John Reynolds

Painting, Planting and Performance


Asked about Snow Tussock and Golden Spaniard, his recent outdoor works at Macraes Flat, John Reynolds remarked: ‘John McCormack told me these must be the largest artworks in New Zealand. My response was: Well, actually I see them as the slowest artworks in New Zealand. One doesn’t wish to ratchet up numbers as significant, but they’ll find their fullest expression 50, 60, 70, or even 80 years from now. It’s a process we’re on, and I’m hoping to visit year by year to enjoy the changes.’(1)

Watching tussock grow is a change of pace for an artist who made a timed sixty-second painting for the Vacancy exhibition, based on Bob Dylan’s line ‘The next 60 seconds (can feel like an eternity)’.(2) But time has often been a concern of Reynolds’ art. His latest exhibition at the Sue Crockford Gallery was Last Evenings on Earth, and its first image confronted the viewer with You’ve Got Three Minutes. An earlier show was called History and the Making of History. And he describes his current Auckland Art Gallery project, 4 Walls, 3 Layers, 2 Marks, 1 Light as evoking ‘a twilight sense of a roll call of contemporary art performances of the last 40-50 years of the gallery.’(3)

Oil paint marker on
approximately 7000 canvases,
each 100 x 100 x 35 mm,
installed at the 2006 Biennale
of Sydney (Zones of Contact)

2006 was a milestone year for Reynolds—he turned 50, celebrated his 21st exhibition at the Sue Crockford Gallery, was selected as an Arts Foundation Laureate (for artists who have had a significant ‘career’ but whose ‘richest work still lies ahead’), and contributed a major work to the Sydney Biennale (Cloud, dedicated to his father Ian who had died a year earlier). In progress are an independent documentary, Questions for Mr Reynolds,(4) and a related book, and the artist is maintaining his usual flurry of activities— other outdoor works, Swanndri designs for Karen Walker, and a collaboration with Stevens Lawson Architects.

A backwards scan over Reynolds’ career—26 years of solo exhibitions since Swell Drawings and Big Paintings at 100 m—reveals a major body of work by an artist whose interests have grown more distinctive over the years. He has won several major awards.(5) Still, some observers express reservations. T.J. McNamara notes that ‘His work has been considered difficult, particularly his austere and complex markmaking and tracking.’(6) And Michael Dunn’s New Zealand Painting comments: ‘He can appear as a draughtsman more than a painter . . . Reynolds lacks a clear identity because he restlessly moves from one option to another . . .’.(7)

McNamara and Dunn are themselves basically sympathetic, but correct in suggesting that some of the very qualities that have drawn viewers to this art—its restless energy, its wit, its informality—have also led to it being read as puzzling or superficial. Poet Leigh Davis, who collaborated on Office of the Dead (2001) and The Book of Hours (2001)(8), argues in his important essay ‘Country and Western’ that ‘In the little body of writing about Reynolds’ work to date it is the ornament of the painting that has most drawn talk. The work is celebrated for its dandy doodle riot of expressive incident. That is, it is read as hovering on the edge of psychology.’(9) Davis sees such readings as a failure to recognise what this art has contributed to a renewal of the medium of painting.

Oil paint marker on
approximately 7000 canvases,
each 100 x 100 x 35 mm,
installed at the 2006 Biennale
of Sydney (Zones of Contact)

It is also salutary to consider the relative lack of understanding for the work of artists close to Reynolds, such as Julian Dashper (who has received more recognition overseas than in New Zealand)(10) and et al (the target of a fierce, nationwide controversy after being selected for the Venice Biennale)(11). One might add Davis to this list as one of the country’s most original writers who is consistently overlooked by the local literary community. All these artists, including Reynolds, have committed the sin of downgrading ‘psychology’ or ‘expressive’ elements in their art. Obviously they have found local audiences for their work, and there are a number of other artists in the same situation. But it serves to remind us that the big shift in New Zealand art in the ‘70s and early ‘80s still represents a barrier for the culture at large. A look at Reynolds’ career will highlight some of the aesthetic issues.

