Chris Talbot Wilkie is respected for his oil paintings and drawings which frequently deal with New Zealandness – landscapes infused with lost species and ghostly ancestry – but it was producing immense murals which initially distinguished him. His art is also the story of a small town New Zealand boy whose interests became powerful statements of New Zealand identity.
An extraordinarily successful arts tutor, he has held posts as HOD Art at Northland and Fiordland Colleges, and in 1995 was awarded the prestigious Woolf Fisher Fellowship. A number of his students have been chosen as NZQA booklet exemplars.
Recognised today as an oil-painter, Wilkie still enjoys producing huge outdoor works and many have won awards, a few in company with his students, but most as solo works – Resene Community Mural Award (Fiordland 2008), and Trustpower Award (Northland 2014).
Background and Whakapapa
His first day at Kawerau Normal School at age five, remains vividly etched for the strapping he received for doing too many drawings in his exercise book. By eleven he was the acknowledged art ‘gun’ at intermediate school, winning several prizes including a Landscape Award of $2.50.
At 12 a sister scoffing at his art caused him to draw a trompe l’oeil native pigeon and place it in a potted plant. She was deceived into thinking it was a real bird, much to Wilkie’s delight. By13, already obsessed by light and dark effects, he painted astronomy illustrations for Des Hunt’s science reader, Earth, Sun and Moon.
Wilkie’s 13 year old eldest sister died of cancer in 1963, precipitating a family disaster which saw his father eventually leave. “Dad was an extraordinary draftsman, and an introverted daydreamer, as I am. Mum’s extrovert Irish character probably accounts for the dramatic noisiness with which I’m equally imbued,” he ruefully adds. “We moved to Papakura where Mum worked in menial jobs to support my three remaining siblings and me. My socialist leanings spring directly from those years.”
Amy Talbot Wilkie, his paternal grandmother, briefly attended the Slade School of Art during the Suffragette years, and a distant family link leads to Fox Talbot who invented modern reproducible photography.
Gaining a scholarship grade in art history he was able to attend art school. “I started at Elam School of Fine Arts at Auckland University in 1975, still in a dream. I’d won a few minor art awards, and featured in the Auckland Star Secondary Schools Art Exhibition in 1972, but arrived at Elam quite ignorant, knowing only Durer, Michelangelo, McCahon and Picasso. I struggled initially and didn’t have a clue about what style to project. In those days of Pollock clones, my observational skills were mocked. Now, my mature work merges Traditional, Modernist and Post-Modern tendencies – but back then it was hell.”
“Tutors, Don Binney and Bob Ellis rarely offered me direction. Among the top scholars in Art History and Studio Practise, I regularly achieved A grades but in 1977 I made the mistake of approaching the Dean for new tutors whereupon my respectable B for Studio practise dropped to D. I suffered the indignity of being put back a year with juniors. I worked harder and began to really learn after that. Instead of aping modernist ideas, I began to apply them honestly to my own work, eventually attracting praise from Binney for nude and figure works.”
By 1979, his last year at Elam, Wilkie’s work had evolved into pure abstraction and the production of black, Franz Kline-like paintings. He recalled watching a sunset while travelling from Coromandel, and converting the sight into his first confident Abstract, which Julian Dashper bought for $20.
The early 1980s saw him in Australia for three years, labouring, but rarely drawing.
Murals and public works
Returning to paint houses with four inch brushes, out of the blue in 1983 he was asked to decorate the Hukerenui War Memorial Hall stage. It changed his life.
The monumental portraits executed in the Hukerenui Hall attracted interest from the Whangarei Community Arts Council and Wilkie was contracted, with unemployed trainees, to paint the waterfront A&P Show buildings mural series in 1984. Carried out under the public eye, the cycle depicted a Maori-dominated Aotearoa rapidly transforming to a farmed New Zealand, and then into a time when Maori and Pakeha merge as one people, with the land healing in the process. The A&P mural figured frequently in local media, but also several times in the NZ Herald, and garnered on occasion TV time. Tourist buses often stopped to point the work out to their passengers.
Having married into a Ngati Hine family Wilkie now had dependent children. Painting full-time from 1985-1990 resulted in desperate financial straits precipitating a sideways move into teaching, but he continued to develop semi-abstract landscapes based on his wife’s ancestral home near Motatau. In 1988 he won the prestigious Northland Jubilee Art Award and during this period Sir James Wallace purchased several works.
In the intervening years Wilkie has executed many murals. Scattered throughout Northland alone are eleven major works completed over 2013-2016, in part to leave a “bit of a heritage,” but Wilkie murals also enliven Fiordland townscapes where he worked from 2005-2012.
