Chris Heaphy's Melting Juxtapositions
For over three decades, Chris Heaphy has delved into the complexity of identity using a smorgasbord of painting styles and references. Recent work by the Aotearoa/ New Zealand born artist continues this trajectory with sophisticated assurance.
Exhibition view: Chris Heaphy, Everyday Life, Jonathan Smart Gallery, Christchurch (10 June–2 July 2022). Courtesy Jonathan Smart Gallery.
Heaphy's paintings are on show with Gow Langsford at Aotearoa Art Fair in Auckland (2–5 March 2023), while in 2022 his work was the focus of two solo exhibitions: Everyday Life (10 June–2 July 2022) at Jonathan Smart Gallery in Christchurch and This Is Not The Same As Other Days (8–31 October 2022) at Milford Galleries in Dunedin.
The 2022 exhibitions featured works executed in rich layers of acrylic paint vigorously brushed and poured over Belgian linen, punctuated with symbolic forms. Similarly, the work showing at Aotearoa Art Fair is dominated by this painterly approach, albeit the paint in these most-recent works is more vigorously applied, at times threatening to engulf Heaphy's trademark silhouettes.
In their ever-increasing painterliness, these recent bodies of work appear vastly different from the artist's much earlier series: the hard-edged abstract works begun in the 1980s; the softly hued, symbolic 'body-part' works of the 1990s; or his discombobulating kaleidoscopic works that appeared in the 2000s. They are, however, part of an ever-evolving, cohesive practice, where symbols and their ambiguous meaning continue to be important.
Influenced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida's analysis of the sign, and drawing on both his Māori (Kai Tahu/Ngāi Tahu) and European decent, Heaphy employ symbols from both cultures as well as more broadly from history and popular culture, to explore the instability of meaning.
A work entitled Walk This Way (1997), most recently on display in the seminal exhibition Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art (2020–2021) at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, is an early example of Heaphy's use of repeated symbols. Shapes suggesting prosthetics, walking sticks, crutches, plants, and Māori weapons appear and are repeated across the work. The artist has described these symbols as referencing the Māori prophet and faith healer Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana (a subject Heaphy has visited numerous times in his work), yet equally the repetition of shapes and hues of grey, white and ochre also bring to mind the austerities of geometric abstraction.
Another work, also entitled Walk This Way (2007), embraces a different approach—more Pop. The central figure of Mickey Mouse has been created using a repetitive collection of red, orange, blue and black symbols. Within the shape of the world's most famous rodent are references to New Zealand's colonial history—silhouetted boots, pipes, skulls, guns, skeletons and warrior heads, intermingled with what appears to be European playing card symbols.
The card symbols hark back to photographs (from c1908) the artist saw of Hiona, a round meeting house of Rua Tapunui Kēnana (1869-1937), the faith healer, land rights activist and Māori prophet of Maungapōhatu in the Urawera region. Instead of traditional Māori carvings, Rua had blue and yellow card symbols painted on his house.
In a 2018 interview with the Otago Daily Times, Heaphy said, 'I thought it was incredible that one thing could slip into a culture and be adapted and adopted—understood in a completely different way', going on to explain, 'filling up the canvas was really trying to make all these connections, to show that there is constant slippage between meanings.'
Jump forward to the works completed in the last two years, and while the symbols appear to be increasingly isolated, often melting into the picture plane, they remain significant in grasping Heaphy's practice, and triggering a response.
Among the repeating forms are warrior heads, birds, vases, feathers and geometric shapes. In First Light on Silent Shore (2022), shown with Milford Galleries, the striking black shadow of a head takes centre stage contrasting with other smaller silhouettes, as well as the gentle backdrop of thin cream, verdant green and shimmering, slashing turquoise and purple.
In Sunrise Again (2022), shown at Jonathan Smart, and in Blanket of Sky (2023), with Gow Langsford, the petite forms of a bird perched atop a small vessel anchor the bottom of the paintings. In the earlier painting, swathes of yellow and black melt and dribble down the picture plane with elegant smudges of green and red also appearing, while in the more recent work, vertical pulls of hot-pink with hints of smouldering colour beneath dominates.
Heaphy has referenced the space between and surrounding the silhouettes as important as the forms themselves—silence after all can be pregnant with meaning.
While we might jump to recognise obvious readings, it is the quiet juxtapositions and associations within and across paintings, exhibitions, series, and titles, and through the context of collective and personal understanding that more nuanced possibilities might reveal themselves.
Meaning attributed to a bird, a vase, a warrior or a Disney character can morph. Styles and symbols can be re-interpreted between people and across time. Meaning, like culture and identity, is not set in stone, but in a constant state of evolving flux—just as fluid as the increasingly painterly surfaces of Heaphy's work. —[O]