Travelling light
When Reynolds was at art school the tradition of expressionism or ‘anxious images’ was strong in local painters such as Tony Fomison, Philip Clairmont or Jeffrey Harris.(12) Others sought to link art with social or political advocacy. Reacting against these expectations, Reynolds deliberately sought to be ‘light and whimsical, emphasising a sense of play.’ This shifted the focus from personal experience or politics to the materials and mechanics of art. Naturally the artist’s life continued to inform his work, but only as the starting point for a process that pursued pleasures and intensities different from ‘the expression [of] unease, anxiety, anger, fear and pain’ (as Alexa Johnston characterized the ‘anxious images’ tradition).(13) Reynolds saw ‘lightness’ as the strongest ‘point of difference’ in his art, and this was its most controversial aspect, causing a nervous reviewer to enquire whether his first solo exhibition was a hoax.

He was aware of overseas precedents—Pop Art, and painters such as Olitski, Hockney, Guston, and other artists who had reacted against the earnestness of high modernism or expressionism. Meanwhile there was a local shift in taste vividly showcased by the ‘New Image’ exhibition that Francis Pound curated in 1983. Focusing on artists born 1943 to 1953 (Frizzell, Wong Sing Tai, Watkins, Killeen, Chilcott, and Hartigan), this survey just missed Reynolds, but he shared many of the artists’ interests: a return to figuration (with a ‘post-abstraction’ sensibility); an appetite for the whole tumult of culture (from high to low); a preference for wit over earnestness; a moratorium on ‘anguish’ and ‘neurosis’; a ‘quote mark’ or ‘semiotic’ awareness; and a strong conceptual streak, including a tendency to make ‘art about art.’ Pound also saw this work as ‘urban’ and ‘internationalist.’(14)

Last Evenings on Earth 2006
Oil & acrylic on canvas,
3000 x 5400 mm.

This was a new cluster of interests for the ‘80s. In what ways did Reynolds’ art stand separate? Figuration tended to be less important to him—his search was less for ‘new images’ than for new methods and materials. He made a key shift of emphasis from painting to drawing (in its broadest definition). Also, he developed some period concerns in a distinctive manner. His cultural interests were unusually wide-ranging, collecting and sampling in surprising ways, giving a special élan to his art. His interest in conceptual, performance and sitespecific art helped him to think laterally about painting and drawing. He identified not simply as an ‘internationalist’ but as one of a new breed of New Zealand-based artists for whom the global and the national comfortably co-existed.

Other characteristic features were Reynolds’ intense feeling for language; his interest in rock music; his ‘deadpan’ humour; his extreme juxtapositions; and his liking for images that are seemingly artless, underworked, or ‘emptied out,’ or have an edgy sense of tension or wobble. These interests are not unique but their combination is distinctive, and the resourceful ways he has developed them has kept his art fresh and challenging. It also explains why it is important to see his art as a whole, as the energetic pursuit of a set of interests more consistent than any ‘dandy doodle riot’ of surface elements. This essay is one attempt to see the coherence, though there will not be time to cover all the areas (such as Reynolds’ innovative photography and print-making).

Dirty drawing
Reynolds’ generation of artists emerged at a time when the medium of painting seemed creatively exhausted. His particular response was to focus on drawing, previously regarded as a secondary genre, as a servant of painting. In his words: ‘Even in my early work, painting was only the backdrop for the real drama - the drawing, often with a text component. For paint I would use an everyday commercial primer off the shelf in some crappy colour like pink, to avoid treating paint and colour as the key things.’ His work has continued to stretch the scope of the process of drawing. ‘I draw with everything except a paint brush—with chunky graphite sticks, Japanese silver enamel paint markers, spray cans, any instrument that makes a mark.’

