His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell, by David Craig and Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, 2013) 217 pp., $65.
His Own Steam, The Work of Barry Brickell was released in conjunction with the retrospective exhibition of the same name presented at the Dowse Museum, Lower Hutt earlier this year. The publication is not a pure biography, but more than the exhibition, it attempts to reveal Brickell’s personal and professional philosophies by examining the various threads of his creative output including his pottery, expanded sculptural practice, and the development of Driving Creek Railway. David Craig and Gregory O’Brien are to be commended for the scope of their scholarship evinced by the worthy database of primary sources, as well as the creation of a comprehensive photographic archive. The book is at its best when these resources are used generously, allowing Brickell’s character to shine through.
Brickell is an individual who has shied away from official, institutional – read ‘Art World’ – recognition, and in this respect, the celebratory, historicising nature of the publication poses more challenges than the retrospective survey. It is less fraught to present the work via exhibition – which, to a degree, speaks for itself in terms of its quality and message – than to subject it to scholarly exegesis. As a result, O’Brien and Craig oscillate between attempting to insert Brickell into the canon while simultaneously insisting that he exists outside of it. This somewhat having-it-both-ways back and forth is not altogether unsuccessful, as it highlights the problematic process of art historical canonisation. His Own Steam… is a portrait of an individual who refuses to be categorised and it illustrates the complex, often contradictory characteristics of one of New Zealand’s most accomplished makers, doers, and thinkers. As Brickell himself admits, ‘My whole life has been a pyrrhic victory: a victory won at too great a cost.’
Hamish Keith’s foreword is a personal account that comes close to unapologetic myth making. Detailing the time he spent with Brickell in a flat in Newtown, Auckland, he does, nevertheless, successfully lay the groundwork for the case of Brickell’s life being a wonderful kind of gesamkunstwerk, as well as noting the playfully transgressive manner in which Brickell’s formative years would be crucial to his later practice.
David Craig continues where Keith leaves off in the following essay, ‘More ground and in my own way: Barry Brickell’s Life work’, which discusses Brickell’s work in relation to cultural nationalism, modernism, and indigeneity. We are told that Brickell realised indigeneity through the use of local clays, an appreciation of forms native to the pacific, and a kinship with the landscape while opposing international, or metropolitan fashion. Throughout the book, somewhat problematically, the terms ‘local’ and ‘indigenous’ are used without a great deal of examination. While this could be viewed as an unnecessary tangent, it is nonetheless an important conversation with ramifications for Brickell’s work, as well as wider New Zealand culture. In spite of this, Craig’s exploration of the specific forms and techniques used by Brickell is very good.
Especially rewarding is the section on the quite extraordinary murals and composite wall works, some of which reside in rural companies throughout New Zealand, and so remain effectively hidden to a large percentage of the public. The brevity of these sections dedicated to particular facets of Brickell’s work contributes to the overall feeling that the book is a survey, notable for its width and breadth, rather than its depth.
Gregory O’Brien’s ‘Twenty-seven carriages to and from Driving Creek: Barry Brickell, his railway and his contemporaries’ exacerbates this sense of survey. Comprised of 27 very short pieces of around three to five paragraphs, the section seeks to connect Brickell to the surroundings, supporters and artists that influenced him, or those he influenced. This particular section reads like a gathering of unrelated anecdotes that were not able to be accommodated elsewhere in the book. There are some interesting nuggets including information on Brickell’s encounters with Theo Schoon – another artist who worked at the intersection between indigenous and modernist practices. However, the jumps from each metaphoric ‘carriage’ to ‘carriage’ are rarely connected and they occur rapidly: in the course of a double page spread we go from Jean Arp to Len Lye to Joan Miro to Marcel Duchamp and Louise Bourgeois. And then from Shane Cotton to vulcanism and back to clay. The treatment feels inconsistent and repetitive: comparisons to natural forms – territory thoroughly covered by Craig earlier – appear again.
‘A Well Laid Curve: The mountain and the prophet at Driving Creek’ establishes a deeper social and historical context for Brickell’s activity, focusing on the extraordinary Driving Creek Railway project that has spanned five decades on Brickell’s Coromandel property. Throughout the book the authors construct an argument that Brickell is aware of a deeper ecology where our actions are inextricably connected to our surroundings. This ideology becomes tangible and apparent in this section where the Brickell’s railway is framed as a redemptive and healing mechanism for the land, and Brickell, as an artist, is described as both pioneering settler and environmentalist. The case for a complex, multi-faceted personality is nowhere better expounded than in Craig’s final piece in the book, ‘Rich and Warty, cracks and all: Barry Boy, the outsider artist who never grew up’. Featuring Brickell’s self-reflective words and work, including Brickell’s excruciatingly honest handwritten ballpoint document, Self Portrait, Craig presents a touchingly intimate account of the personal tolls experienced while living a life dedicated to art.
The section is followed by a rigorous chronology: every year between 1957 to the present is marked by a significant accomplishment of some kind. Compiled by His own Steam exhibition exhibition curator Emma Bugden and David Craig, it highlights some of Brickell’s achievements, that, without such a prosaic vehicle, may go unmentioned. Having focused on the fact that Brickell decided to stay ‘powerfully at home’ when his contemporaries were leaving New Zealand in the 1950s, the chronology provides plainly-stated details of the incredible national and international reputation that Brickell went on to command. Trips to the United States, Europe, and the Pacific to lecture and to lead workshops are interspersed with exhibitions, formal honours like his 1985 OBE, and of course the most important milestones: his creative output.
One of the major strengths of this book is the diversity and quality of the images. Of special note is the newly commissioned photography of Brickell’s work by Haruhiko Sameshima. In addition to these lustrous – and historically important – images is an outstanding archive of photographs taken by some of New Zealand’s greatest photographers including Gil Hanly, Marti Friedlander, and Ans Westra. Capturing the intimate and animated life of Driving Creek and its milieu, these photos, many in black and white, are full of character (and characters).
Interspersed throughout are in-situ installation shots of Brickell’s ceramics in homes, offices, and other spaces, living the lives they were meant to lead: engaging, confronting and being used on a daily basis. Disappointingly, however, very few of the documented pieces are accompanied by dimensions. One of the most beguiling features of Brickell’s bulging, towering, spiromorphs, torsomorphs, and peopillics is the scale, and without measurements this factor goes strangely unacknowledged. A further pragmatic issue concerns the captioning of the full page photographs. Rather than providing work captions directly beside images of work, the details of each piece are listed over a two page spread near the front of the book, so while the image pages remain unencumbered, finding information regarding specific pieces proves frustrating.
David Craig and Gregory O’Brien have created a book full of extraordinary texture and life – quite like Brickell himself. My reservation is that the book seems caught between fulfilling a biographical story-telling, even myth-making populist function, and providing a rigorous account of Brickell’s career with complex cultural analysis. In the end it does manage to achieve both purposes, though with some compromises concerning depth.
JAMIE HANTON is an art critic and curator, and currently Director of the Blue Oyster Gallery in Dunedin.