Mervyn Williams: From Modernism to the digital age by Edward Hanfling, with essays by Leonard Bell and Michael Dunn (Ron Sang Publications, 2014), 336 pp., $135
Mervyn Williams: From Modernism to the digital age is a large and well-illustrated monograph that seeks to chronicle the life-long artistic journey of Mervyn Williams. It contains a series of essays as chapters linked by many full-colour photographs of Williams’ works. Edward Hanfling is the primary writer, and Michael Dunn and Leonard Bell each contribute a shorter essay: Dunn, a précis of Williams’ years in Whanganui; Bell, an overview of the artist’s influences. This structure works well, even though the Dunn and Bell essays interrupt Hanfling’s chronological flow. With an emphasis on argument around Williams’ works, Mervyn Williams is not a chronicle of the artist’s life per se, although an illustrated chronology and a double-page photo of the artist’s family appear at the back of the book. It is a book for the art world, focused on analysing Williams’ practice.
Edward Hanfling obviously cares about and is dedicated to his subject, and I found his writing to be often candid, concise and poetic. At times, however, his repeated justification of the artist’s commitment to abstraction was a little overdone. I also found Hanfling’s associated and overriding separation of ‘feeling’ and ‘thought’ to be problematic, including his distinction between the gesture of expressive ‘high art’ versus the more exact, mechanical and ‘social’ nature of Williams’ abstraction. But it’s true that Williams himself is quoted in support of this distinction, referring, for example, to the American abstract painters John McLaughlin and Ellsworth Kelly, who took ‘the spleen out’ of painting.
In his first essay, ‘For A Start’, Hanfling begins with a justification of abstract painting, revealing here, as throughout, that he considers it to have been misunderstood and to be currently out of favour, even passé. Hanfling writes: ‘Mervyn Williams was painting abstract pictures in the 1950s when, in New Zealand, this was looked upon by all but a few with considerable befuddlement and suspicion.’ Perhaps Hanfling’s insistence is the result of pertinent history and there is a real need to argue for abstraction, but, for me, Williams’ paintings stand well enough alone, without this. .
I believe that one of the reasons why Hanfling so emphasises the non-mainstream position of abstract painting in New Zealand at this time, is because it highlights his view of the newness or radicality of what Williams was doing, his commitment to modernism as continual invention. As Williams tells it, abstract painting was a way to make a contribution, to grasp painterly opportunities, outside the better-known field of figurative painting. This makes sense, but I am troubled by Hanfling’s claims that Williams was dedicated to an egalitarian art, a democratised art closer to the apparently more easily absorbed and recognisable, and, therefore, populist and social nature of Op Art, which communicates with the viewer most directly. I struggle with the way this simplifies and pigeon-holes art movements along with artistic practice, and am more interested in Hanfling’s mention of the way Williams sought visual forms that resonated, not unlike music, with viewers, communicating directly while inviting continued experience.
Most problematically, for me, Hanfling states that Williams’ Op Art leanings took the ‘artiness’ out of art, thereby shelving expressive painterly touch with esoteric themes and concepts. Substantiating this, Hanfling quotes the artist as saying that Op Art appeals to a more innocent side of ourselves. And yet, when I study the illustrated works I see the work of a painter who is not devoid of expression, and, anyway, I do not necessarily understand the work of the abstract expressionists to be so arty and individualistic that it cannot resonate with me directly (although I admit that I may be a specialised viewer).
Even though I am looking at photographic reproductions rather than the real works, the technical brilliance of the artist and his lifelong fascination with the visceral nature of painting and a painting’s surface – its process of making, its texture and markings and potential for animation – is obvious. Overall, I get a sense of the artist, whom I have not met, as dedicated to painting as a process of living. In my mind, his ongoing pursuit and variation of ordered-yet-engaging forms is akin to Cézanne’s repeated painting of Mont Saint Victoire, to Giorgio Morandi’s repeated ceramic vessels, and to Philip Clairmont’s domestic interiors. Williams is an artist for life, taking precision in hand without giving up those traces of directed humanity captured in the fine nature and application of paint.
I am struck by Williams’ Delta One of 1978, in which a fine network of pathways form out of a regular grid of lines, floating yet emerging from a background of carefully varied gradations of colour and saturation. And in Daedal series #4 (Glow) I enjoy the artist’s ordered and variably turning circular forms that advance from a background centred on the emergence of light. With Quotient (Warm) of 1973 I spend time on small squares of diagonal lines that alternate direction and subtly vary in colour. My eye keeps travelling around and working its way back to the painting’s centre. Then I come across Williams’ preparatory charcoal drawing for his Daedal series: Daedal Drawing 2 of 1979. Like a snapshot of a discovery, it seems to be a rubbing of variegated wooden boarding surrounding a central white form like a boat’s lifering centrally divided.
