Robert Ellis (with main essays by Hamish Keith, Elizabeth Hana and Ngarino Ellis, and further essays by Ian Sinclair, Tasha Haines and Stephen Higginson), (Ron Sang Publications, 2014), 312 pp., $135
Among the many memorable photographs of the painter Robert Ellis in this new, important monograph, one stands out. It is 1963 and the young, dapper Ellis is strumming a Spanish guitar, the body of the instrument held high, nearly touching his chin. His hands are relaxed, well-schooled. The wall behind is a deep blue, the floor covered in flax matting. You can almost hear the acoustic of the cavernous room; the space feels Mediterranean but, we’re told, it’s Auckland. The seated figure is holding a thought, a remembered tune …
Spain has always meant a lot to the English-born Robert Ellis – just as it meant much to his two late artist-friends Pat Hanly and Ralph Hotere. The effervescent, youthful Hanly spent much of 1958 zooming around the Iberian Peninsula on a Lambretta scooter before retiring offshore to Ibiza with his wife-to-be, Gil. Ralph Hotere used to speak of the strong affinities he felt with the people of Catalonia, whose culture straddles the Franco-Spanish border. His late art was an emotive engagement with Antoni Tapies and the blackness of the whole Spanish painting tradition.
Spanish culture has been a huge factor in Ellis’s creative development. Not only is he an accomplished flamenco guitarist, he has returned to Spain throughout his adult life, soaking up the culture in all its manifestations. His close friend and fellow musician, Ian Sinclair, writing in the present book, recalls Ellis arriving in Catalonia in 1960, ‘intrigued by Goya, Velazquez, Garcia Lorca and always in search of flamenco’. In his essay, ‘The North Shore Spaniards’, Sinclair tells how his own and Ellis’s shared enthusiasm for Spanish music was nurtured by the painter/guitarist Keith Patterson during the early 1960s. ‘Fifty years ago New Zealand was one of the worst places in the world for anything Spanish,’ Sinclair laments. ‘Geographically it is the furthest point on earth from Spain.’
While Ralph Hotere dwelt for much of his painterly career inside the darkness of Spanish art (and drew profound equivalents between it and the darknesses of Māori tradition), Ellis painted outwards from there, adding colour and light to a predominantly dark ground, his imagery and iconography like a pageant or procession emerging from the darkness of a rural road at midnight.
Having arrived in New Zealand in 1957 to teach at Elam School of Art, Ellis took a year-long sabbatical four years later, spending much of 1961 in Spain, where his interest in the region was further consolidated. His subsequent paintings of motorway-cities were inspired by the ancient fortified towns as well as by the burgeoning metropolises of Madrid, London and elsewhere. Beneath the surface hyperactivity of works like Urban City (1965) an upwelling, nocturnal quality is evident – a dark, archaic element akin to the ‘deep song’ or duende which Federico Garcia Lorca wrote about. ‘Each art has a duende different in form and style,’ the poet wrote in Deep Song, ‘but their roots all meet in the place where the black sounds of Manuel Torre [a gypsy flamenco guitarist] come from – the essence, the uncontrollable, quivering, common base of wood, sound, canvas, and word’.
Lorca’s earthy summation of cosmic forces sits well with Robert Ellis’s nocturnal reflections, particularly from the mid-1980s onwards. In these later ensemble images, we confront a darkness infused or overlaid with items and details from the artist’s studio and the world beyond. Quoting Lorca again: ‘Behind those black sounds, tenderly and intimately, live zephyrs, ants, volcanoes, and the huge night, straining its waist against the Milky Way.’ Lorca’s prescription of intuitive, euphoric, jumbled-up imagery feels about right for Ellis’s art.
In hindsight, his urban paintings of the 1960s – Ellis’s conscious attempt ‘to create a universal city symbol’ – are holding up well. With their knotted off-ramps and clogged arterial routes, they are alarmingly prescient of Auckland’s current traffic malaise. Their spaghettied forms might still inspire town planners, or, on the other hand, give them nightmares.
Ellis is a musical painter, although not in any obvious way. His motorways, like crooked staffs, carry their load of graphic notation – all manner of visual bleeps and mellifluous markings. They become their staccato passages, their vibrato, their harmonies and disharmonies. Alive with rhythms, counter-rhythms and intervals, the ‘motorways’ also have their cacophonous, atonal moments. At times they can seem closer to Stockhausen than to Francisco Tarrega.
A nascent interest in Māori visual forms was also evident in Robert Ellis’s works from the early 1960s. (The ‘motorway’ paintings, with their strident lines and koru-forms, suggest an affinity not only with traditional Māori art but with the work of young artists of the time such as Para Matchitt.) By the end of that decade, Ellis’s interest in Māori culture would become a deep involvement. In 1966 he married Elizabeth Aroha Mountain, and twin daughters were born at Kawakawa Hospital in 1970. Within a few years, the buildings at his wife’s marae, Te Rawhiti, in the Bay of Islands, had become an integral motif. He writes: ‘These buildings are of some importance in my life and I was involved in the rehabilitation of this marae over a 20-year period. And I literally spent every vacation for 20 years working on this building …’ The marae architecture, which dominated many works of the early 1970s, is a strong structural presence, the masonry owing something to McCahon’s On Building Bridges.
