Scott Hamilton – 29 August, 2016
The ‘100% Pure' images are visually and intellectually concise. Many of the scenes they show - a mountain rising into a blue sky, two trampers stepping over boulders in a foaming river - are forthrightly dramatic. Each of their components - each line, each form, each colour - contributes unambiguously to the overall image, and each image is an unambiguous illustration of the slogan ‘100% Pure'. Ambiguity is the enemy of the advertiser.
In 1999 Tourism New Zealand solemnly announced that it was ‘rebranding’ this country, and over the last seventeen years our mountains, rivers, forests, beaches, and bays have appeared on billboards beside the ring roads of northern hemisphere cities, in overseas magazines and in newspapers, and at global travel fairs, alongside the slogan ‘100% Pure New Zealand’.
Most of the images used in the ‘100% Pure’ campaign are photographs; a few are paintings modelled on photographs. Whatever their medium, and wherever they appear, the campaign’s images are always glossy, and always carefully edited. Though they depict a range of locations, from New Zealand’s subtropical north to its subantarctic south, and though they feature glimpses of cities as well as rural tableaux, they all communicate one unambiguous message: they say that this country is a spectacular, unpolluted, underpopulated paradise, and therefore the ‘Other’ of the crowded, contaminated societies of the northern hemisphere.
The ‘100% Pure’ campaign often depopulates the landscapes it celebrates. Wrinkles left on hillsides by ancient pa or modern roads are removed digitally; cameras are aimed away from towns and villages, towards empty river valleys or desolate mountains. When signs of human occupation feature in the images of the campaign they are made innocuous, almost irrelevant. A photograph taken in Auckland’s Waitemata harbour, for instance, shows a man and woman diving from a luxury yacht into pure blue water; the Sky Tower rises in the distance. Even near the centre of New Zealand’s largest city, the image assures us, tourists can find places unsullied by New Zealanders.
The ‘100% Pure’ images are visually and intellectually concise. Many of the scenes they show - a mountain rising into a blue sky, two trampers stepping over boulders in a foaming river - are forthrightly dramatic. Each of their components - each line, each form, each colour - contributes unambiguously to the overall image, and each image is an unambiguous illustration of the slogan ‘100% Pure’. Ambiguity is the enemy of the advertiser.
Although the ‘100% Pure’ campaign has been aimed abroad, its images have been reproduced often by New Zealand’s media, and have been internalised by many Kiwis. The slogan ‘100% Pure’ has seemed at times like a mantra, and the images that accompany the slogan like sacred icons.
Those who blaspheme against icons risk public excoriation. In 2011 the environmental scientist Mike Joy wrote an article criticising the increasing pollution of New Zealand’s streams and rivers by runoff from dairy farms. Joy insisted that the slogan ‘100% Pure’ was ‘delusional’, given the state of the nation’s waterways. After he was quoted by the New York Times Joy was condemned for endangering New Zealand’s reputation. Political blogger Cameron Slater accused Joy of ‘economic sabotage’ and said that he ought to be ‘shot at dawn’; an editorial in the New Zealand Herald complained that the scientist’s comments were ‘not appropriate’, and urged him to begin to express himself ‘in a more judicious manner’.
The anxiety of Mike Joy’s critics can be understood. In the twenty-first century New Zealand’s economic strategy has become entwined with the ‘100% Pure’ brand. The tourism industry, which contributes nearly five percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, uses the brand obsessively, and so do the businesses that send ice cream and yoghurt and bottled water and honey and scores of other products into Asian and European and North American markets.
But the success of the ‘100% Pure’ campaign has had as its byproduct the occlusion of reality. The campaign’s digitally enhanced, carefully edited landscapes have little relation to the real places and spaces of New Zealand. When they internalise the brand, and criticise anyone who dissents from it, New Zealanders risk losing a sense of what their country really looks and feels like.
Emily Jackson’s paintings are everything that the images of the ‘100% Pure’ campaign are not. If the images of the ‘100% Pure’ campaign show a terror of ambiguity, then Jackson’s paintings exult in that quality.
