Rodney Fumpston's Decade


Rodney Fumpston lives in Auckland, in a small, favourably-situated house in Western Springs. From the back verandah the sky seems to tumble into a garden shaped to catch it, as hands would catch a cricket ball. Like many artists Fumpston is a passionate gardener. On the left the flower beds contain silver-and-grey foliage plants and soft-coloured flowers, on the right bright reds and yellows form spikes against the sky.

Fumpston's One Decade exhibition, organised by Wanganui's Sarjeant Gallery, is touring the country, reinforcing the impulse to reflect on ten years of the artist's work, and giving the opportunity to consider it as a complete body.

Being a modest and private person Fumpston does not relish talking about his work - a situation which has been forced on him rather a lot of late. 'I'm a great one for feeling that the work should speak for itself. I've done my job, doing the work. That's the hard bit. I'll talk about technique until the cows come home, I'll answer questions. Some people love pouring out about their work - I'm not one of those'.

Sky-Marble Arch II 1975/76
etching, aquatint &
surface colour on paper,
500 x 500 mm.

Fumpston works largely in the etching medium, a difficult and exacting art-making process. Confident of his technical mastery and reassured by the process itself, Fumpston's self-effacing temperament is encouraged by the medium. 'I suppose I must like the processes. There is an allure in the process itself. And there's always something new to learn, and you always feel you can do better'. He is the first to admit though that the image must predominate: the process is only a means to that end. 'The image of course must come first, that's the most important thing. The technique just follows it along. But the technique does have that addictive quality. Also I like the democratic nature of the medium. I am making a relatively cheap work of art, that people can have. That's what it's for, for people to hang on the wall. I enjoy making art in the community. The allure of selling work overseas is much less interesting than making work, and surviving and selling work in the country which I love, and in which I live and relate to.'

Fumpston has a strong academic background, a thorough product of art institutions. He was born in Fiji in 1947 of fourth generation expatriates, with Swedish and British Antiguan forebears. He came to New Zealand when he was six or seven, with his mother, when her marriage broke up. He went to secondary school in the Waikato where he had I a terrible time. I do not look back with fondness to my school-days.' From school he went to Canterbury University to study for a B.A., but after two years he didn't feel he was enjoying it sufficiently to continue.

'So I thought I'd give Art School a go. I went to Art School in Auckland. I enjoyed it, and stuck with it, thirteen years in all. First a B.F.A., the M.F.A., and afterwards I went to the Central School [of Art and Design] in London.' He graduated in Advanced Studies in Print-Making in 1974. 'Art School was very difficult at the beginning. In my Masters year my work came together, and I found direction. I still like the work that I did then, from that last period at Art School. I did a lot of work then, which I think you must when you're young and learning. You churn out a huge amount. I don't now. I'm very restrained and unprolific. I'm very, very consistent in my work. That implies integrity to me ... that's the way I work, anyway. Looking at the early work I see there are links which I hadn't even thought about before. The contrast between those two fundamental ways of making an image ... the straight line, and the brushstroke or whatever.'

Certainly a recurrent theme in Fumpston's work over this ten year period is the contrast between a sharp-edged, architecturally defined solid block of colour, opposed with a squiggle, slosh or series of scratches. This sweep of hand-built sensation encounters the mechanistic exactness and brings in a reference to the age-old conflict between the Romantic and Classical traditions. Colour is Fumpston's soothing balm, the intoxicating liquor in which his images are fixed, a suspension in which the straight line and the painterly effect inter-relate.

Garden Evening One 1979
etching, aquatint &
surface colour on paper,
500 x 450 mm.

Fumpston read Proust at nineteen, and felt that experience was a formative one. 'I used to read a lot, and after reading Proust I was very much more selective. There is a wonderful sensibility. It made me very much more aware, and more aware of what you can do with your life. I don't read poetry, I loathe short stories. I'm a good long-novel reader, especially nineteenth century French novels.'

Another great experience for Fumpston was a period spent in America. 'I'd loved Europe. I was never a great Americophile, if that's the word. But the place was incredible. I thought, I'm never going to be the same again. I'm a great Henry James fan, you know-the Old World and the New. After America I thought a lot about New Zealand in those terms, of being the new world."

Inside Fumpston's house there are really two zones. One large room is dominated by the etching press, with a long work-bench and numerous shelves underneath. Here order is paramount. The walls are white; the floor polished natural wood, covered by various light woven flax mats. One window is draped by white muslin to soften the light. Once I started doing printing, making etchings, I really needed a properly equipped studio. I knew when I left Elam where I'd got set up, that I wouldn't get an etching studio as good as that for ... I still haven't. I would like to have the plumbing, the dirty processes, the making of the plate, the acid bath kind of stuff, here ... I don't want to have to teach for the rest of my life. [Fumpston teaches part-time at Auckland's Society of Arts.] I use the facilities at the Society. I make my plates there, although I don't make lots of plates. I'm not always poring over an acid bath by any means. But I do need those facilities.'

The other zone is the library/study. Here the walls are a radiant tamarillo colour. Books, magazines, all sorts of clutter, compete for space on the shelving. There are stacks of collages awaiting an imminent exhibition. The feeling here is of a storehouse of compressed energy.

If there has been any change in Fumpston's work over the decade it has been to simplify, to clarify. 'With the prints I often imagine I'm going to do a set of six, for instance. I often make a little collage first when I'm doing a print. And you find there are only two ideas instead of six. You condense it right down. As a student I might have done six. Now I would pare it down-you've got to. With etching you've got to be so sure of your image. Its got to be worth making forty bloody times!'

