Chloe Lane’s novel The Swimmers is about euthanasia. On the cover is Nicola Farquhar’s painting Peachthief, part of a West Auckland exhibition winding up this week.
“Do you want to keep this?” I asked.
“No,” P said.
“But it’s your special denim jacket,” I said, holding it up. I could see P through a long rip across the back where the shoulders were separating from the body and a second rip that had nearly removed the collar from the shoulders.
“It’s not that special,” he said.
“You kept it all this time,” I said. “You had it before I knew you.”
P shook his head, motioned for me to put it in the throw pile.
I didn’t enjoy throwing things away. It was just stuff, and stuff we didn’t need, but every piece of clothing, every knick-knack and old birthday card, plate and glass we had already placed in the throw/donate pile had meant something to us once. And what if I was wrong, what if this stuff was still important, still useful, and we ended up looking for it and not being able to find it, and missing it?
“I’ve been thinking lately about how sometimes you can distill your ideas down into a single persisting preoccupation,” Nicola Farquhar said, during our recent email exchange. “Like an earworm, it’s partly something you like and partly something you’ve picked up like a virus or parasite. And when you’re making your work, you’re having a conversation with this creature that’s talking in your ear, and replying by making visual things. You make things to ask, ‘Is this what you mean? Or is this what you mean?’”
We were moving to the South Island – an island I hadn’t visited since the 90s when I was a teenager travelling with my swimming squad for nationals, and an island which P had never visited. When we told people we were moving south, the first thing they said was “It’ll be cold down there,” and now that was all I could think about – how cold it would be; how cold we would be. This had become the guiding principle for what was kept and what got thrown away.
“Would this be a good warm thing to take?” I asked. I held up a wool sweater that P had also owned from before we knew each other. It was cable knit, cream dirtied to an oatmealy-beige, a little on the small side now.
He examined the sweater emotionlessly.
“Remember it’s going to be cold down there,” I said. “Maybe one for the workshop?”
Before he had time to respond, I placed it in the smaller keep pile. After six years away, a lot of what we had put in storage made less sense in relation to how our life looked now, and despite how I felt about it, the pile of things we weren’t keeping was already spilling off the couch and onto the floor.
“I don’t know about this guy though,” I said.
P’s eyes lit up on seeing his old Dead Moon T-shirt. Held together by only a few threads, it looked like the remnants of a wild cat mauling – all that was left in the evidence bag in the medical examiner’s autopsy room.
“Don’t throw that away,” he said. He took the T-shirt from me and squeezed it, smiling to himself, then placed it out of my reach.
Over P’s shoulder I could see his father, whom we shared a bubble with, returning from trading his homemade hand sanitiser – the product of a personal distillery and baby lotion, sealed in an old Paul Newman’s salad dressing bottle – for fresh eggs and flour. He was a more practical person – he would be baffled by many of the things we were taking with us. There were seven old, faded, torn, and stained band T-shirts on my side of the keep pile.
It was likely Dead Moon and its friends would spend the rest of their lives decorating the back of a closet, so why was it so hard to cast off some things, even when they no longer served a purpose? Were these T-shirts something we really liked? Or were they simply something we had picked up – an image of ourselves that, like a little tick, had attached itself to our persons, and which we were too scared to remove? Who were we listening to? Were we asking the right questions?
The paintings in Nicola Farquhar’s exhibition Listening, twitching at Te Uru Waitākere, often include small sculptural pieces – circles, triangles, rings, bean-like shapes – that rest on top of the canvas. For some paintings these shapes could be read as part of the painting’s body. “I have many feelings about circles … but, yes, they are a bit like eyes, breasts, cells, or simplified heads maybe,” she told me.
For other paintings it feels more appropriate to talk about these sculptural pieces as extra, as outside of the painting, useful but also decorative. So, hats.
“I like the way hats are like costumes to extend the body,” Farquhar said. “How they make someone seem taller or wider.”
The old merino beret lying at the very bottom of a cardboard box of mostly shoes had to go. I’d already bought myself a new wool hat – a tall green one that maybe made me look taller? But why do I want to talk about Farquhar’s hats so soon? Because, do you ever not notice when someone is wearing a hat? Especially when it’s someone who doesn’t usually wear a hat? Out of nowhere in the mid-2000s I started donning a black felt fisherman’s cap, and every friend and acquaintance had something to say about it. When I entered the gallery at Te Uru, the hats on Farquhar’s paintings weren’t the first thing I saw, but they were the first thing I wanted to inspect more closely.
Ray-Jeh (2019) wears a small triangular shape that reminds me of the red pointy hat in the Jon Klassen children’s book I Want My Hat Back. In the book, the hat belongs to a bear and (spoiler alert) he does get it back, and the hat is comically small on top of the bear’s large, broad body. The hat on top of Ray-Jeh makes the painting seem broader too – it looks positively squat beneath the weight of that little triangle.
