A Gritty Commitment to Social Commentary

Introduction to Telling Stories: Janice Gill

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

A good way into seeing Janice Gill’s paintings is to begin with Real, Real Unreal (101). Superficially it is about an art opening (at, as it happens, Galerie Legarde – later the Brooker Gallery – in Kelburn). Across the back of the galley are identifiable Gill paintings. The beautiful people of Wellington, wine glasses in hand, are in the space in front. They are not looking at the paintings, but talking to one another, as is not unusual at openings (if a little flustrating to the artist). Outside on the pavement – for we see the opening through a window from across the road – is a woman, a bag lady, walking along Upland Road with her wheeled trolley – apparently even bag ladies in Kelburn are mechanised – as oblivious to those inside, as they are to her. Yet she is the implicit subject of the exhibition paintings.

For they all refer to isolated women. On the left of the back wall is the woman plus baby of Wedding Breakfast (103) with the husband blocked off; in the full picture there are indications the marriage would not last (it didnt). Centre left is Anti-wallflower Academy (84); whatever the absurd loneliness of the incompatible couple at the dancing lesson, the real sadness is the women in the window in the top left hand corner looking down at them. On the right is a 40 Years On (102), sometimes referred to as New Zealand Gothic. But only the woman is seen, and unlike Grant Wood’s American equivalent, she is separated from her husband. (40 Years On was finished after Real, Real Unreal; in the full version the wife is right up next to the husband.)

Centre right is Going On (86), an elderly women walking slowly with her bags down an alley way. There is a blue sky behind her; we are uncertain what sort of sky confronts her when the alley ends. It was painted after her interregnum in Christchurch, saying‘whatever you may think of my work, I an going on with my painting right to the end’. Fortunately Nelson skies are blue.

To make a confession, Janice and I lived in Christchurch at the same time in the late 1970s (although we did not know each other then). It was a traumatic experience for her. In Southland’s Winton she had been a ‘folk’ artist painting scenes of the life around her. In Christchurch she was confronted by bag ladies and such likes, which she captures in her ‘Coca Cola Series’ (81, 83, 88, 89, 90, 91), drifting around inner Christchurch. (Significantly the series ends with Going On; her last ‘Christchurch’ painting.) Humbling for me, this Christchurch lad can easily identify the Cashel Street location of Daily Beat, Beaten Daily (91) – as easily as I can Galerie Legarde – but I have no memory of ever seeing the down-and-outs of Christchurch that she painted; I was as blind as those at the opening.

There is, of course, a fourth group in the picture; the painter on the other side of Upland Road and the viewer looking over her shoulder. Standing outside painting is usual for the viewer, but the ornate verandah post on the right which gives the painting depth, forces us to think we are in that depth.

It is a Cartier-Bresson moment. Janice’s eye clicks like a camera on an slightly absurd and yet socially insightful moment. Almost all her paintings belong to that genre.. The American series (129-135) contains no New Zealand content, but the Gill camera kept clicking away.
More like a novelist than a photographer, she rearranges the ‘facts’.She must have been inside the gallery when the original event happened, but she places herself (and the viewer) well outside. A verandah post may still be there, but three others have disappeared. (The aesthetically challenged city council has since dumped a rubbish bin in between them.) Instead, in order to give an unobtrusive left-side balance, about a quarter of the front of the gallery is set back – in fact the street front of the building is unbroken. Those who attend an opening are rarely as colour coordinated as in this picture.

Thus there is a painterly craft beneath the apparently simple naivety of her style. Her spatial perspective using layers is more Eastern than Western. That the bag lady is deliberately larger than the gallery-goers (relative to a Western perspective) is to emphasise her significance. But, as Grim Procession (200d) shows, Janice can paint Western perspective if required. The colours appear simple – their coordination is not. The shading is graded in contours to give consistency with the sharp edge. A 1986 Melbourne retrospective of recent Australian paintings was called ‘Sharp Edge, Colour Field’. So too is a Gill, except both the sharpness and the colour could also refer to her social commentary. Bag ladies are brighter for her than they are for the population at large. (The Christchurch colours were darker.) Another Gill trademark is the ‘Galerie’ on the window; in later works any commercial lettering is sometimes ‘reflected’.

