Andrew Paul Wood
Greer Twiss, Sculptor, by Greer Twiss, Rodney Wilson and Robin Woodward (Ron Sang Publications, 2013), 387 pp., $140
Since 2003 the Auckland architect Ron Sang has been publishing lavishly illustrated monographs on some of New Zealand’s most important and fascinating artists (not excluding craft) of the Modern period. So far, veterans Len Castle, Michael Smither, John Drawbridge, Ralph Hotere, Guy Ngan, Vincent Ward, Pat Hanly, Mervyn Williams and Robert Ellis have all had volumes dedicated to them. Curiously no women artists have been so honoured yet, but hopefully this is only a matter of time – Gretchen Albrecht, Ria Bancroft or Jacqueline Fahey would seem fairly obvious choices. The book under review, a runner-up for the Illustrated Non-Fiction category in the 2014 New Zealand Book Awards, is about that redoubtable elder statesman of New Zealand sculpture, Greer Twiss (b. 1937), surely the longest continually working sculptor in the country; he is a national taonga and a world-class artist. And Twiss would be one of the few artists in New Zealand to whom the heritage of the sculptural human form from the Bronze Age Cyclades, to Michelangelo, to Rodin, is still accessible in a meaningful way. Look at the Athletes works of the 1960s for example.
He was a student at the Elam School of Fine Arts in the 1950s, graduating with honours. He became interested in cast-metal sculpture and, in 1965, received a QEII Arts Council grant to travel to Britain and Europe, where he studied the lost-wax process. The 1969 Karangahape Road Fountain with its hieratic, meditative figures (Vladimir and Estragon pensively waiting for an existential bus?) and abstract rock-like forms, much derided at the time, would seem to suggest a mind that actively digested the visual lessons of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and not a little Anthony Caro. Twiss has also had a long and illustrious career teaching at the University of Auckland where he was an associate professor at the Elam School of Fine Arts, becoming head of sculpture in 1974, and retiring in 1998. He was gonged with an ONZM for sculpture in 2002 and received an Arts Foundation Icon Award in 2011.
Haruhiko Sameshima’s rich photographs of the oeuvre reveal an artist equally at home in the sparely minimal, the flamboyantly baroque, the austerely academic, and absurdist wit. It’s just a pity the photographs don’t give more of a sense of scale. One moment Twiss is the purest of formalists with his Patriot Column (1966), rising tulip-like on its stem to terminate in what appears to be an only slightly amputated version of Corbusier’s La Main Ouverte (compare with the largest Corb ‘open hand’ in Chandigarh, India, founded that year). The next moment he is poking the borax at the National Gallery’s iconic wax Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1879–81, executing the Third Position), produced by Eduard Degas, in Degas Passed This Way (2004). In between are lots of delightful abstract Caro-meets-Epstein ironmongery and deliciously tactile, surreal bronze tableaux. Also detectable are vestigial hints of the classical figuration of his teacher at Elam, John Kavanagh, the slightly emaciated influence of Giacometti, and, undoubtedly, a slew of metal-working Catalans from Picasso and Domènec Fita i Molat to Antoni Tàpies and Julio González.
One of the most Caro-esque sculptures, a personal favourite of mine, is the now destroyed lead on wood Act One, Scene One (1990), an installation in which a Renaissance ‘anonymous architect’ sits at a table. A blinker or perhaps miniature cinematic screen (giving him an alarming cyborg-like appearance) obscures his eyes, preventing him seeing the geometric shapes of a megaphone, Brunelleschi’s dome of Florence Cathedral (a maternal, breast-like form), and what may be Saint Mark’s Campanile tower (phallic) in Venice. An idea mushrooms out of his head in the shape of a Montgolfier balloon. He, in turn, is dwarfed by a succession of shapes alluding to the creative process: a larger and more stylised balloon, a larger dome, and finally the hybrid offspring of dome and campanile. Flight Trainer for Albatross (2004) has a similarly Caro-ish feeling to it, the great birds like buckled B-52 bombers supported by the frequent Twiss motif of scaffolding; these are emblematic of the majestic creatures the refugee poet Karl Wolfskehl saw as a welcome to safety from the Nazis and waved his hat at.
Birds were a major theme for Twiss in the 2000s, native and much smaller, perched on crockery and musical instruments. The sculpture on the front cover, War Bowler, might just be a silly-surreal juxtaposition of a tiny tank on a bowler hat in the manner of the Renaissance that oppositional iconography Edgar Wind wrote about in his Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance (1968), but what if the hat represents Belgium by way of Magritte? The little tank looks like a WW1 British Mark V, but the Germans also adopted the rhomboid form. This is all part of the fun of deconstructing a Twiss sculpture.
Like the other Sang productions, this is a big slab of a coffee table book, provided that you have a sturdy coffee table. The magnificent imagery is accompanied by essays by Dr Robin Woodward of the University of Auckland and the late Rodney Wilson, as well as detailed notes by the artist himself, and it is probably the latter that give us the most insight into Twiss’ extraordinarily fecund creative practice from schoolboy puppeteer to mature artist. Woodward makes important connections for the reader. It is useful to be able to group Twiss with other extremely talented sculptors studying at London’s Royal College of Art in the mid-1960s: Carl Sydow, Steve Furlonger and John Panting, whose promising career was cut short far too early. I would have liked to have known more. It is a shame, too, that more narrative wasn’t teased out about Karangahape Road Fountain, because such a controversial public work – which, along with the Sky Tower and the Harbour Bridge, is one of the few contemporary structures that can truly be said to be emblematic of Auckland – might be elaborated into a book in itself. It’s not the only thing glossed over rather too quickly. We are only given tantalising glimpses of Twiss’ artistic responses to Vietnam, for example, and then within a couple of pages it’s suddenly the mid-2000s without as much objective contextualising framework as we might have had.
Twiss’ own contribution may be the most useful text of the book. We learn as much about the man as we do about the process, the demands on mind, body and soul, the intellectual, aesthetic and emotional process from conception to completion. He confesses:
I loved clay. I knew I was a modeller. There is an intrinsic difference between modelling and carving: one is additive the other reductive. Clay you can build up, cut back, build up again. I have never had a clear idea of how a work will be until I have made it. I always ran out of space on the drawing board and I would have found stone too small or the wrong shape. So a modeller I am.
As always, it is far better to have the artist speak for themselves wherever possible, and it only takes a moment to adjust to Twiss’ slightly eccentric stream-of-consciousness style with its tendency to ramble in seemingly random directions; but then, as the above quote might suggest, it’s something axiomatic of his visual aesthetic as well. It works, and is particularly rewarding when the artist has space to expostulate on specific motifs or phases of interest. Combined with over 250 photographs of the sculptures, 20 drawings by the artist and numerous photographs of Twiss in his studio, we are provided with a very privileged insight into one man’s artistic life, and that is well worth the price of admission. Wittgenstein said it was impossible to communicate inner states between people. This book comes close.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based writer, poet, art critic and translator who contributes to a wide number of publications in New Zealand and globally.