I don’t think of these paintings as comic paintings, but as with good literature, a bit of levity can contribute a lot to the emotional weight of a dramatic scene. It’s human to laugh when things are bad – even if not with a hearty guffaw, but the kind of laughter that only comes from being ill at ease. In Ray-Jeh the hat becomes a small distraction from everything else that is happening in the painting, everything that is happening below – all of the turbulence in the gut.
These shapes, which are made out of paper mâché and plaster, do more than just serve vanity or novelty though. While the paintings are being made, the hats, or are they eyes, are already there – present, watching.
“One of the things I realised after a while of working in the studio,” Farquhar said, “is that everything around you inadvertently becomes part of the compositional frame – adjacent colours and things, and other paintings – and impact on the decisions you make with the painting you are working on. So there is an inevitable contagion this way … I had lots of discarded objects and cut-out pieces around the studio. These became important forms – suggesting a material surface, colour, or shape that then impacted on a painting’s composition. The hats and shapes I move about just to keep this energy going somehow. I take them off and on the paintings as they are being made.”
Even when the paintings are installed in the gallery, the hats aren’t secured – they are simply resting on top of the canvases. Knowing this makes the paintings feel more human to me. It is as if they could also be coming and going, moving around, and changing up their headwear to suit the climate.
“Another thing I like about the shapes is that they are suggestive of versatility and repetition – they are meaningful units that suggest unlimited variation. In the same ways that cells operate in our bodies, and letters operate in language. I think perhaps that this is where they sit for me productively from the perspective of making the work.”
P and I had been “going with our guts” a lot recently. Our guts had been equally wrong and right. We were initially wrong about deciding to stay in Florida to wait and see what happened with Covid-19, and we were wrong about thinking our son’s American passport would allow him to board a plane after the New Zealand border had closed, though we were right about driving 12 hours to Houston to board a direct Air New Zealand flight, though we were wrong about booking P a domestic flight back to Florida so he could finish packing up our stuff, but right about keeping the hire car and P returning to Houston to board his own direct flight a day early so that he was in Houston, ready and waiting, when his flight – the last one out of North America – was brought forward eight hours.
Now due to travel restrictions, and because we were in the North Island and we were trying to relocate to the South Island, we couldn’t view potential rentals. Choosing a place to live based on photos that, judging by the way the sun was streaming through the windows had been taken during the summer months, was an exercise in optimism. I couldn’t trust my gut. Even when my brother was able to view places for us, I wanted to be able to picture the three of us and our stuff inside our new home for myself. And trying to piece together the shape of the house was difficult: Does that door lead to that room? Or that room? Is that a door to a courtyard or the front door? How much is that wide-angled lens distorting everything? Is that a cat flap? So that should be the downstairs?
I.W. (2020) is one of the denser works in Farquhar’s show. She likes her paintings to be quite worked – so they become textured and layered – and this painting feels worked and reworked, maybe even overworked? At first inspection I see a female form – shoulders, hips, three breasts; then I’m looking at just a head; then I’m stealing a bird’s eye view of a hoed field, gardens; then I start thinking about layer cakes. Farquhar’s paintings make some people feel hungry. They didn’t work that way for me exactly. More they made me aware of my gut – maybe I was hungry, or maybe that was an anxious knot, or maybe I’d consumed too much coffee, or maybe I was pissed off, or maybe I could simply feel everything moving around in there in a way that was both reassuring and unnerving.
The sense of movement in many of these paintings is undeniable though. Maybe that’s why I can’t settle on a form in I.W. The hard fast lines in the centre of the painting being attacked from the busy squiggly lines in the frames inside of frames that surround them – things are moving ferociously in there. It hurts a bit to look at this one.
“I’m not sure if I’m making a thing that smells,” Farquhar said, talking about her earworm again, “or a sound, or a thing in motion, or something 2D or 3D, because it all folds together in the process of trying to understand this persisting preoccupation. And although the process of trying to understand results in very simple things like paintings or maybe sculptures or drawings, the thing I sense mostly is a process of time. Not straight-ahead time, but things coming from the past and future, and disrupting the still quiet moment.”
The two pillows in the last bag of stuff had enjoyed their six years out of action. It was enough time for whatever mouth and nose organisms had seeped through their threads and seams to nest, grow and bloom. The pillows were heavy with it.
“Why did we keep these?” I asked.
“Because we didn’t think we would be away so long,” P said.
“These are going too,” I said, hiffing a beige sheet set at the throw pile as I watched our son go straight for the pillows. “No,” I said, “yuck.”