Suiting his strong interest in text, the process of drawing has affinities with writing. It is important to him that ‘there’s something about drawing that goes with edge, with brittleness.’ He is interested in any form of drawing that has an exploratory quality—such as children’s work. He likes oil sticks because they involve ‘just the right amount of lack of control’. Such ‘dirty drawing’ evokes ‘a certain frailty’. When the drawing produces ‘figuration,’ Reynolds likes the effect of ‘seeming to end up with it almost by accident.’ One way he describes this effect is that his drawing of a lightbulb ‘is really a drawing of the idea of a lightbulb’. Other recurring icons in his work include signpost, tree, umbrella, and billy. He gives them enigmatic labels. When he represents something Reynolds feels ‘the desire to tip it over,’ to deny the viewer an easy payoff. A representation should have ‘provisionality’ and ‘explore as well as assert.’ Another way to give a twist to the image is to make the process obsessive: ‘Repetition has a strange intensity. It’s like when you say your name so many times that suddenly it dips into strangeness.’ In large paintings such as Kingdom Come (2001) there is a tension between the regularity of the rectangles and the obsessive hand-drawn energy of the dotted lines.

4 Walls, 3 Layers, 2 Marks,
1 Light
Metallic paint & marker pen,
one of five Artist Projects at
the Auckland Art Gallery

He likes to return to painting from time to time ‘for a change’ yet his paintings retain some of the qualities of his drawings. He may include pencil lines or give the areas of paint ‘uncertain edges,’ or the tense or frail qualities he associates with drawing. The memorable large canvas Last Evenings on Earth (2006) is an unusual mix of cloudy colour patches drifting down from the bright colour at top left to the darkness at bottom right—the painting dips into strangeness.

Reynolds has his own slant on Colin McCahon and several of his exhibitions have had titles that allude to the older artist’s work.(15) Though Reynolds is well aware of the heavy, anxious elements in McCahon’s paintings, he values his extensive use of text and ‘his methods of pictorial organisation’—especially the way he ‘under-works’ his paintings and ‘empties them out.’ He also admires McCahon’s habit of using ‘whatever materials were available in his vicinity,’ from roadside signs and comic books to the Bible. Reynolds enjoys ‘art that works with the clutter of life.’ McCahon managed to use limited means and materials to suggest complex meanings. Interestingly, Reynolds admires the best of Bruce Nauman’s performance works for similar reasons: ‘He uses only as much as he needs. Each piece is simple yet rich, a distillation of his thinking around a particular idea.’ This is not ‘minimalism’ (a label reviewers have misleadingly applied to some work by Reynolds), but an expert under-cooking that challenges the audience to take things further. He finds a similar simplicity/complexity in work by Gary Hume, Paul McCarthy, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.

There are parallels in Reynolds’ use of signposts (in Epistomadologies) and paintings based on single lines from pop song lyrics (such as ‘I’m doing nothing wrong,’ from P.J. Harvey’s song ‘You said something’). To Reynolds, ‘music particularly has that ability to destabilise . . . Music—and every teenager in the world understands this—is a great vehicle for disassembling received ideas, fast-tracking emotive connectiveness . . . and for [creating] transgressions’.(16) One of the first local artists to make direct use of rock music, Reynolds understands how music can have a casual, throwaway manner yet be rich and complex, especially when further sampled as part of a painting. He has drawn on Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, Nick Cave, Lou Reed, Don McGlashan, Nirvana and others. His art can tap the adrenalin of music. Leigh Davis writes: ‘Reynolds’ paintings exaggerate movement. They have a distinctive body language; one could say that they are commonly either “jitterbug” figures or “waltz” ones . . . ’.(17) (not to mention some pogoing and freestyle moves).

Catastrophe Theory 2006
Oil on ceramic, 500 x 300 x 300 mm.