Egyptian Drawing 1981
graphite & wash on paper,
695 x 790 mm.
(Collection of the Auckland
City Art Gallery)

There are no people in Fumpston's work. 'No, I've not been interested in putting people in the work. I'm trying to make a more formal image. I used to do a lot of figure drawing as a student, but that is not what I'm interested in making statements about.'

What then are Fumpston's etchings concerned with? His work is to do with light and matter, eternal scientific truths, set alongside the tremble and flourish of human personality. Over and over again in Fumpston's cool, sparse images we find the geometric shape, the square, rectangle or triangle, given architectural overtones and set alongside an impulsive scribble, irregular hatching with the etching needle, the illusion of a brushstroke or painterly effect.

Many works involve an investigation of light. Fumpston not only looks at light as it reveals itself in relation to objects: he seeks to render light itself, in essence. His 'roll-up' technique of colour defines the sky, as it-were, one dust particle at a time, caught in those short but gloriously colourful moments, at sunrise or sunset.

Of Fumpston's work during this ten year period there are two excellent accounts: one by Gordon H. Brown in Art New Zealand 21; the other by Andrew Bogle in the Fumpston publication which coincides with the One Decade exhibition. Brown makes an important point about Fumpston's work, '. . . the emotional content is there. It is content closely related to real situations. Without Fumpston's direct experience of the great pyramids of Egypt in 1980 the Egypt Series would not have occurred. Nor would the evocative, atmospheric skies of the Marble Arch Series have happened without the revelation that accompanied his discovery of Turner at the Tate Gallery ... let alone the course his art has followed since that revelation.'

While there is no angst apparent in the calm, controlled surface of a Fumpston etching, it would be wrong to equate a lack of visible passion with superficiality. Fumpston's strength lies in making visible a sensory awareness. He succeeds in defining, visually, the most ephemeral and subtle sensations of space as they influence emotion.

His Garden View Series, for instance, succeed in conveying, from a grass-level viewpoint, the simultaneous feeling of space and containment that makes a garden so comforting. Add the vigour of growth depicted in strong rhythmical lines; complete the image with a Fumpston-pink sky, and a richly evocative work is created.

Over the ten year period the Egypt Series stands out as being perhaps more fully realised than other work, with the exception of the Sky-Marble Arch Series. In Egypt the investigation into the pyramidal shape, the rendering of light falling along an edge or on to a plane, the dusty skies and the bold gold combine to make a powerful statement about eternal aspirations and mysteries.

With this series Fumpston knew exactly what he was looking for. 'I knew what I wanted. I had had it in mind for quite some years before I managed to gather myself up and go there. Egypt is quite a close development from the Marble Arch prints really. Egypt was wonderful. I love to travel. I've been, mercifully, to one or two places, and Egypt was wonderfully worthwhile. It was all that I had imagined. Travelling ... my theory is you have in your mind all worked out a little of what you expect to find. When you go there you find that, but you get all the extra things that you didn't expect. And the extra there was wonderful, totally exotic, fascinating for white-trash visitors. It's very romantic, the sunset over the desert, the hills of the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, the Nile. It's a truly exotic location. Cairo was a most fantastic city because there is the Islamic Muslim architecture with all its wonderful patterns, all that incredible culture on top of the Ancient Egypt thing. It's wonderful to fly from Cairo to Luxor, up the Nile. You look down to the river of cultivated land going through the desert: then the cultivation just stops, halfway through a field, finish'.

Shapes inhabit these works with surface and substance, yet seem light enough to float off the paper by some miracle of transformation. Edges glow, and planes throw back light in a way that is achieved by extending the etching techniques to their limits. Fumpston balances triangle against triangle in an equilibrium of thrust and pull; the eve is left to vary the interpretation at will.

Garden Evening Six 1981
etching, aquatint &
surface colour on paper,
500 x 450 mm.

The inherent difficulty of printing works of this nature is enormous, and imposes considerable strain on the artist. 'The hardest print, I might just print two of in a whole day, and then if something goes wrong with one of them I've only got one print for the day's work.' Fumpston generally prints an edition of around forty, but not all at the one time. He will complete an edition in hatches, as they sell. He works during the daylight. 'I don't often work at night. I'm too exhausted. I can't see. I've got to print in the daytime, unless I've got a panic on. Printing is so hard on the eyes. My prints are very slow and hard to make. I'm caught by my technique in a way. The gradation of colour is particularly laborious, the 'roll-up' colour. I'll print in bouts, a few days at a time. Sometimes I dread getting into it.'

Fumpston also works in collage, and does drawings. 'Drawing as a medium is wonderfully direct, and collage is immediate.' Both these mediums offer a respite from the demands of etching, although Fumpston brings the same qualities of precision, delicacy and refinement to them. in his shell collages (the shell has been a recurring image in Fumpston's work, underlining his interest in forms of containment, space internalised by edges) real tiny shells are scattered on to a beach, while ceramic fragments form the sails of yachts on the sea. In the Egypt collages Fumpston uses the documents of travel, tickets of entrance to museum and pyramid, to pay homage to the reality of these events, and builds a metaphor with the real thing.

The first ten years of Fumpston's work is complete, the next ten years is already in progress. I feel very strongly that I'm a slow developer, that my best work is yet to come, and that I'm going to make a lot more work. I can see the development ... The great challenge is to make something that is not boring, that people like more and more, that they enjoy looking at, and like having around.'