Christchurch artist Darryn George likes to change things up, and develop ideas through repetition and variation. He talks to Claire O'Loughlin about patterns and themes in his work.
When he was at art school, Darryn George created a strategy he’s held to ever since: every so often, do the exact opposite of what you’re doing now.
“The reason you do that is to open the whole field up again.”
This strategy has fostered creativity and variation in George’s work over three-plus decades as a visual artist. Works in his latest series, the Garden of Eden, are explosions of colour and life, inspired by artists including Campendonk, Derain, and Matisse. The series features figurative plants and people — a new departure from his previously primarily geometric, abstract, work.
But similarities still find their way in. The Garden of Eden paintings retain a geometric system, using pattern and repetition. Stark contrasting colours are a feature throughout his entire body of work.
“That’s the thing when you do the opposite” he laughs. “After a while, you start to come back to where you were before.”
George is Ngāpuhi, based in Christchurch, where he lives with his wife. His father came to Christchurch from the Bay of Islands, met his mother, and they raised their family of three children there. He’s the eldest of three boys. Religion was a big part of their upbringing, and Christian and Māori symbolism are constant themes of his work.
He studied art at Riccarton High School, and although he didn’t think he was any good, an inspiring art teacher, Colin Loose, encouraged him. With the lowest qualifying grades , he “scraped” into the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts. Working hard to get in was a good thing: “It made me not take things for granted.”
In art school he developed his ideas around oppositions, experimenting with different media and materials. Afterwards, needing to make a living, he became a teacher. He’s been Head of Art at Christ’s College for 23 years, all the while keeping up a rigorous art practice, and gaining a Masters degree from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
With teaching, it’s the collaborative environment with the students that he loves the most, and their fresh perspective. It keeps him able to articulate ideas, which feeds back into his work. His process always begins with an idea. He lets it snowball, experimenting with materials and content in an iterative process.
His self-described "breakthrough work", Pulse, shown at the Christchurch Art Gallery in 2008, was executed in oil on canvas, using masking tape to create clean, straight lines. An immersive installation, the painting wrapped around three walls and stretched from floor to ceiling. It fused Māori symbolism with a contemporary abstract idiom. “It was an attempt to create a giant wharenui, but also a kind of cathedral space.”
Pulse included a wall of words within a rectangular structure, almost like a weaving. Words were a feature of his painting for a long time. I’m reminded of Colin McCahon’s Gate III — bold capital letters functioning both as structuring devices and communication tools. Throughout all of George’s works, and perhaps particularly in word works such as Atua #4, it seems the painting is calling out, speaking, sometimes even shouting.
Many of the word works came in response to the Christchurch earthquakes. When the first earthquake hit on the night of 4 September 2010, it was so strong George couldn’t get upstairs to the kids, and later, with landlines down and the cell phone out of charge, he couldn’t contact family or friends. “I remember in those first few moments just praying everyone would be okay. That was the way that I dealt with it.”
Later on, he wanted to respond to the earthquakes, but didn’t want to paint broken buildings. What resulted was a series of oil on canvas karakia paintings, many with “Atua” (God) repeated over and over, in geometric strip patterns referencing kowhaiwhai motifs.
“Sometimes the letters are small because it’s a whisper prayer, sometimes they’re big because you’re panicking and you’re just like, oh, help us. Sometimes they’re cut off halfway because another earthquake has hit.”
The glow around the letters was inspired by the neon signs of medical centres that lit up across the city following the earthquakes. Like God and prayer, they were another way to get help.
His next exploration was painting in automotive paint on melamine board, a labour-intensive process resulting in a very high shine. This medium was seen in Folder Room, in the Venice Biennale 2013. Like Pulse, it was a wharenui-like space that viewers walked into, surrounded by slick black walls, with a seating area. Inspired by filing cabinets, the work explored the theme of stored stories and knowledge. In history-steeped Europe, this took on new meaning.
In 2020, in response to depressing world news, he began to think about innocence. Ready to move on from the surface perfection required by the melamine boards, George turned back to his opposite strategy, and began experimenting with crayons, pastels, fuzzy lines, even potato stamps and “squirting paint out of the tube like toothpaste, the way a child would.”
“I started drawing cars, things like old cassette tapes, our fireplace out the back, things drawn on paper in a child-like way. Trees that can be any colour you want them to be.”
And the Garden of Eden series emerged. Last year Mara #26 won the The Wallace Arts Trust Second Award. It’s a vibrantly colourful, large-scale work in which a mass of people seem to look on at a garden, and in the distance, a horizon and red sky. There’s a sense of unity and hope in the crowded masses, but the red sky is also foreboding, making me think of both new beginnings and end times.
George says the Covid pandemic may be influencing the works. “We haven’t been able to have these kinds of big crowds, so I think that’s subtly coming through.”
In his studio, he’s continuing to experiment and evolve this series, playing with introducing animals and, for the first time, with faces.
When a new idea strikes, rest assured we’ll see another different style, or a new form.
“Art for me is an expression of who I am. I’m just trying to be true to myself.”
Photography by Janneth Gil
First published in Art Zone #88
This feature was produced with support from Creative New Zealand