I like the term gut flora. It helps me to better visualise what is going on inside my gut. Which also makes me wonder if I’m wrong about trying to make out a shape in Farquhar’s paintings. Maybe I’m not seeing something 1:1 – not looking in a mirror and seeing a reflection – but rather something magnified many times over.
“I have these silhouette tropes that I like to re-use. Peachthief (2019) was made to be a bit like Xin-Yang which I showed at Mossman in 2018. And there are container shapes which I like to use a bit – thinking about the body as a container.”
If four of the small square paintings on the far wall are containers, then W.W. (2020) feels like the illustration in a school science project where the contents of the petri dish has been magnified many times over and presented as a significant finding. Whether I’m seeing a microscopic view of mould, or something inside someone’s gut, we have zoomed in so far that these organisms have started to appear almost jewel-like.
“I think a lot about gravity as an unconscious compositional force. It determines up and down in a painting and how our understanding of weight works, which we translate visually in a painting. I used to collect a lot of pictures of jewellery adverts – like a really sparkly geometric object in a blank space – and I realise now that I was collecting these images for compositional reference. The idea of an object in a space, as in outer space, that didn’t need gravity as its underlying compositional guide.”
Farquhar considers her sculptures natural companions to the paintings. Like the hats, shapes, and cut-outs that populate her studio, they bring an energy to the space that feeds into the paintings – similar to the process of making collage.
“I’d love to make more sculptures but practically they are a much bigger investment in time, space and materials. The blue plaster sculpture at Te Uru I made in parts in 2017 at home (like an apartment), and had all the pieces on the floor in our bedroom, rotating so they would dry. I had to jump over them to get to the bed, we couldn’t open the wardrobe properly, et cetera. So, you know, maybe that’s something better to do if you live by yourself.”
On one occasion in primary school we made sculptures out of polystyrene. We used a hot, thin torch to melt away individual blocks and shapes, or create textures on the polystyrene’s surface. I’m reminded of this not because Group Therapy (2020), Farquhar’s small stacked tower in the middle of the gallery, could have been made by an eight-year-old, but because my polystyrene structure was an igloo that I painted in a similar blue, and also because something about Farquhar’s tower makes me feel uncomfortable, as if I could be in danger. Is Group Therapy a rotunda in a panopticon from which to observe the paintings on the walls? Or are the paintings on the walls the ones doing the surveying? Is anyone watching me? And what about the balled-up pink and white objects that rest on the top of the tower? What are they? Who left them there? Will I be okay?
Peachthief is on the cover of my novel The Swimmers (VUP, 2020). The mother of the novel’s narrator has a terminal illness, and when we meet her she is dressed in a loud 70s-style frock with wooden beads strung around her neck. The narrator hasn’t seen these items of clothing before, and in this moment she realises she doesn’t know her mother as well as she thought. In this same scene the narrator acknowledges her mother is ready to die. The “character” in Peachthief could be wearing a necklace of beads – levitated to form a ring around her face. Though that speckled halo could also be the silk lining of her coffin, the final place she rests her head. Could those green shutters on the side of her head be wings? And weighing down the jaw – are those the lane ropes of a swimming pool, thrown blood red at dusk? So the soft pink expanse above is the sky at sunset? Or is the sun preparing to rise?
It isn’t until later in the novel that the narrator understands how much she will have to give to help her mother die. How much she will have to take from her own life, to give her mother the end she wants, needs. Farquhar’s paintings lean in to the human experience – the anxiety, fear, joy – all of it. The paintings seem to take pleasure in revealing the messiness of life, as they move between the exterior – how we seem to those around us, and the interior – how we are for ourselves. Considering this, the character in Peachthief could really be any of the characters in The Swimmers. It could even be me. It could even be you.
“I try to not be fearful of all the failures that are in the paintings … I keep going over and over – putting stuff on and taking it off during the process, and probably ruining tons of lovely under-painting parts. So it feels like I’m as much ruining them as making. That’s what I mean by how I judge them to be finished – it’s not that I’m making a particularly expert judgment or anything on whether they are good, it’s more like being driven by a process of ruining and rescuing them until they get to a point where they have their own character.”
Driven by a process of ruining and rescuing. Is that what P and I have been doing too?
Now we’re in the South Island. It’s very cold outside, though inside it’s warm – the three of us are wearing T-shirts. We’re sitting on the floor of our mostly empty house, a single rug beneath us, a small cardboard box for a table, using plates and cutlery borrowed from my brother, and I can’t remember half of what we decided to keep. All that stuff is slowly making its way south to us now. What are we going to do with it when it arrives? Is any of it going to be useful? Will we be happy to see it? Or will we begin with some brand new keep and throw piles and pick up where we left off?
Listening, twitching is up at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery until Sunday 5 July. Nicola Farquhar is represented by Mossman, Wellington.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.