Shifting the Balance
The Abstract Art of Roy Good


New Zealanders have a distressing lack of knowledge and appreciation of abstract art. Even after all this time, in the wake of Walters, Mrkusich, to name but two, the apathy essentially remains. Perhaps it is because a good exhibition of abstract art, accompanied by a catalogue that is a useful resource rather than simply a collection of attractive reproductions, is such a rarity in this country. It certainly seems a long time since there has been an exhibition of absorbing abstract painting in Auckland—no contrived theme to grapple with, no superficial curatorial premise, just a group of well crafted, skilful, beautiful paintings. In Good Form: The Abstract Art of Roy Good 1967-2007, is an example of just this.

In Good Form: The Abstract Art of Roy Good, installation at Lopdell House Gallery, December 2007

In Good Form explores Roy Good’s work from the period just after his graduation from Ilam School of Fine Arts in 1965 continuing through to paintings completed only last year. The fact that Good is relatively unknown illustrates the arbitrary way in which we acknowledge our artists. Unlike Gordon Walters, who hit upon an abstract form that New Zealanders could interpret as koru-like, Good ’s work utilises pure geometricism, leaving no room for viewers’ projections.

The exhibition comprises 35 works, the majority paintings but with some prints, drawings and one three-dimensional work, Octagon—4 plane construction, which is positioned on its own in the centre of the main gallery space. As do the European masters of geometric abstraction, Good uses a combination of lively colour relationships and the tension created by carefully placed hard-edged forms. His work of the 1970s alone should be enough to guarantee him recognition within our art history.

ROY GOOD Triangle Suite No. 6 1972
Acrylic on canvas, 1380 x 1380 mm.

By the late 1960s Good had already moved irrevocably away from representational art, a brief sojourn in this genre considering the widespread negativity towards abstraction still prevalent in New Zealand at the time. Because of this, the exhibition is refreshingly free of the experimental figure studies or awkward landscapes that are often included in such retrospectives to create contrast with later non- figurative work. From the earliest canvas included, Good is an abstractionist. While not entirely resolved, and lacking the spark of later canvases, works such as Untitled (1968) demonstrate a certainty of direction few artists reveal so early in their careers.

The catalogue essay, written by exhibition curator Edward Hanfling, provides a welcoming entry into Good’s working principles via discussion of two series of works—the Octagons series and the Triangle Suite, both executed by the artist in 1972. The two works from the Triangle Suite included in the exhibition are amongst the most dynamic on display. Both employ an isosceles-shaped canvas but surprisingly, given the seemingly restrictive nature of this shape, do not appear contrived or as simply an artistic exercise in self discipline.

ROY GOOD Untitled 1974
Acrylic on canvas, 1230 x 1230 mm.

The works exploit their canvases in different ways. In Triangle Suite-No. 6 the positioning of small flicking lines echoes the shape of the canvas while the bold, black stripe gives the impression of extending beyond its confines. This lends animation and tension to the piece with line and form stretching to escape the frame while still securely contained by it.

Triangle Suite No. 5-Drop reveals a different approach. The painted triangles, together with the triangle of the support, counterpoint the coloured parallelograms, themselves instinctively halved by the eye to become additional isosceles forms. In both works the shape of the canvas has a kind of inevitability—the composition would by no means be as successful if constructed within any other frame.

This is true for all of the shaped canvases on show, of which there are plenty. Good does not determine the composition of a work by the shape of its body, rather the reverse. This means he also makes successful use of square and rectangular supports— the shape in itself is not the issue but rather what it adds to the work as a whole.

Hanfling suggests that Roy Good may have been the first New Zealand artist to utilise the shaped canvas, or at least that he went on to become the most frequent advocate of this form. Historically, shaped canvases have been used by artists in an attempt to blur the line between the end of the ‘work of art’ and the beginning of the ‘real world’. It provides an opportunity for the gallery space to impinge upon the space of the art and in a sense the surroundings of the work become an integral part of it, and the work of art in turn an integral part of the viewer’s own space.

ROY GOOD Colour Column 1973
Acrylic on canvas on board, 1550 x 465 mm

Good creates art with a clear view of the works’ relationship to the external world—as Hanfling puts it, ‘Good makes paintings not buildings, but they need not be seen as entirely self-contained or unrelated to their architectural settings.’(1) The concept of sitting easily within the environment is exemplified by the exhibition’s installation at Lopdell House Gallery. Many of the works fit naturally into their surroundings, nestling into corners and slotting easily into the areas created between the voids of doors and windows.

