A Report on Paul Hartigan in 1983


If you have certain expectations of Paul Hartigan's work, you may be surprised by two recent paintings. After all, one of the most consistent features over the past years has been Hartigan's liking for bright colours, and vivid colour schemes. He has worked with colour xerox, colour photographs, coloured neon tubes, bright enamel paints, and dyes. But now he has produced two paintings where the colour-range is radically reduced. They have the characteristic Hartigan boldness, but not the richness of colour. Equation's White Tomb is predominantly white, and Myopic Blueprint is predominantly black.

These paintings deviate significantly from the Hartigans that are currently touring with the New Image show, which opened in February 1983. But then none of the paintings in that exhibition post-date 1981, and these are the only two he has produced since that year. They seem to take a flying leap away from the intensity of colour in Yellowcake (1981) which was included in the New Image show and is the painting immediately preceding them.

Paul Hartigan,
Yellowcake 1981,
enamel on board,
800 x 1200 mm.

Hartigan has virtually retired from painting. Myopic Blueprint and Equation’s White Tomb have never been exhibited, and there are no plans for him to do so. Nevertheless he considers them his best works so far. Neither will there be another neon show like the one at RKS in 1982. The capital outlay for a show on that scale is prohibitive, especially since sales are limited by the size, weight and cost of each work. But he has a neon-sign business called GONE ON NEON and he is kept fully occupied designing for restaurants and shops around the city. He is more financially secure but doesn't have much time for his own art work. And Hartigan is adamant that his art and his business are two completely separate activities. When he designs a neon sign the purpose is to advertise, and he must meet certain requirements. On the other hand, producing an effective design gives him a great deal of satisfaction; and he has learnt, sometimes by his mistakes, that there are various factors that have to be considered in making a totally effective sign that will not fail to attract attention.

Paul Hartigan
The Plight of Persephone 1982
neon tubing and
galvanised iron
1500 x 3000 mm.
(Collection of the
Auckland City Art Gallery)

Hartigan has been criticised over the years for working with popular materials such as neon. He doesn't pretend that neon art is new in New Zealand. ‘What I've tried to do with neon is come up with a personal approach, and most importantly for myself, to try and transcend established neon entities.’

Both Cheryll Sotheran and Leonard Bell, in their reviews of the show NEON/NEON at RKS in 1982, have acknowledged his achievements in using this medium in an idiosyncratic manner and exploring its potentials.

Hartigan is tired of being labelled `pop artist'. Any obvious connection with Pop Art has long gone from his work. He doesn't like the lingering association and feels it prevents people from taking his work seriously, although he points out that this is their problem, not his. Hi efforts to shake off an image of banality and trivia, explains to some extent the disappearance of bright colours from Hartigan's paintings, and his concern now for shapes that reinforce the flat painted surface rather than the illusion of depth and volume. Myopic Blueprint, and Equation's White Tomb are far removed in years and concept from his much exposed works, Nailpolish (1976), Has Your Tongue Been Stung Lately (1976), and the Landscape series (1974-1975).

Myopic Blueprint and Equation's White Tomb don't have the glamorous colour appeal of the Landscape series (Art New Zealand 22, p. 33): but they do have a raw, basic quality that is equally as alluring, and they are unmistakeably Hartigan's work. They incorporate some very familiar shapes that can be traced back at least as far as 1975 in Drawing (Art New Zealand 22, p. 30), and the Landscapes, although his concern in these years for illusions of volume has now disappeared.

The repetition of certain shapes is most obvious in three neons from 1982 — Fountain of Youth, The Plight of Persephone, and New Language — as well as the Dictionary paintings from 1981. In 1981, works like Dictionary II show primarily an interest in flat shapes arranged across the picture. The difference in 1983 is that the shapes are no longer filled in with localised colour. They are best described as 'skeletal'. In some cases there is no enclosed space to fill in at all, since these particular elements are purely marks on the sur-face—coloured lines, not coloured-in shapes. In the neons, drawn lines be-come tubes, but they all share the interest in relationships of shapes across a surface—except, of course, neons like the Plight of Persephone are animated. Hartigan uses flashing sequences to 'add another layer of colour', and he can achieve a variety of colour effects de-pending on tube diameters, and the types of glass he uses. If he uses clear glass that has been coated with colour, he gets an even intensity of glow: but coloured glass and clear glass produce a more intense glow in the middle of the tube (a 'hot spot'). What's more, the colour of the background or casing, determines colour effects as well. If the casing is white, as it is in Fountain of Youth, there is a spread of colour away from the tube as well as a reflection on the casing: but a black casing as in The Plight of Persephone reduces the spread of colour, making the effect sharper, with the black providing a reflective surface that creates a definite double image.