Reynolds is like a musician whose cunning offkey flourishes we learn to enjoy. They are also a reminder of the many uses of humour in art today. Humour can provide a way in for the non-specialist viewer, as shown by the feedback Reynolds received for Cloud. Each of its 7073 small canvases bore a colloquial phrase from Harry Orsman’s Dictionary of New Zealand English, and many viewers were amused or shocked by particular phrases.(18) Humour is part of contemporary art’s knowingness. Reynolds talks of bursting out laughing at one of Sigmar Polke’s paintings because of its sly understanding of the physical business of painting. Reynolds likes ‘deadpan humour’—as illustrated by Cloud with its consistently cool delivery of odd colloquialisms. His interest in the writer Samuel Beckett, triggered by Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot, has touched many aspects of his work (such as the 1995 show Seven paintings around a Beckett soliloquy); and that is also a clue that his humour can imply a sharp sense of absurdity.(19) Arguably, its deadpan quality also has a kiwi resonance. The colloquialisms of Cloud echo Frank Sargeson’s stories and their ironic subtext. We can see why humour—like lightness—can have a special strategic value for the local artist when we look up the word ‘artist’ in Orsman’s Dictionary. In New Zealand usage the word tends to be ‘ironic or pejorative’ with connotations of ‘illegality, impropriety, excess.’ It is most commonly applied to ‘a hard-case or inveterate performer in a field disapproved of’ (such as ‘con artist,’ ‘booze artist’ or ‘bullshit artist’).(20)

Catastrophe theory
Reynolds has many ways in his pictures to create ‘dips into strangeness’—the visual equivalent of what Ron Silliman calls ‘adding torque’ to a sentence in poetry.(21) He derived The Transatlantic Paintings (2005) from a book of X-rays of Mondrian paintings which revealed the initial drawings and constant corrections behind their tidy surfaces.(22) His signposts are disconcerting for their off-centre pointing and the deadpan poetry of the street names. Cloud offers up the verbal culture of New Zealand (‘land of the long white cloud’) in line with the Biennale’s theme of culture contact, but also confronts us with its strangeness and opacity. It is too large to grasp and its silver words are mercurial in the changing light. Typically, the work raises questions about the process of making art (‘the Sisyphean task’ of producing 7073 small canvases!) and about the process of reading it. It’s another example of art based on a simple idea that creates complex effects. For all its seriousness, this is a light, floating work that remains gorgeous, intriguing and funny.

The installation of Cloud across the foyer and west wall of the Art Gallery of New South Wales illustrates Reynolds’ interest in the site-specific aspects of art. Before exhibiting the work in New Zealand, he wants to find a location with an equally striking look and relevance. He likes to set up exhibitions with dramatic contrasts and tensions. His 2001 Harry Human Heights exhibition was a vivid example with its juxtaposition of large and small works. As Reynolds described it: ‘The Epistomadologies . . . are [off] on a tangent. They’re like broadsheets, tracts, complaints, arguments propelled against the throw of the big works . . . . Coherence may be on offer, but it ain’t there. The whole thing disperses or flickers into something else.’(23) A small-scale example was the enigmatic black urn that turned up in the middle of his latest exhibition labelled Catastrophe Theory—a type of phrase the artist likes because the words are in tension.(24) ‘Cloud’ in its random ordering was an endless permutation of ‘delightful collisions between terms.’ Davis relates Reynolds’ interest in juxtaposition—‘hybridity of material or idea, or both’—to T.S. Eliot’s concept of the ‘metaphysical’ in art—‘a rupture or jolt . . . a complicating or problematising component.’ Such surprises in art tend to be ‘often under-read as a defect,’ but they provide a way for the medium to be ‘made visible,’ to be ‘caught in operation, and changed.’(25) Reynolds says of this effect: ‘It’s a mixture of collude and collide.’