Rather than diluting the exhibition’s impact, this seemingly effortless incorporation into the gallery space has the effect of heightening the visual experience as a whole. It also removes the possibility of the space or method of installation creating a distraction from the work itself. This is particularly important as several of the paintings do require viewing time without disruption before their strength can be fully appreciated.

A painting such as Untitled (1974), for example, at first glance is appealing but unremarkable. Yet stand in front of it for a moment and it will quietly begin to work on you. The delicate colouration of its inner space is complemented by pairs of coloured bands at its edges. The white of the gallery walls encroaches into the canvas by way of the snipped corners and nudges one line from each pair off balance, animating the composition and making it far less straightforward than first appeared. The longer you stand in front of a work such as this the more your mind absorbs it. It becomes a personal, one-on-one experience unfortunately unable to be replicated when seeing the work in reproduction.

Other works are far from subtle in their colouration, the bold, clashing tones adding a sense of lively dissonance even when the forms appear harmoniously balanced. The Octagon Primary, with vibrant interlocking planes, is instantly engaging, while Colour Column gives quite a different impression, seeming to oscillate between a composition unified by shared forms and repeated colours, and a disjointed jumble of building blocks that the eye can not quite manage to arrange into an ordered whole.

ROY GOOD Notched Series No.9 2007
Acrylic on canvas, 1300 x 1300 mm.

While the exhibition catalogue ensures a cohesive investigation of the artist’s work it is not encumbered by unnecessary biographical details. Rather, Hanfling explores only those aspects of Good’s life and circumstance that reflect specifically upon his art. One of the more notable suggestions made by Hanfling is that Good’s work is likely to be significantly influenced by his surroundings—a common enough claim in art criticism perhaps, but not so common when the artist is a geometric abstractionist. As the curator says, ‘The wider context for Good’s paintings, the New Zealand landscape, or even the city of Auckland—its centre and its suburbs—can be described as disordered and shambolic . . . disunity, a certain kind of visual pandemonium, is characteristic of New Zealand, and affects New Zealand art.’(2) Good’s work does often appear disordered but in a purposeful, structured way. Colour Column, or even Triangle Suite-No. 6, are excellent examples of this. Hanfling suggests that the work of Good, together with that of Milan Mrkusich, seeks not simply to mirror the disorder of the artists’ environs but rather to respond to it ‘as if by negation’, countering the chaos of the setting with calming, refining abstraction. This effect of ordering further emphasises Good’s ideological alignment with the great abstractionists of Europe: Kandinsky and Mondrian.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Roy Good is also engaged in a highly successful career in the field of design. At one point in the 1980s he was the Head of Design for Television New Zealand (then NZBC), and has been responsible for devising many well-known corporate logos, including Te Papa Tongarewa’s original logo in 1990 and, together with sculptor Fred Graham, the kotuku emblem of New Zealand’s Sesqui Centennial. This expertise in creating succinct expressions of thought, without extraneous detail, is clearly shared equally between Good’s design and ‘fine art’ activities. Good’s finest work comes when he allows his designer’s eye to pare back his compositions to their barest essentials, creating work that may appear simple at the onset but which goes on to reveal a great depth of innovation and even beauty. Unfortunately, there are occasions when the overlapping of disciplines can give compositions a ‘logo’ effect, a distraction that reduces some works’ ability to function well in any other context. Good’s Spiral series—of which there are too many sampled in the Lopdell selection—includes several such pieces.

While some of Good’s output of the 1980s and ‘90s is less engaging than his earlier series, his latest efforts have seen a reinvestigation of some of the key, successful features of his 1970s work.

Paintings displayed from the Notched Series, created over the past few years, include several works that are particularly arresting and show some of the originality of earlier canvases. Notched Series No. 8 and No. 9 again utilise muted tones and each, as the series’ title infers, with square or rectangular shapes clipped from the corners. The composition of these paintings is effortlessly harmonious—in contrast to work on show from the earlier Diamond Series, for example, which, despite their often appealing combinations of colour, sometimes give the impression of trying too hard. The lesser impact of some more recent bodies of work does not have the effect of detracting from the quality of the exhibition as a whole, or of distracting from Good‘s artistry. Indifference towards abstraction in this country would surely be cured with more exhibitions such as this.

1. Edward Hanfling, In Good Form—The Abstract Art of Roy Good 1967-2007, Lopdell House Gallery, Auckland, 2007, p. 9.
2. ibid., p. 11.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 126 Autumn 2008