Hartigan began painting Myopic Blueprint and Equation's White Tomb with a few key shapes, and in both cases organised the rest of the elements around these. He describes these key shapes as 'catalysts' because they start his working process and determine the final composition. His choice of shapes and their distribution across the surface of the picture is a thoughtful and deliberate process. They are not merely conjured up on the spot, and stuck any-where in the painting. Each element can only occupy that particular place in relation to the key shapes.

Presumably Hartigan considers these two paintings his personal best because they are his most satisfying arrangements in terms of their sense of spacing of elements, the intrinsic shapes of each element, their relationship with one another and the way they work as a total image (not to mention the quality of the paint work, and the closeness of the final image to the original conception). As already mentioned, some of the elements have been used before, but there are also new ones. Until two or three years ago, many ideas for shapes came from things he had actually seen. This is true of the Landscapes. As their titles suggest, the Landscapes make specific reference to earth and sky separated by lines that can only be horizons. Colour and line are used to suggest volumetric objects that exist in these landscape settings—there are bizarre trees, for example. But now a lot of the shapes are non-referential, conceived during telephone conversations or while he is waiting in the post-office. Hartigan keeps all these drawings (which he calls `germs'): and the types of paper they decorate—bills, deposit-forms, recipes —say something about the unusual timing of their conception.

A significant change from the Landscapes is the shift from using the horizontal dividing lines—with associated reference to the division of land and sky—to the vertical division in Equation's White Tomb, which is non-illusionistic and confirms the flatness of the surface. The first work to explore this idea was Yellowcake (1981). The next was a neon, Test Pilot, which was never built because it was such as unwieldy project. It was planned to be thirty feet long and ten feet high, with a physical break from top to bottom towards one end that was going to be 'stitched' together with neon tubes. He reverted back to the landscape idea in Fountain of Youth. In this work there are earth and sky, with plant-like forms apparently growing out of the earth. In fact the reading of this image depends on its references to the natural world. But the neon New Language and the painting Dictionary II also explore the concern for coloured shapes that are non-illusionistic. As a spectator, you are given far fewer clues for the interpretation of each element. And now with works like Equation's White Tomb, where the shapes are not even coloured-in and where the drawing is so abbreviated, the spectator has even fewer clues to go by should the urge be there to relate the shapes to real objects. In other words, Hartigan's two recent paintings intensify the ambiguity of shapes for the spectator.

Read element by element, the paintings Myopic Blueprint and Equation's White Tomb are a puzzling combination of seemingly serious and seemingly flippant shapes that don't appear to have anything in common. There are three types—ones that make obvious references to objects, ones that make possible references to objects, and ones that don't make any references at all. In general, the elusiveness of the shapes in these paintings prevents any direct communication. The responsibility for interpretation is placed squarely on the shoulders of the spectator; and Hartigan likes any number of possible readings to be available. It is futile though, to try and impose a narrative reading; and as a spectator it is impossible to respond in any emotional way to either Myopic Blueprint or Equation's White Tomb. Obviously Hartigan himself is revealing his preferences for certain shapes, but as complete images, they do not exude sentiment or nostalgia. However, their very elusiveness should provide unlimited pleasure.

There are obvious parallels with Killeen's work. But Hartigan's shapes are fixed and cannot be rearranged by the viewer, whose active role is mental rather than physical, and Hartigan contains all the shapes by the boundaries of the picture itself.

Paul Hartigan
New Language 1982
neon tubing and galvanised iron
1200 x 1200 mm.

