justin paton's warren viscoe: life and limb

book review

"I have a sense of empathy and admiration for people I see building, risking life and limbs pursuing something of a dream. " Warren Viscoe

This elegantly written and designed monograph examines three decades of sculpture and writings by and about New Zealand artist, Warren Viscoe, who emerges as a major contributor to contemporary, trans-Tasman art, as well as to New Zealand sculpture. Indeed, author Justin Paton, suggests Viscoe's work 'is as significant to this nation's art as the pohutakawa tree is to (the) natural landscape'. So why Viscoe is virtually unknown beyond New Zealand presents a conundrum, for Paten's 'Selected Bibliography' reveals that local critical reviews of his art are legion. In pondering this paradox of New Zealand 's 'best known unknown', two clues are given on the book's front cover: firstly, the image of a curved, carved forearm and open palm (Sylvan Age: Sawn/Sown) floating on a black background. Secondly, designer Aaron Richardson's overprinted title reads vertically- an unconventional format for both typography and image, presaging an unconventional biography.

Brawny, rough-hewn and wooden, the cover image suggests the grunt of construction and the gristly materiality of sculptural form; it speaks, in Paton's words, of 'an unshakeable conviction that matter matters', a position of exclusion from the cool, curatorial eighties and nineties where wood was-and remains-unfashionable. Nevertheless, the author argues that Viscoe's 'clunky' work, has, over thirty years, consistently and critically addressed issues of contemporary folly, landscape and the politics of indigenous culture-with gusto and guts. As New Zealand art's 'resident cultural carpenter', his sculptures 'are held together by comic grace (and) passionate anger'.

But far from invoking dumb sentiment or celebrating manual dexterity, the work is informed by a highly articulate and poetic sensibility. Inclusion of the artist's correspondence/ reflections in a separate section, 'Artist's writings: a Warren Viscoe miscellany', allows the subject's voice to be heard beyond quotation within another's text. Whether divining 'the anatomy of rivers', bearing witness to 'the convulsions of forest clearing' or 'toying with seriousness', the artist suspends our disbelief. He juggles our ideas and jiggles our sureties, as surely as his woody, deconstructed creeks redefine notions of 'fluid mechanics': 'Alii want to do', writes Viscoe, is to hold things together against gravity's conspiracy. To bring things to the brink of chaos in order to wrestle them back to some kind of order I want to hold things together with hooks and eyelets, staples and string, and bits of wire. And to preventthings from falling ...

Paton explores the history of this compulsion with almost meticulous scholarship (a list of collections has been omitted) but avoids a chronological approach by dividing the main essay into themes such as 'Standing ground', 'Reading the grain', etcetera.... Additionally, analyses of major works are lavishly accompanied by eighteen colour illustrations plus black and white documentation, a chronology, an anthology and three re-printed articles by eminent New Zealand critic, lan Wedde. Design-wise, enlarged snippets of text verbally tantalize but obscure identification of authorship and location,while a flash contents page provides insufficient information. Unclear too, is the reason why Paton's profile is so scant compared to those of lan Wedde and the Sarjeant Gallery.

Despite minor flaws, however, the match of author and artist in terms of dynamic language and cutting wit is rare. The writer's metaphors caress and curve around Viscoe's visceral visuality; whether engaging with wood culture, hydrology, carpentry or art politics, Paton's style is consistently insightful, sometimes delightful, and occasionally delicious.

Warren Viscoe: Life and Limb and its publisher have gone out on a proverbial limb to re-shape New Zealand's sculptural history. In examining Viscoe-an 'old growth forest'- Paton has re-discovered a branch of sculpture that is alive and well and living as comfortably around building sites as in the rarefied environments of galleries. lt is a timely reminder that many artists, acknowledged or not, actively shape and determine major alternative currents, regardless of the mainstream flow.

notes: 

Publisher. Sarjeant Gallery/Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui RRP: $NZ 49.95.