Undertaking a scene depicting Ngati Rehia warriors winning a national waka ama competition on the Te Tii Woolsheds in 2014, the rest of the mural portrays an ancestral mountain permeated with hidden faces, and a rendering of Bishop Marsden’s 1812 delivery of the first Christian sermon. This mural exhibits art as profound and difficult as Wilkie’s oil paintings and expresses clearly his determination to raise the status of outdoors works to the level of fine art. The research and intense painting effort required necessitate his mural contracts including a clause that finished works must be protected with anti-graffiti varnishes.
His first exhibition, Bravura, was mounted at Reyburn House in Whangarei in 1987. While his work became more Fauve – bright, nature-inspired, with densely applied colours, a tendency towards abstractions carried from Elam days was being expunged, and by 1989 his palette had purified down to layered and glazed paint masses.
New Directions 1990-2000
By 1991 Wilkie experienced the need to return to the real world, and more readable imagery. Now a run of difficult works loosely titled The Colonial Brides began. Often painted on evocative grounds such as old dinghies and sheets of farmyard corrugated iron, he found himself deep in historical considerations and the exploration of social circumstances within portraiture.
Producing quick, saleable sepia renditions of old photographs on his kitchen table he stumbled on an expression which could lead him out of non-objective art. It was a connection with the human aspects in the borrowed photos – the worn bodies, the peculiarities in physiognomy, the human response to the hard times of early New Zealand.
“My work became more socially interested. In my opinion, empty swathes of pretty paint hail from the apprenticeship phase of young art. Many of my old loves, such as Kline and Motherwell are dead for me. I can’t stand art devoid of social, psychological, or universal meaning. In experimenting around the colonial photographs, other aspects of New Zealandness were raised, resulting in the environmental works I’m now known for. I argue that even Europeans had mud between their toes when they toiled here, so sometimes refer to these paintings as Pakeha Whakapapa.”
Wilkie believes his art, including his newer murals which are more profound and intense, descend from the dark school epitomised by Masaccio, Michelangelo, Goya, Courbet, Daumier, Picasso, Van der Velden, McCahon and Fomison (an acquaintance). While his works appear to start with observational methods, they are deeply underpinned by the structures seen in all classical art – tension, balance, pigmental nuance, and layer development – designed to create psychological effects in the viewer.
He cites the experience of producing a massive oil of non-objective forms and colours, then finding a similar layout in a Goya painting later, so titled his own oil, The General Gounod Landscape. The work proved the argument that artistic compositions may have stylistic ‘isms’ attached, but when fully realised each deals with the same issues, and he’s confident many artists reach the same conclusions.
Moving to Te Anau in late 2005 to take up HOD Arts at Fiordland College provided exposure in Southland with major exhibitions at the City Gallery, and Southland Museum and Art Gallery. He won Resene’s Community Mural Award with his students in 2008 and was shortlisted a second time for the Wallace Art Awards. In 2012 he won the prominent ILT Award.
Loosely categorising his work as a type of poetic realism, Wilkie interweaves ideas, and builds up his work. Over layers of landscape settings he juxtaposes disappearing peoples or species. His use of white to engender dreamy space derives from a fascination with light.
He pushes media and underpinning concepts so that the works might proffer a miracle, saying that he hates to stand still.
His current canvases were inspired by a winter visit to Dusky Sound in 2015 when continual rain made sketching virtually impossible. The blackish series of oils, Fighting the Black Dog, is based around Pigeon Island – the isolated spot where New Zealand’s first Pakeha conservationist, Richard Henry, struggled to preserve New Zealand native birds, and his own mental state. They are about inner struggle, as much as they are about environmental and species degradation.
Art and life continue says Wilkie who wants to explore more of remote New Zealand. “I want to look at other people here, such as how Chinese left marks and relics on the land. I guess my work is always about loss and change.”
Wilkie’s new works continue a contemplative and brooding journey into art, and what it is like to live in the isolated isles of actuality, and the inner being. “Each foray drains the battery a bit more. Painting Fiordland rain is the next challenge; rain, inside and outside oneself. It’s exciting, but nerve-wracking, utterly draining, but I hope I still have something both regional and universal to say.”
Chris Wilkie artworks are held in many national, international and private collections including: The Wallace Arts Trust, The Michael Dodds Collection, Frana Cardno Family Collection, Dr.Victoria Wise Collection, Peter Millington Collection, Peter Kraus Collection, Kura Contemporary Maori Arts, Te Kowhai Print Trust, Te Papa Tongarewa, and Auckland City Art Gallery.
Wilkie’s Northland murals can be viewed at: Hukerenui War Memorial Hall, Jack Morgan Museum – Hukerenui, Bruce Sanderson Museum -Totara North, Te Kura o Motatau, Te Tii Woolsheds, Okaihau College, The Kaikohe Wall of Fame – Kaikohe, Kaikohe RSA Gallipoli Murals, Broadway, Kaikohe (x 3). Pouwhenua o ki o rahi – Waitangi Treaty grounds.
Copyright Theresa Sjoquist – December 2016