The titles provide clues for reading the paintings, as they have done in Hartigan's earlier works. But in Primary School (1979) and Little Lies (1979) the associations of image and title were humorous, as Francis Pound explains in his essay on Hartigan's work for the New Image show catalogue. It is hard to find any humour in the title Equation's White Tomb. The painting has some connection with mathematical equations especially in the layout of shapes across the picture, that look vaguely like mathematical symbols. There is also a definite reading from left to right across the surface, as if the 'given' is on the left, and the 'solution' on the right, although the vertical dividing line implies that the solutions can't be reached. The predominance of white in the picture explains the adjective in the title, and as a colour often associated with death, it may have some connection with the word 'tomb'. The arc that encompasses the elements on the right side of the picture can be read as a `tomb'—perhaps a place that houses sacred objects. Because of the protection of the arc, these elements look as if they belong together, but they don't seem to have much in common. Hartigan teases the spectator with shapes that look like `primitive' inscriptions: a bird skeleton, a flower pot, bunny-ears. But they are too ambiguous to be any of these, and others simply defy description. Their associations seem totally arbitrary.

Similarly in Myopic Blueprint, some elements conjure up visions of cave walls, microscope slides and tattooed bodies. Others are totally non-referential. Hartigan described this work as 'a caught moment of a series of bodies or elements that are passing, transitory'.

Len Lye was undoubtedly an influence on Hartigan, not only in the concern for achieving a sense of flux in this work, but also in Hartigan's calligraphy and possibly his reduction to basic colour contrasts. A comparison with Lye's woodcuts from 1940 (Art New Zealand 17, p. 36) explains this. In fact, Hartigan has admired Lye's work for some time now, enough to title a drawing from 1981, Len Lye Revisited'.

The idea of being able to see the process of painting has been a feature of Hartigan's work since his 'dribbles' in the mid-seventies. As the title suggests, Myopic Blueprint needs close inspection. You can actually look through the black surface into layers of red, yellow, blue and white. In fact, in both paintings, Hartigan has applied coats of primary colours in consecutive layers before the final one, and in both works, there are spots where these colours show through. Streaks of these primary colours circumscribe the outlines of shapes so subtly in Myopic Blueprint, that you need to get close.

Paul Hartigan Against the Grain,
Indian ink and watercolour on hand-made Japanese paper, 600 x 900 mm.

The technique is much looser in Equation's White Tomb. Streaks of primaries circumscribe the shapes, vary in thickness and stray further from the black lines, making them look discontinuous and messy. At the right distance, though, they seem more solid and uniform. It's all deliberate of course, but Hartigan still finds he gets criticised for `bad painting'. There are shadows lurking under the white surface of Equation's White Tomb. These are the underpainted colours showing through, as if the top layer is wearing away. The effect is rather like the weathered signs with deteriorating paintwork that Hartigan likes so much. He has always had connections with things not usually associated with 'art', just as blueprints usually belong to people like engineers and equations to mathematicians.

Myopic Blueprint and Equation's White Tomb reveal a definite change in Paul Hartigan's style of painting. What they don't make explicit, but only imply, is a philosophical change in Hartigan. It is rather surprising to hear him describe these two as his 'angst' paintings, and saying that they evolved out of a feeling of frustration that also prompted his decision not to exhibit again. From the spectator's point of view, there is nothing obviously angry about these two images. They only suggest by their appearance and titles, that Hartigan has become more serious-minded.

Paul Hartigan Equation's White Tomb 1983
enamel on board 1200 x 2400 mm.

NEW IMAGE - Aspects of Recent New Zealand Art, Auckland City Art Gallery, Fehruary-March 1983 (Curator and Essays: Francis Pound; Essay: Andrew Bogle; Editor: Ronald Brownson
Art New Zealand 22, p. 24-33, 'The New Image Painters', by Francis Pound
Art New Zealand 14, p. 21, 'Paul Hartigan's 'Picturesque': A Survey Show', by Steve Ellis
New Zealand Listener, November 6, 1982, pp. 34-35, 'Neon Flights', by Leonard Bell
The Auckland Star, September 27, 1982, 'Archetypally Biomorpic', by Cheryll Sotheran