Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hiding in plain sight

Sometime around the middle of the 1960s, artist Bill Sutton used to fly regularly between Christchurch and Wellington. He'd been appointed to various national art committees; this was the moment when New Zealand high cultural infrastructure for the visual arts was starting to be built. On his way to and from the meetings, he'd look out of the window of the plane, the ochres and umbers and deep shadowy violet-greens of the Canterbury plains framed by the curve of the cabin. "When you look down from a plane there is no right way up," he commented. "it becomes pure pattern. I saw bands of clouds below the horizon, and sometimes no horizon at all. This medley evolved into many paintings and one major series." [1]

W.A. Sutton, Plantation Series II, 1986, oil on canvas, Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery

As a lecturer, Sutton was prone to tipping up works, holding them upside down so that the composition could be considered from another angle, so that subject matter would not get in the way of looking. The painting was always to be considered as a composition before it was considered as a window on to the world beyond the work. But when Sutton felt that he was skirting too close to abstraction, he pulled back. He was concerned that abstraction would become an end in its own right, a form of decoration. He worried that art-about-art, rather than art-about-experience, was essentially an arid pursuit, as dry and as unsustainable as the burned-off grasslands which became his characteristic motif.

W.A. Sutton, Murals, Waikari, 1951, oil on canvas, Christchurch Art Gallery

At much the same time as he was flying to Wellington and back on the business of art, Sutton had moved into his house near the river in Richmond, Christchurch, designed for him by his friend and colleague, the modernist sculptor Tom Taylor. The scale of Sutton's work changed. Painting in a big room -- a combined studio/living space, with a bank of high windows on one wall, and a view out to the garden through the other -- meant that he could construct larger canvasses, and work on more of them at once. The Grasses series, and later the huge Plantation works, with their aerial views of the Canterbury plains, and the Land Synthesis series with their sense of the landscape viewed at great speed, were painted in this studio.

W.A. Sutton, Landscape Synthesis, oil on canvas, 1980

I fly to and from Wellington on the business of art sometimes myself; I can never look out of the window of the plane at the patchwork of fields below without thinking of Sutton's Plantation series; and without thinking of Sutton himself, his face pressed against the glass of the small thick windows of the old turbo-prop planes, scanning the horizon for significant forms. In his notebook perhaps a sketch for a drift of cloud, a curve of hill, the remains of a vapour trail against an impossibly blue sky, a grid of lines describing the bleak hard fastnesses of the Canterbury landscape. Seeing the world as a work yet to be painted.

W.A. Sutton, Threshold IV, 1973, oil on canvas, Collection Christchurch Art Gallery

When Sutton flew over the plains, and incorporated their characteristic forms into his work, he drew, perhaps, on his experiences during World War II as a member of the Camouflage Unit. Between 1941 and 1944 he had moved around the South Island digging post holes and designing and painting camouflage to hide gun emplacements and ammunition stores. The job was "to make things look like other things". These utilitarian paintings, designed to be seen from the sky, to hide things in plain sight, were often gigantic in scale.

"I remember we disguised an airfield at Taieri, Dunedin, by extending the appearance of paddocks and hedgerows into the airfield itself  ... with bleaches for grass and manure to intensify the colour ... it was so good, our chaps couldn't find it," Sutton commented, forty years later.[2] 

Sutton's familiar view of the Canterbury landscape will change with the introduction of water consents for intensive dairying across the plains; his burned-off dry grasses, shaded by the long dark shadows of the macrocarpa shelter belts, will be replaced by patches of bright jade green. Sutton's aerial landscapes, the structures of ochre and umber and indigo which hover between abstraction and representation, and which for so many people are synonymous with the experience of flying in to the city over the plains, will be relegated to a historical report on experience. Like the paintings which depict it, the landscape is itself a cultural artefact, vulnerable to the forces of market productivity. Although it's part of our cultural identity, the look of our home landscape is as little owned by us as the architectural heritage of our cities.

1. Bill Sutton, 'Personal Perspectives', in Pat Unger, W.A. Sutton: Painter, Christchurch: Hazard Press, 1994, p.46.
2. Bill Sutton, interview with Deborah Shepard, 1982, quoted in Pat Unger, Bill's Story: A Portrait of W.A. Sutton, Canterbury University Press, 2008, p.52.