Extension of the Mind

6-26 April 2018, Creative Arts Napier
By Michael Hawksworth

Right now, CAN, community arts gallery in Napier, is showing a second voluminous body of work in as many years by Napier artist John Boyd-Dunlop. A youthful, driven, energetic artist, kicking against the pricks of a nine-to-five, and intent on carving out a career in art would be proud to present such an outpouring; so it’s all the more remarkable that this is the work of a seventy-odd-year-old retiree with a demanding lifetime in the business world behind him. He never went to art school, never picked up a brush until his seventieth year. It just goes to show what strange dreams and visions might be restlessly turning behind the bored eyes of any JoBlo.

I once read a quote by the famous American artist Philip Guston (1913 – 1980) by way of an explanation of why he’d abandoned abstraction for figurative art in his later years. He said he didn’t like to leave the studio at the end of the day feeling that he’d only left a bunch of form and colour relationships in there, preferring to think of his canvases as people, as beings with which he enjoyed real community, and who would greet him when he returned the next day. That thought came to me as I met one by one the multifarious and fantastic personages that have been coaxed or conjured or perhaps split off from their maker’s own private self.

Portraiture can be a problematic proposition; is it a good likeness? – that’s the most likely criteria for its judgement. The other one is – Do I know this person? Because if I don’t, why would I want them in my house? But Boyd-Dunlop’s people just don’t come from the everyday world. We know at a glance that though their resemblance to anyone you know will be at best coincidental, their truth as representations lie on a deeper level, that of personification, of soul qualities. The names, “Quibilah”,” Kachina”, “Aalia”, “Baahir” seem to suggest a personal coterie of minor goddesses adorned with symbolic decorations and whimsical heraldries, the rooster, the human-faced dog, the feathery cloak, the cloud of tuis.

But the charm of these exotic avatars is in the simplicity of their drawing and the exuberance of their decoration. At times you’re reminded of Matisse, but Matisse if he’d learnt to paint in an ashram, or Matisse if he’d never received any art school training. And of course I’m not saying that as a disparaging swipe at Boyd-Dunlop’s technical skills, because to my eye, looking at the often perfect balance of expression and eccentricity, we’re already past that. His obsessive return to a particular experience, the impressive work rate, the effortless decorative invention, his lack of formal training all together suggest an Outsider Artist. Applying this term is always fraught with difficulty, but, what the hell, I’m going to run with it here.

I loved this show. It’s not always good – the pictures containing groups of figures don’t take off anywhere near as well as the single ‘portraits’, and in terms of curation, there are far too many works crowded into this exhibition to provide a fully satisfying experience – but it is often wonderful, particularly the larger works.

Be quick, it closes April 26.

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