John Reynolds’ Golden Spaniard at the earthwork stage
In talking about art he makes frequent use of words such as ‘theatre’ and ‘performance.’ This reflects his interest in figures such as Beckett and Nauman, but also his ironic sense of the traditional role of the artist. In his Laureate acceptance speech to the Arts Foundation, he recalled his experience as a six-yearold, assisting a mental hospital patient to operate a complicated ‘tennis court painting machine.’ Their white lines were decidedly wonky but a lot more interesting than the orthodox court pattern. This anecdote (about his ‘first outdoor work’) emphasised art as a physical performance. Reynolds has done Beckett-style routines at exhibition openings, and the sense of theatre (or theatricality) crops up in his art in many ways – through movement, for example, or through repetition. Texts appear in speech balloons or resemble scripts (Cloud is like a set of cue cards). Reynolds’ comment that ‘even in my early work, painting was only the backdrop for the real drama’ alerts us to the fact that there is often a strong separation of foreground and background in his art, so that one may see his words, figures or patterns as performers on stage. (At the same time, the sense of space can be complex and ambiguous.)

Outdoor works
Reynolds’ recent outdoors works may seem a surprising departure. They include Cordyline, a work consisting of 8000 cabbage trees for Alan Gibbs’ sculpture farm at Kaipara; Snow Tussock and Golden Spaniard at Macraes Heritage and Art Park in East Otago; and a further work at the planning stage for a sculpture park at Brick Bay in the Matakana winegrowing district. Reynolds tries hard to keep his art from becoming predictable; and he wanted to re-direct his energies after Cloud because it was ‘the culmination of certain interests’. Working outoors ‘broadened the conversation of materials and refreshed the eyes’. But he is still applying a familiar aesthetic. Each work involves ‘an un-natural staging of the natural.’ The artist has chosen plants or trees that are not picturesque but ‘maverick.’ He likes cabbage trees for ‘their Dr Seuss quality—they are such distinctive characters,’ and their presence ‘both colludes and collides’ with the pasture land around them.

Farmers tend to regard tussock as ‘something to burn’. But this scruffy plant is a strong survivor that ‘does what it does well’. Reynolds chose to transform an area used as a toxic dumping ground. It also offered symbolic possibilities since it stretched ‘from a Church to a cemetery’. The 870 snow tussocks are ‘un-naturally staged,’ lined up in an ornamental or symmetrical way—something very new for what farmers call ‘fucking tussock.’ For Golden Spaniard, Reynolds has planned ‘an inverse ziggurat on top of a 30 hectare ziggurat-shaped landform, creating an enclosure and viewing space for a mass planting of 10,000 Golden Spaniards, a native plant under threat as farming takes a greater hold on the Otago landscape’26 . The stiff yellowish green plants will flower into a ‘golden blaze’.(27) It is still too soon to judge the results but these works promise to deliver familiar satisfactions—striking contrasts and rich connotations, humour and surprise, and pleasure in the featured materials and performers (in this case, the native species).

John Reynolds’ Snow Tussock, 2004 view
Our cover photo of the artist (by Patrick Reynolds, his brother and long-time collaborator) returns him to Ponsonby still dressed in country gear. He is modelling ‘the Jackal 3D body system,’ also known as a ghillie or yowie suit, used by ‘snipers and hunters with extreme requirements for camouflage.’ This is ‘a system for breaking up your outline, disrupting your landscape and disguising objects beyond the ability of the eyesight of man, beast or bird.’ While this character might be mistaken for Magritte, the hat and the double latte should tip us off. And that’s the striking thing about an artist whose work has been based from the beginning on a shift away from personal expression (at least in the form of expressionism). To some he may ‘lack a clear identity because he restlessly moves from one option to another,’ disrupting critical ‘eyesight.’ But others value the kinds of challenge he continues to present to his audience. While it may be difficult to predict where the hunt will take him next, he can be seen as producing a cohesive body of work that has grown more distinctive as it has gone along. He has followed a consistent set of artistic interests, informed by contemporary practice, which have led to significant innovations in the way he has developed elements such as juxtaposition, humour, text, and drawing.

