David Eggleton considers the remarkable radiance and Canterbury swamp fog of Tony de Lautour’s paintings, in this mid-career survey at Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
Resembling a giant blackboard covered in graffiti, ‘Underworld 2’ (2006) by Tony de Lautour is spectacular. This painting is a phantasmagoria of signs and markings, intended to bring to mind Christchurch as a mood or feeling sometime early in the 21st century. Epic in scope, it might be the performance of a champion figure skater gliding and twirling with mesmeric virtuosity over a lake of fathomless black, and showing it to be a thing of terrible beauty, under drifting veils of snow, hail, ice crystals, tiny bubbles, in a dense luminous patterning.
So ‘Underworld 2′ is a painting of the night: it’s a nocturne populated by the monumental infill of a myriad of tiny graphic symbols, the whole shebang presented with the formal intricacy of a great tapestry. Here’s a city leading a life of its own: secret, silvery, entranced. What this artwork offers us is a dream-like depiction of Christchurch as the Radiant City, as the Big Nowhere, as yesterday’s Byzantium, all crosscurrents and cobwebs, about as substantial as swamp fog. The map is the territory and de Lautour is our guide to the labyrinth, making a fantastic inventory of its lairs, dens and castle keeps.
Over his career as an artist, Tony de Lautour has fused an encyclopedic grasp of Modernist painting’s strategies with a NZ iconography of emblems, tokens, insignia — referencing, among other things, Colin McCahon’s waterfall fetish, Don Peebles’ relief constructions, Bill Hammond’s joke-shop bogans — making borrowings, pilferings, appropriations galore, all skewed, though, to his own peculiar heraldic vision and owned in its cause.
For nearly three decades he has constructed and deconstructed Christchurch and environs as a psychic node, from colonial topographies and settler culture, to land ownership and globalisation, to the shape of things to come following the Grand Slam which pancaked the centre of the city on 22 February 2011, and the old architectural order vanished in a cloud of dust.
The exhibition, Us V Them is a mid-career retrospective, a travelling show put together by Peter Vangioni and the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. At the Dunedin Public Gallery, it has been shoehorned into a motley assortment of spaces in a non-chronological hang, and so inevitably is a bit higgledy-piggledy and disjointed in trying to create a legible narrative arc for this artist’s somewhat protean and prolific output. Indeed, it’s not so much a sweeping overview as itself a kind of picky revisionist reading, placing paintings and sculptural objects in several clusters, while being heavily weighted towards recent abstract paintings. But these suites of works with their harmonies of shapes and colours also remain freighted with personal associations and domestic allusions — like a flatpack Christchurch unloaded from a shipping container and sponsored by Ikea.
When he left Ilam Art School in the late 1980s, de Lautour worked for a while in a second-hand goods store in central Christchurch. He already had a long-standing interest in collecting folk art as well as antique curios from garage sales and auction houses. In this show, old-fashioned display cabinets contain a few examples of the artist’s self-made ceramics and reworked found objects. The former resemble witty excrescences, grotesque knick knacks, mantelpiece ornaments in the shape of gingerbread cottages, but embedded in them is the McDonald’s golden arches logo, or else death’s head imagery, while the latter is represented by things such as a couple of antiquarian books painted to resemble amputated tree stumps decorated with giant spiderwebs.
A shoal of small paintings dating from the 1990s and based partly on sailors’ tattoos recall the art of scrimshaw: designs on whalebone. Here, then, is a medium that suggests historical continuity with sealers, whalers, with those who’ve jumped ship. Still other small paintings show the blood-stippled and shaven heads of what might be blanched and slapstick clowns. These imply an underclass: pie-eyed and homebake-hammered denizens in neighbourhoods barely a stone’s throw from those of the righteous citizens of nine-to-five Christchurch going about their lawful business.
You can envisage the characters in these portraits as skinheads back in the day, stomping through Cathedral Square or slithering down back alleys up to no good. As if to confirm this impression, there’s a forbidding tableau of decorated street weapons nearby, displayed together like specimens in a police museum, confiscated after a donnybrook between rival gangs: crosscut saws, machetes, softball bats, cricket bats, a hockey stick shaped like an ancient pistol — and all painted up like tribal totems dedicated to the god of war.