In the 1970s and ‘80s Jackson exhibited regularly in several New Zealand cities, and won praise from a range of reviewers. But her work has been largely unseen since her death in 1993. Now Atuanui Press has published Emily Jackson: a Painter’s Landscape to coincide with an exhibition of Jackson’s paintings at the Inge Doesburg Gallery in Dunedin. Fastidiously edited by Emily’s daughter Bronwen Nicholson, the book includes reproductions of many of Jackson’s paintings and drawings, long excerpts from the journal she kept for much of her working life, letters she sent to family members, reviews and interviews she gained and gave during her years of success, and specially commissioned essays by Gregory O’Brien and Warrick Brown.
Jackson was mentored by Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon, and shared both of those artists’ fascination with the New Zealand landscape. From her base in the Auckland suburb of Mount Roskill she made forays into New Zealand’s regions, riding gravel roads along ridges and river valleys and counting the peaks of mountain ranges.
Jackson’s journal entries show how often she travelled through the landscapes of rural New Zealand, and how hungrily and carefully she looked at them. But they also reveal her lack of interest in painting what she saw mimetically. She brought a series of cameras along on her journeys, yet never used photographs as a guide when she sat down to paint back in her Mount Eden studio. She never sketched, let alone painted, in the midst of landscapes.
Jackson’s brushwork is fluid, and sometimes florid, so that it can be unclear whether she is painting a mountain or a chunk of cloud, a river or a road, a valley or a ridge. Even when her paintings are relatively clearly rendered, they often feel more like composites than copies. She may show the same mountain from three or four sides, or fuse it with another peak.
In an interview with the journalist Anne Fenwick, Jackson recalled some of the criticism that she had received for ‘flirting with the abstract’. One critic had suggested she stop pushing her painting toward abstraction, but she couldn’t resist. We should be pleased that Jackson couldn’t resist, because her paintings are better for the ambiguity that the push towards abstraction gave to them.
In the pleasant but unremarkable 1984 work Tairua Jackson renders the hills that rise near that Coromandel town reasonably realistically, and gives them naturalistic greens. The sky above and behind her hills is overcast, neutral. In The Torrent, which was painted in the same year, Jackson uses swathes of purple and silver to both obscure and energise the same landscape. Hills suddenly seethe and shake; the sky’s bright light might be about to set fire to the land. Tairua has become both more vivid and more mysterious.
The ambiguity of Jackson’s paintings is not the result of sloppiness, or mischievousness, or indecision. It is a token of her humility in the face of the complexity and otherness of the landscapes she confronts. Again and again in her journals and letters Jackson records the awe that she feels as she travels New Zealand. The scoured and scrubby hills of the King Country; the golden valleys of midsummer Otago, half-deserts and half-oases; the plains of the Manawatu, where the straight lines of fences and roads wait for floodwaters and stray herds of cattle: all encouraged what Noel Bierre calls, in a review, an ‘almost spiritual’ response from the painter.
Jackson is aware of the fluidity as well as the majesty of the landscapes she visits and paints - of the ways that an earthquake or a housing development or the mere movement of a cloud might change the way a place looks and feels. In a letter written the year she painted Tairua and The Torrent, Jackson explained that her first impressions of the Coromandel were changing, as she recreated the region in her mind and in her studio. The dark and ‘rugged’ peaks of the region were becoming ‘something lighter’, something ‘more vibrant’.
The ambiguity in Jackson’s paintings is an acknowledgement of the provisionality and ultimate unknowability of the New Zealand landscape. The ancient Greeks believed that the clouds around Mount Olympus honoured the gods who dwelt there by preserving their mystery. The blurred outlines and wild colours and composite views in Jackson’s paintings honour the mystery of New Zealand.
In one of his rare pieces of art criticism, Martin Heidegger described the link between visual ambiguity and truthfulness. Heidegger was writing about Paul Cezanne, but his remarks might be used to explain Emily Jackson’s achievement.