1. Quotes in this article not otherwise credited are from an interview with the artist by the author, 11 December 2006.
2. The line occurs in the Bob Dylan song ‘Things have changed’ (2000). The original words are ‘The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity.’ For ‘Vacancy’ (2004), see: http://www.imageandtext.
3. digitalresources/reynolds.asp Last Evenings on Earth is the title of a collection of short stories by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano.
4. Questions for Mr Reynolds is the working title for the documentary by Point of View Productions.
5. His distinctions include: 1988 Montana Lindauer Art Award, 1993 Visa Gold Award, 1993 QEII Arts Council Fellowship, finalist 2002 Walters Art Prize, and 2006 NZAF Laureate.
6. ‘Art laureate turns on bursts of colour,’ NZ Herald, 15 November 2006.
7. New Zealand Painting: A Concise History, Auckland, Auckland University Press, 2003, p. 179.
8. Leigh Davis, The Book of Hours, Jack Books, Auckland 2001 (with ‘artwork’ by Reynolds).
9. ‘Country and Western,’ an ‘essay on John Reynolds’ painted language,’ at:
10. See, for example, Julian Dashper’s collection Reviews…he loves me not, Auckland, Art School Press, 2002.
11. This controversy is documented in my essay, ‘A Short History of “the New Zealand Intellectual”’ in Speaking Truth to Power, ed. Laurence Simmons, Auckland University Press, Auckland 2007. (Incidentally, the cover of that book is by John Reynolds.)
12. Cf. Aspects of Recent New Zealand Art: Anxious Images, ed. Alexa Johnston, Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland 1984.
13. ibid, p. 6. An example of how Reynolds incorporates a personal dimension in his art was his powerful 2005 exhibition at the Sue Crockford Gallery, in one sense a memorial to his late father Ian Reynolds. The artist’s interview with Andrew Clifford shows how personal elements were combined with broader cultural themes (‘I gotta use words when I talk to you,’ NZ Herald 7 September 2005).
14. See Pound’s catalogue Aspects of Recent New Zealand Art: New Image, Auckland City Art Gallery, 1983, or his article ‘The New Image Painters’ in Art New Zealand 22, Summer 1981-82.
15. For example, ‘Of the shadow cast by a man at night with a light’ (1991) or ‘Twelve hours of daylight’ (1997). ‘I gotta use words when I talk to you’ (2005) was actually a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes but in the local context there is also a McCahon echo.
16. Andrew Clifford, op. cit.
17. ‘Country and Western,’ op. cit.
18. 7073 canvases were painted for ‘Cloud,’ but the Biennale catalogue cites an earlier figure of 6944 (Zones of Contact, Biennale of Sydney, 2006, pp. 234-35).
19. Beckett’s writing also has a ‘deadpan’ humour—he admired slapstick comedians like Buster Keaton.
20. The Dictionary of New Zealand English, ed. H.W. Orsman, \OUP, Auckland 1997, p.16. Another artist well aware of the strategic value of humour is Dick Frizell, who responded to the claim that he lacked seriousness with this shrewd comment: ‘I can’t say I’ve ever been particularly non-serious, though I’ve made it a lifetime mission to avoid going out of my way to look serious’ (quoted in Michael Dunn, New Zealand Painting: A Concise History, AUP, Auckland 2003, p. 174).
21. See the title essay of Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence, Roof, New York 1987.
22. Andrew Clifford, op. cit.
23. ‘John Reynolds talks to Robert Leonard,’ SUMWHR, New Plymouth, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, 2002. p. 53
24. Juxtaposition is another aspect of McCahon’s work that impresses Reynolds—for example, titles such as Angels and Bed or Moby Dick sighted off Muriwai Beach which link the extraordinary to the everyday.
25. ‘Country and Western,’ op. cit.
26. From the Starkwhite gallery website (
27. Virginia Were, ‘Silver Lining,’ Art News New Zealand, vol.26 no.3, Spring 2006, p. 60.