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Ralph Hotere has died
Monday, 4 Mar 2013
Ralph Hotere (1931-2013), the New Zealand artist and visionary, has died. Greg O’Brien,a friend and curator of the artist’s work, introduced it to PN Review readersin issue 126 (1999), for which the artist provided the cover image. O’Brien contributeda full tribute to the New Zealand Listener. The following is an extract from thispiece.

Great artists don’t have careers; they havelives. Everything Ralph Hotere set his hand to bore the mark of the artist’s lifein the fullest, deepest sense. Rather than follow a narrow, prescriptive path, hiswork encompassed a panoply of human experience. Sure, there were failures andmisdirections along the way; this wasn’t the manicured, stage-managedtrajectory of a career artist. He was in this, boots and all, and for theduration. From the early expressionistic oils to the late minimalist ironworks, Hotere’s art offers an account of his loves and dislikes, his elationsand his indignations. As a painter, he is capable of great fury – witness hisPolaris, Black Union Jack and Black Rainbow works. His art can smoulder andbrood; it points accusingly at those who abuse power, yet often in the space ofa single work can simultaneously strike an introspective or elegiac note. Atother times, he can be euphorically romantic and decidedly amorous (as is demonstratedin Kriselle Baker’s 2005 book The Desire of the Line: Ralph Hotere FigurativeWorks). His reds can be as sensuous as they are cataclysmic.

Hotere’s art took him places. From therural Northland of his childhood to the Education Department, where, by thelate 1950s, he was a Bay of Islands-based arts adviser, producing, on the side,his own gritty, agitated landscapes, still lifes and figure studies. At theCentral College of Art in London during the 1960s, he explored new approachesto painting, moving beyond the expressive brushstroke to incorporate dripping,pouring and mechanical ways of applying paint. His trajectory away from the conventionalcanvas would lead eventually to painting on everything from tarpaulins and corrugatediron to demolition timber and beer crates. This was never, however, simply aquestion of formal experimentation or boundary-pushing – for Hotere, it was amatter of life and death. Often the loss of family or friends would provide thejolt to inspire radical artistic developments – as was the case with the 1963 Sangro series, inspiredby a visit to the grave of his brother Jack, who was killed in Italy duringWorld War II, and the Requiem series he painted in memory of a friend, composerAnthony Watson (1933-73).

In the narrative of Becoming Ralph Hotere,1969 was a watershed year. Awarded the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the Universityof Otago, he moved from Auckland to Dunedin. Otago would prove to be his “favourablefurrow” for the rest of his working life. Based at Port Chalmers and then CareysBay, he set to filling a range of old houses, warehouses and even a deserted BNZwith finished and unfinished works.

Through its phases, Hotere’s work returnedto the formal/conceptual question of the human being in the natural world – akathe figure-in-landscape. Increasingly, he used installation and sculpturalapproaches to place the viewer in the landscape: notably,in his collaborative work with Bill Culbert, Pathway to the sea, aninstallation that could be described as an orchestrated walk through time andspace – a metaphysical set-piece constructed from paua shells and fluorescenttubes.

[…] For many viewers, Hotere’s work ismemorable for its incessant darkness. It probed and interrogated the colourblack, mining it for nuances, tremors of meaning. As well as alluding to thedarkness of Maori and Western creation myths, the darkness in his art carriesintimations of mortality; it is a descent into the unknown, the mystery at theheart of both art and life. To these associations, poet Bill Manhire once addedthat Hotere’s blackness was also an acknowledgement, a celebration, of the warmand intimate darknesses of his home environment and the familiar night sky. [...]

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