Heidegger insisted that Cezanne’s repeated and increasingly abstract portraits of Mount Saint-Victoire, a three thousand foot high peak in Provence, were important contributions to philosophy. Few philosophers, Heidegger said, could think as profoundly as Cezanne painted his favourite mountain. Heidegger believed that Cezanne’s paintings of Mounte-Victoire could remind humans of the difference between the ‘world’ - the familiar reality, complete with its categories and conventions, that they navigate every day - and ‘earth’, the primordial reality that lies beneath and behind the ‘world’.
Humans have, Heidegger claimed, a tendency to forget about the primordial reality beyond their quotidian lives, and therefore to forget that their ‘world’ is only one of many possible realities, constructed for them by their language and their culture and their beliefs. In his essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’, Heidegger tried to understand the relationship between ‘world’ and ‘earth’:
The earth cannot dispense with the Open of the world…The world, again, cannot soar out of the earth’s sight…The earth appears openly cleared as itself only when it is perceived and preserved as that which is by nature undisclosable, that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed up.
Elsewhere in the same essay, Heidegger argued that the temples of ancient Greece allowed ‘earth’ to disclose itself through the materials of ‘world’:
The temple-work, in setting up a world, does not cause the material to disappear, but rather causes it to come forth for the very first time and to come into the Open of the work’s world. The rock comes to bear and rest and so first becomes rock; metals come to glimmer and shimmer, colors to glow…
Like the sculptors and architects of ancient Greece, Cezanne allows us a glimpse of ‘earth’. By showing Mount Sainte-Victoire emerging from a mysterious grid of abstract colours and lines, the painter reminded Heidegger of the provisional nature of what was considered reality, and provoked a sort of eerie ecstasy in the philosopher.
Emily Jackson’s landscape paintings can stir the same sort of response in her viewers. By pushing New Zealand’s landscapes to the brink of abstraction, she reminds us of the limitations inherent in our attempts to categorise and define those landscapes. To look carefully at her paintings is to see the ‘world’ of New Zealand emerging from a fertile and mysterious ‘earth’.
When I looked at Cardrona, 1986 for the first time I saw forms and colours, rather than a landscape. Swirling yellow, almost golden paint dominates the work, but a rough triangle of blue appears in its upper left-hand corner. I noticed the contrast between primary colours, and the way Jackson complicates her mass of yellow with smudges of pink and brown and black, so that the colour seems to surge and recede.
But then I saw the painting’s title, and remembered that Cardrona is a valley in central Otago. I recalled how drought and flowering gorse and ragwort can turn the bare grassy hillsides of that region brilliant shades of yellow. I decided that the blue in the painting’s corner had the mixture of depth and brightness common to the skies of the South Island high country in high summer.
Looking closer at that painting, and at the dark smudges that mar and enhance Jackson’s mass of yellow, I imagined dry kanuka waiting for a fire and the brittle, crap-crusted pathways of sheep. One black blotch became, for a moment, the derelict shack of a long-dead goldpanning swagger.
By leaving her landscapes vague and incomplete, Jackson makes them uncommonly vivid for viewers. We add our own details to her scenes, as we bring them back from the edge of abstraction into a world and a history we recognise. In a 1988 journal entry Jackson explained that, for her, painting was ‘the means of transportation into…another level of living’, and talked about the ‘supreme fulfilment’ of bringing ‘something’ out of ‘nothing’.
If the images of the ‘100% Pure’ campaign seek to drain our landscapes of ambiguity and difficulty and turn them into a brand, then the paintings of Emily Jackson give our places and spaces back their mystery and their possibility. They have become, in this era of branded landscapes, urgent and subversive works.
Love to hear orchestral classical music live?
CLICK HERE to follow this orchestra’s adventurous performing programme
Two Rooms presents a program of residencies and projects
by leading international and New Zealand contemporary artists.
Comprehensive online access to contemporary art & leading galleries around the world