Perusing the plates of the second chapter, ‘Going Places: Williams in the 1980s’, I concur with Hanfling that the 1980s was something of a transitional period for Williams, culminating, as it did, in the artist’s illusory yet high-fidelity paintings of the 1990s and 2000s. In the 80s, Williams began to make (mostly) large-scale paintings, which became known as his ‘crusties’. More bulky and simplified than his earlier intricate patterns, Hanfling summarises them as discovering a painterly tendency in abstraction and a central interest in the articulation of light. Importantly, Hanfling notes Williams’ career-long aim to enlarge upon abstraction, to make it as large as life, inviting the outside in.
In ‘Going Places’, Hanfling also discusses the wooden works the artist made alongside his paintings from 1988, when he was Tylee Cottage artist-in-residence in Whanganui. With access to dramatic beaches and the Whanganui river mouth, Williams collected twisted and weather-worn driftwood and made it into carefully considered and crafted wall-based assemblages and sculpture. With pieces brought together in geometric systems, these works are enriched by what the artist describes as the gathered material’s spontaneous eloquence of surface and form. I see the making of these works to have been a pivotal experience for the artist, as if he needed to get his hands on the wood and the works’ construction in order to continue painting in a way that became more and more attuned to tactile experience and the fine details and idiosyncrasies of perception. Tellingly, the book’s producers make interesting pairings of plates that draw together line and grain and the careful placement, layering and scoring of paint with the effects of weather and time.
Achieving a painterly and critical breakthrough as a result of his time in Whanganui, Williams found a way to create the works he describes as his primary achievement, fulfilling what Hanfling describes as the artist’s desire to invent something he could call his own, and a distinctive art to generate responses of ‘surprise and wonder’. Without thickly encrusted paint, but with a photographic flatness and highly detailed paintwork, his works – as Hanfling nicely describes them – become the abstraction of shifting light and reflections, activating memories of certain visual or tactile experiences, isolating and heightening moments of perception. Although Hanfling once again references the expressionists in the negative for their spleen-fulness, he also highlights Williams’ particular skill for ‘careful chiaroscuro’: his ability to eke out transitions from light to dark and apply miraculously thin layers of paint.
I was sometimes frustrated by smaller images being included in the essays but not discussed, and by apparently pertinent works being discussed but not reproduced in the plates, and by the lack of a list of plates. Nevertheless, there are two small images in Hanfling’s third chapter ‘Panning for Gold: Two decades of painted illusion’, that are captivating in relation to the discussion of the artist’s breakthrough works. One of these is Detail (test strip) from around 1990. In this, the artist builds up striations of deep and bright red paint like fine and clear rivulets for the rhythm of alternating colour and dark. In the other, Aria of 1996, an attenuated drop-like form runs from the centre of the work as if arrested yet animated in the blue-green nature of that event.
Other works seen in the plates are also notable for their subtle staying power. Monaxial (Grey) of 1994 develops along a single axis raised in paint while its divided and opposite sides sit in different light: it has an overall life that advances and recedes, depending on how you look. In Line Astern of 1993, a raised and centrally truncated line highlights the subtly varied surface of its background. Hovering like a small underline or token, it is like a precise dawn of light. In Red Aurora of 1995, raised pinpricks of light emerge in quadrants of darkening red, creating a cycle of time and effects. Less appealing to me are the 1990s’ series of works with columnar forms, which are subtly totemic and often reference the Tao cross. Although their textural chiaroscuro has a certain beauty, the columns have less flex, less life. More appealing are what I think of as the bulls-eye series of works of the 2000s, which grab my attention. Particularly appealing is Red Ripple of 2005, in which the very canvas seems to ripple as waves move towards and through the raised ring at its centre.
Hanfling talks of the works of the 1990s and 2000s as generating but not containing feeling, in line with what I see as his general separation of thought and feeling. For me, this separation cannot be clearly made. And actually, Hanfling himself talks about the way Williams gives viewers the greatest pleasure in the act of looking, producing shifting sensations and associations, revealing perception itself with its attendant feelings and sensations. Indeed, Williams’ works link memory, perception and sensation and cannot be corralled in the mind as a product of thought. There is perhaps a kinaesthetic, maybe even a synesthetic, nature to them, and, as such, they somehow embody the richness of experience. In addition, the artist’s process of lifelong painting would not, I believe, require some separation of mind and feeling on his part. Rather, as Leonard Bell states in his essay when discussing Williams’ early interests, I believe the artist is concerned with the enhancement of the very business of being alive.