The title of the work poses the question of what is real and what is unreal. We can juggle the possibilities; perhaps the beautiful people are unreal; perhaps it is the paintings on the walls. Perhaps it is the bag lady outside; because we dont see her? Perhaps even – perish the thought – we the viewers of the painting are not real.

If this Gill painting had a subtitle, it would be Inside and Outside, with the people in the gallery and the works they can afford on the inside, and the bag lady and the viewer on the outside. Janice Gill is always on the outside looking in, although there are a handful of self portraits (107, 108, 112, 126).

Yet there is a sense that every bag lady is her – not physically, for she dresses smartly enough with bright painterly colours – but empathetically. She does not have to ask for whom the bell tolls. Surprisingly perhaps, the first occasion a bag lady appears in a picture is in New Zealand Dream (18), painted when she was aged 22 still in Winton, indicating she was beginning to realise she was an outsider in a small town of 2000, even if she did not escape it for another seven years. Bag ladies and their kin become much more common thereafter.

So folk images become replaced by social commentary, although the basic notion of a narrative is never lost. Each painting is a short story, like the O’Henry stories read to her in childhood. This book elaborates Janice’s narrative, but each viewer has her or his own.

It is a lot harder to have a picture of a bag lady hanging up in the living room – unless she is Minnie Dean. A painter needs a gritty commitment to social commentary since it forecloses commercial opportunities from the beautiful people. (But not a single one in the gallery scene is portrayed satirically.)

Janice did not much like Christchurch, some 200 times the size of Winton – there are no loving Christchurch scenes — and at the end of 1978 she moved to Nelson, only 30 times as big. The Nelson paintings mix local scenes with bag ladies and other marginals. There are fewer urban landscapes and buildings compared to the Winton years; perhaps painting social activity is easier when one is not meeting exactly the same people of one’s childhood over and over again; perhaps it is easier to be an outsider in a larger community.

The canvas broadens. A new genre is the ‘suits’ – men and women, any personal identity submerged under the suits they wear. (95, 96, 145, 147, 158, 1712, 174, 177) Why did she became aware of suits in Nelson rather than Christchurch? A bigger town is more compartmentalised: one guesses she did not spend a lot of time in Christchurch International Airport or Hereford Street. Her world of suits and her world of bag ladies are in closer proximity than most of us think. There but for fortune …

I am not sure whether those her ‘suits’ pictures of the mirror glass offices of the finance sector (sometimes the suited figures are relaced by those that they oppress) in the 1990s recall the 1987 crash or predict the 2008 one. (from 145) Certainly they are a bridge between them.

Janice’s output diminishes from 1988 with fewer and smaller paintings, as the OOS following the farm accident limited her painting time, and revised her painting technique. The narrative retains the sharp eye and the social field, but she becomes as well integrated into Nelson life as an outsider can be.

The oeuvre may understate her life in the Labour Party – as an activist and as the local political organiser to three MPs. She may have helped form the only new branch of the Labour Party in the difficult times after the 1987 election; it was women’s branch to relieve the oppression of Rogernomics.

Is Janice a feminist? Use of the term is fraught with difficulties . There is little doubt that Janice the woman is empathetic with those women in difficult circumstances, but men can also be sensitively painted. L.S. Lowry would have responded to the man in Community Care (146); would he have been as responsive to the woman in New World in the Morning (161)? It is important to Janice that All Solo Mothers are Not the Same (141), each of her marginalised subjects is an individual (and often identifiable) person; although the suits are not always.

So while Janice is capturing the social life and people of of Nelson just has she did for Winton. Her Nelson is bouncing along, and occasionally illustrates a particular event. The first such picture is Election Night at Richmond in 1981 (107); thereafter other references to national events appear. But the heart of the narrative is people struggling through their lives. Her Labour Party is about these people; when it neglected them, she turned from the party. She returned when Helen Clark became its leader.

There are timeless quality to her Winton paintings; even the myths of Minnie Dean and Hokonui whiskey seem suspended in the same eternal space. The Nelson pictures are of an evolving community; the Burgess gang myth adds to the length of its evolution. O’Henry’s stories paint pictures of people living in a definableAmerican city. Janice Gill paintings tells just as compassionate and humorous stories of people living in a Nelson.

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