Over the following three decades, Ellis’s landscape-derived works juxtaposed Māori place-names with elements from survey maps, flow charts and diagrammatic renderings of the physical world. The aerial perspectives of the ‘motorway’ paintings were replaced with a side-on, profile viewpoint—as if to underline the fact that the artist’s feet were now firmly on the ground. In series like ‘Surveys and Observations’, however, an otherworldly music can still be heard. There are even hints of musical staffs and tablatures in his painterly notations, and the diagrammatic panels that cut into these compositions resemble strings and fretboards.
Alongside the afore-mentioned Spanish orientation, and a passionate embrace of Māoritanga, there is a residual Englishness to Ellis’s work. This quality emerges most clearly in the latter sections of the monograph. Having spent his formative years, 1949–52, at London’s Royal College of Art (with Francis Bacon, for a time, as his tutor, and Carol Weight as his teacher), he acquired a gritty, powerful, humanistic approach to image-making. While, particularly during the 1960s, Ellis’s art moved towards abstraction, it could never shake off the desire for human symbols and existential content.
By the 1990s, Ellis’s paintings came to have an almost medieval or heraldic quality – another form of quintessential Englishness, you could say, although he wasn’t content to leave it at that. In his ‘Shielded Histories’ series (2006), he presents unconventional, non-conformist coats-of-arms, melding the Ratana Church with King Arthur, the Christian cross with the Star of David and the koru. Other recent series have a similarly talismanic quality, incorporating such symbols as the horse’s head, human hand, fish and comet. These Jungian images dovetail neatly with emblematic objects, vestiges of Ellis’s English childhood. A toy truck appears frequently; there are ‘good behaviour’ stars, and boiled sweets in plastic wrappers (these he would encounter later in Spain, where they are scattered during Holy Week processions). A useful glossary at the back of Robert Ellis partially unpacks the artist’s self-styled emblematic system.
Lately I’ve been pondering the Spanish-leaning triumvirate of Robert Ellis, Pat Hanly and Ralph Hotere. Coincidentally, they were the three artists chosen to paint murals for the then newly redeveloped Auckland International Airport in 1977. I’m not sure if there was any over-riding theme for that commission, but the three murals collectively amount to a surprisingly coherent cosmic life-cycle.
Ralph Hotere’s well-known contribution – lately restored and renamed Godwit/Kuaka – off-loads, panel by panel, core-samples of mythological darkness: the void before creation or after death, with razor-lines of pure colour descending. Next there is Hanly’s contribution, Prelude to a Journey, which enacts the creation of the world: a glorious, pulsing evocation of molecular life and cellular division. I remember this work, in situ at the airport, as a Miro-esque animation of globs and flecks of pigment; it was like a science experiment in a petrie-dish that ran the length of a huge wall. (Restored and reconfigured into numerous segments in 1996, it is now dispersed around public and private collections.)
The most figurative of the three murals, Robert Ellis’s North Auckland Itinerary, is (or was) an evocation of life on this planet, with its trees, clouds, architectural forms and motorways. All of these elements were woven together into an almost-tukutuku design. Three metres high and over 37 metres in length, the mural is currently lost, quite possibly destroyed.
If Ellis’s gigantic airport mural is ever recovered, there is an exhibition I’d love to see – ideally at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki. On a wall facing Ellis’s epic work, Hanly’s mural could be reconstituted for the occasion, alongside Hotere’s re-energised Godwit/Kuaka. A number of illuminating connections would emerge from the reunion of these three works. Alongside what I imagine were the original, prescribed themes of journeying, arrival and departure, further narratives would emerge of Oceanic time and space, and the interchange between Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Beguilingly, in light of earlier remarks, the three murals would all speak to the Spanish tradition, as reinvented at this end of the world mid-1970s. We could reflect upon Hotere’s El Greco-inspired blackness (with a nod to St John of the Cross’s ‘Dark Night of the Soul’), Hanly’s meditation on Joan Miro’s art – those broad colour-plains across which life-forms twist and flicker – and Ellis’s mural, with its earthiness, its peasant-like embrace of soil and sky.
For the opening function, flamenco guitarists, dancers and singers could be convened (complemented by a lively contingent of Te Aupouri and Elizabeth Ellis’s people, Ngāti Porou and Ngāpuhi) and we could experience both the immense light and dark of Lorca’s duende – a quality deeper than any single culture but common to all humanity. In the company of said murals, we would return to that originating point, that motherlode of inspiration, the ‘common base of wood, sound, canvas, and word’ of which Lorca speaks and of which Ellis’s life work is made.
Considered alongside the monographs about Hotere and Hanly which appeared from Ron Sang Publications in 2008 and 2012 respectively, the Robert Ellis book feels like the closing of a circle. With a fine introduction from Hamish Keith and a wealth of text from the artist’s family and others, the monograph is a moving as well as illuminating account of a life’s work and a life’s living. Above and beyond the motorways, the architecture and the emblems that have merged from Ellis’s studio, there is, importantly, one recurring motif which I have yet to mention. Robert Ellis has devoted entire series to a number of symbolic mountains: Maungarei (Mt Wellington), Maungawhau (Mt Eden), Te Rawhiti and others. I can only take this as a heartfelt gesture towards the family-name of his wife, Mountain. This ongoing presence in his art, whether conscious or not, feels like an act of homage and devotion.
GREGORY O’BRIEN is a Wellington-based writer, poet, anthologist, art curator and artist. His most recent book is the self-illustrated collection of poems Whale Years, just published by Auckland University Press. He is 2015 Stout Memorial Fellow at Victoria University.