I would have liked more discussion of Williams’ techniques, or at least more clarity around how he produced his works, in order to better understand his achievement. For example, in Red Ripple, has the artist actually rippled the canvas? I assume not, but in similar works such as Citadel (Green) of the book’s cover, there appear to be bends and folds in the canvas in addition to its rippling chiaroscuro. Unfortunately, I have not seen the works in reality and my desire to know more is heightened on discovering in the chronology at the back of the book a photograph by Marti Freidlander (1965) of Williams with his son Marcus. In this photo Williams uses the child’s head to make a large dent in a canvas he holds and tips to the side as if directing paint with his son’s assistance.
My need for a better understanding of Williams’ process of making became particularly keen on reading Hanfling’s fourth and final chapter ‘What Goes Round: Williams’ 60s art goes digital’, which explores the artist’s more recent digitally derived works that apparently allow him to return to the Op Art of the 60s and 70s. In this chapter, Hanfling goes back to Williams’ drive for a compelling and original treatment of form and colour and describes his newer works as often dazzling and crowd-pleasing, achieving a sensory excitement not possible with previous tools. It is not at all clear to the viewer how the new works are made, writes Hanfling, and this creates a sense of fascination and wonder. I certainly understand the need for artists to sometimes keep their methods close, along with the desire to preserve the sometimes magical nature of Williams’ works. However, Hanfling’s descriptions do not fully assist me in appreciating what is behind Williams’ practice, in a physical sense, and this is exacerbated by having to peruse works that are unavoidably flattened in reproduction.
Hanfling writes that the new works are created, modified and refined using the digital graphics of the computer, bringing to fruition, by a most efficient means, otherwise unrealisable ideas and almost endless potential configurations of shape and colour. Does this mean that Williams creates the works digitally and then paints them? Or, if the artist, as Hanfling further describes it, uses the computer to precisely form and adjust lines and colours that would be virtually impossible to execute by hand, is he both creating and printing the works digitally? Or if, as also described, the artist is making imperceptible adjustments as per his chiaroscuro, and his work Paragon has a blooming velvet quality, is the artist overpainting by hand? Shedding some light but not resolving these questions, the chronology at the back of the book notes that, in 2010, the artist printed digital works on Dibond and, in 2011, experimented with mixed media (acrylic and digital combined) to successfully refine his approach to his more recent works.
Hanfling invests in discussing and justifying Williams’ recent use of digital technology and argues for the enabling and emancipatory side of technology itself. Williams, in his own words, has found himself at the beginning of something at the end of his life, while realising that this is only the tip of the iceberg. I appreciate all of this but I am more interested in digital arts as a way of unlocking and revealing related ways of seeing and creating, of using digital technology to explore the nature of technology and data itself. In addition, I have personally lost some point of contact with the recent works: the focus seems to be on the effects, bringing me to the result without sharing the life of the process. Nevertheless, I can see the potentialities of works such as Baltimore (2013) with its radiating circles of diffuse light, Unfolding Dark (2012) which quietly alternates fine lines of black and green, and Fading Fast (2013) with its subtle and softened rectangular gradations of grey.
Comparing, perhaps not altogether fairly, Quotient (Warm) of 1973 and Old Hat of 2014, which are based on the same pattern, I see the earlier solely painted work as somehow revealing and enabling more attention to detail and an associated custodianship of care, both on the part of the artist and the viewer. This is what I consider to be the special achievement of Williams’ lifelong practice. The mind-bending works that Hanfling argues for as optimising the artist’s illusory creation of space are, unfortunately, too much for me personally, but may well be exciting to others. I appreciate that Williams could not continue variations of his illusory paintings forever, and neither should we want him to. Without a doubt, Williams has been, and remains, an artist committed to finely exploring ways of seeing and being. Now, late in his life, he is perhaps simplifying and fragmenting that, as part of the process of being alive and active as an artist in the second decade of the second millennium.
JODIE DALGLEISH is a Wellington-based curator, critic, author and arts manager. She holds a degree in art history from the University of Otago, and a Masters in creative writing from the Auckland University of Technology.