Care’ painting (1991), ‘The Lowry Man’, not only for the obvious parallel with his matchstick men, but because Janice has a passion to paint the ordinary people of her community, as they are, with affection and without judgement, just as Lowry did for his Salford. Art critic Richard Dingwall writes ‘her achievement is to have created a remarkable body of work that is entirely distinctive and fully realised within its own terms.’

Over the years she has travelled: click moments in America, in Auckland, in art deco Napier, in Wellington. Some pictures recall her active involvement in the Labour Party – the traditional Labour Party with its commitment to the marginalised. Others satirise the business culture – often accompanied by business logos and mirror glass buildings. Now the business people include women, but they too remain oblivious of the marginalised around them.

Ironically, and sadly, Janice became a beneficiary following an accident while working on a farm. She has had a long battle with the Accident Compensation Corporation for appropriate rehabilitation and work options since the use of her arm is limited. She too has faced the reality of the subordination and humiliation which thousands of beneficiaries experience. The physical injury mean that she paints with less freedom and for fewer hours. All painter’s styles change with time, but in recent years Gill’s work has become smaller, tighter and fewer are painted.

Janice recently revisited her ‘folk artist’ tradition, painting a series on the Burgess Gang – the Maungatapu murderers of 1866 – acquired by the Nelson Provincial Museum – Pupuri Taonga O Te Tai Ao. The series involved new challenges, not just from the physical limitation. ‘Grim Procession’ (2004) – the bringing of the four bodies down the mountain – dispenses with her usual rectangles, its strong diagonals converging on the peaceful Waimea Plains below. The four telephone polls – crosses for the bodies (and homage to McCahon) – also reflect research as meticulous as the painting, for the line had been installed only a couple of months before the murders and was then the new-fangled amenity. The down-sloping winding track is through dark bush – detailed fern and beech forest – her first real landscape, for normally she has been a painter of towns and people.

Gills has provided three book covers. Art and book covers often do not go well together (unless they are art books). McCahon’s landscape “The Promised Land” is a central notion in my ‘The Nationbuilders’ but it took skill by the book’s designer, Katrina Duncan, to get the ‘landscape’ painting comfortably on a ‘portrait’ cover.

It was perhaps inevitable that the cover of Lynley Hood’s biography of Minnie Dean should have a work painted specifically by Janice Gill. She also illustrated my ‘Wages and the Poor’, a book written in 1986 to demonstrate that there was an alternative to Rogernomics– one Labour cabinet minister of the era received three Christmas copies from concerned friends. The cover picture portrayed a poor family in simple surroundings, but still maintaining their dignity.

For ‘The Whimpering of the State: Policy after MMP’, we were getting desperate for a cover. Suddenly Janice’s ‘Lunchtime Wellington: Rogernomics in Progress’ (1989) became obvious. It shows from outside the building site a large hole where the foundations of the Mayfair Centre were being laid. (In the course of its construction, the cost of the building crashed three major corporations.) Behind it are other identifiable Wellington buildings (although not in location). Three suited spectators gaze admiringly at the hole, oblivious to the young punks walking to the left or the bag lady to the right. The picture had to be trimmed slightly on both sides to fit the cover more easily, and the 1987 wall slogan ‘Prebble without a cause’ (a reference to the then minister of State Owned Enterprises with a propensity to sell off everything) had to be removed for a book about the late 1990s.

Our writers have largely avoided the topics that Janice paints (and I write about). One exception is Maurice Gee. His novel Crime Story contrasts the criminality of the underclass with the no more moral activities of financiers. A wife of a financier is walking her dog along ‘Upland Road, past the doctor’s rooms and the reassuringly scruffy seven-day dairy. The gallery – another station on her dutiful way – came next, with new paintings in place, ugly and bright. Deliberately ugly? There was a lot of that about, and now and then she saw the point. Deliberately beautiful never had anything to say, or even show, when you got down to it. She did not tie the dog up and go in, had not sufficient strength of mind for glum women with shopping bags and jowly Roundtablers – were they? – even in paint. She did not want to know about hunger and poverty, either of the body or the mind, not just now. There were times for being angry and times for fear, and the air was fresh this afternoon, the wind lifting the petrol fumes into the upper air. She did not want her easiness disturbed.’

Janice Gill uses her painterly craft to disturb our easiness.

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