Clustered together on another wall are paintings from this artist’s millennial Revisionist series. These are re-workings of drab landscapes on canvas by anonymous artists, which have been salvaged out of the back rooms of junk shops and auction rooms. Tony de Lautour doubles down on lugubrious depictions of forests, mountains and lakes by adding his own painterly interventions, thus turning unmemorable and solemn vistas memorably comic or sardonic. In ‘Prizefighter’ (1999), a bodgie-boy kiwi does battle with a marauding imperial British lion; presumably the prize is the louring territory behind them. The sublime never looked so ridiculous. Other kitsch landscapes metamorphose into gloomy colonial Gardens of Eden, with the addition of Biblical serpents, Golgothas of skulls, and erupting volcanoes: 100% Pure New Zealand.
The snowy peaks of the Southern Alps are subsumed into the Apple logo in the painting ‘Badlands’ (2001), a painting from a series on the ‘true religion’ of corporate branding and neo-liberal globalisation. This is a painting about curdled expectations, sponsored everything; the computer company’s ubiquitous trademark has been turned cartoon sinister: like a Halloween pumpkin with frostbite.
Territorial aggressions, land grabs, property management; the relentless accumulation of wealth by the few; disaffection of the masses; alienation and apathy: these are themes running through this exhibition, making Tony de Lautour something of a prophet. The painting that gives the exhibition its title, ‘Us V Them’ (2010) takes this phrase from a 2007 song by the American electronica band LCD Soundsystem, but with its emphatic black V plonked centre-frame, it might also be referring to the 2006 movie V for Vendetta, which in turn provided symbolism for the 2008’s Occupy protest movement.
‘Us V Them’ is an abstract concoction of lettering, stars and strings of white dots, so on one level it’s a late night fortress of solitude painting: just you and all the twinkling city lights below, lighting up the dark. On another level, there’s nil visibility beyond the electronic pulses and blips of data cascading along global circuit boards, and the overall atmosphere of this kinetic arrangement of paintwork is disorientating and ominous: destiny is out of our hands.
‘Industrial Estate’ (2010 – 2011) is set in Nighttown at the witching hour. Its ghostly figures have heard the chimes at midnight. The painting’s layout gives a sense of the city as a nearly empty dance floor in the small hours, littered with the occasional stiletto shoe. This noir painting spells out its own title in a teasing arrangement of lettering, where the letter R for example is formed by the outline of a woman in a short dress with one arm akimbo and one leg extended. Flat as a diagram, the work evokes Piet Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ as echoed by de Lautour’s Manchester Street dub-step.
A related architectonic painting ‘Antonia Hates You” (2009) – the image at the top of this review – spells out its title in a jagged set of cone shapes reminiscent of at once of Christchurch church spires, the sculpture cones of Neil Dawson, theatre spotlights and party hats.
The big central room of the exhibition contains post-Quake works. These paintings position the artist as a quester in search of a city centre. Here blocks of colour stack up as empty plinths and the subterranean tectonics have exposed the terrain of Chrischurch as terroir, harvesting rubble: the ground is rusty brown, clay-white, liquefaction-grey or cracked bitumen black. In ‘Rough Inventory’ (2017), a litter of fragments appears to float on ground saturated with traces of silt, as if the underworld is trying to squeeze back in through cracks in the ground.
Excavators, cranes, the brightly coloured cubes and oblongs of the Rebuild: Christchurch’s new normal began with a doughnut city, a city with a hole at its centre. Tony de Lautour’s ‘Central Planning’ (2013), based on the zones of government-commissioned Recovery Maps, is an acrylic-on-plywood painting with an empty frame dead-centre showing white gallery wall behind.
Other paintings suggest a new Constructivist celebration of architectural engineering, be it ever so wry and off-kilter. ‘Sculpture Painting’ (2016) delivers modular shapes that are gliding together or else teetering precariously like towers made of playing cards. And submerged content sunk in the sump of the anodyne is emerging draped in the dazzle camouflage patterns of early 20th century vorticism.
In ‘Painting for a Sculpture 3’ (2016), a shape that anticipates the arrival of the e-scooter is bounding off a plinth and scooting away down the road into the night. This post-Quake panorama of paintings reveals a mechanistic universe where the tumbling over of large objects has led to a reconsideration of gravity, and a reconsideration of the flotsam and jetsam of modern life. The contemporary world has been refined into objects and shapes ever twisting and turning, building up and breaking down, bending towards and away.
Us V Them: Tony de Lautour; curated by Peter Vangioni, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 11 May – 6 October, 2019.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.