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Close encounters in the Pacific

Encounters is the key word in the phrase “Tuia – Encounters 250” says contemporary New Zealand artist Peter Ireland.

Tuia – Encounters 250 is the name given by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to upcoming commemorations of encounters between tangata whenua and British explorer James Cook in 1769. To coincide with those events, The Weight of the Captain’s Wrist: Peter Ireland History Paintings, will be launched tomorrow at Tairawhiti Museum.

The notion of encounter is central to the James Cook series of paintings that features in the book along with the Waitangi Wallpaper series and other works. In the James Cook series Ireland explores the intersection between two cultures colliding, with the arrival of Cook. The series is free of judgment but sharp notes, and a sense of unease similar to that heard in composer Dame Gillian Karawe Whitehead’s soundscape Turanga-nui which premiered in Gisborne last year, thread through the works.

A painting featured on the book’s contents page — The Promised Land (Joseph Banks as curator) — sets the tone for the collection. The work is made up of two circular paintings, one on top of the other. The landforms in each are seen through the hole in the wall at Uawa-Tolaga Bay but contact between the two circles is tenuous. In the top tondo, a see-through white hand is superimposed on the seascape. Pointing back up at it from the lower circle is a red, translucent footprint.

Sharp notes

Contact is both suspended and imminent; the sharp note in the work suggests blood spilled and blood intermixed in time to come. The pale hand is empty. It could be reaching to make contact, it could be on the take — or both of the above. The red foot is both the colour of conflict, and of ochre, of the earth. The meaning is as ambiguous as that of Derek Lardelli’s red waka above the entrance to the new Gisborne District Council building. But a note that accompanies one of the pictures in Ireland’s panorama series, is just as applicable here: “History could be read as a series of misunderstandings, or what Paul Moon has described as ‘entanglements’ rather than the more frequently used ‘contact’.”

The Weight of the Captain’s Wrist was conceived about 18 months ago when Russell Museum curator Kate Martin asked Ireland to put an exhibition together. As he assembled the show’s 19 paintings Ireland realised he had a body of work that could make up a book with a timely connection to the Tuia 250 commemorations. Along with the 69 images of Ireland’s paintings and accompanying explanatory text are two essays, one by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, and one by art historian Gerald Barnett.

“Putting this book together was a conscious reaction,” says Ireland.

“I worked hard on the sequence of works in the book. I wanted them to have an internal narrative.”

Ireland embarked on his history paintings after he was commissioned by the National Library Gallery in 1990 to put together an exhibition called Histories. Three themes ran through the histories — official, feminist, and marae. These could be read vertically or horizontally, says Ireland.

“I had full access to the Alexander Turnbull Library and looked at a million pictures.”

The pictures were the starting point for the exhibition.

The history paintings

“I did my first history painting in 1991. Looking back, that was the starting point for this collection. Once I got the scent I was like a dog after a fox.”

The self-taught artist gets his best ideas while out on his bike in the morning and records these inspirations on the blank sides of used A4 paper.

“You know when you have a strong image, a strong idea,” he says.

“It’s like an angelic visitation. I do a quick drawing to pin down the idea then file it in the appropriate folder. When the time comes — it could be years later — I pull it out and do the painting.

“I remain obedient to the inspiration; I’m not an interrogator — I do the painting. The only decisions I make are about colour and form. I don’t question too much or overthink. In the early days I used to smash things up but now I trust myself.”

Of Polish and British ancestry, Ireland’s interest in New Zealand is informed by a long sense of European history and culture, write Stafford and Williams in one of the essays in the book.

“Ireland does not have some doctrinal cargo to unload on the viewer but he does attach his work to the language, history and examples of religious painting in the European tradition, and he does bring this into alignment with colonial history.”