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Cerulean blue

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Max Gimblett is one of New Zealand’s most recognised painters, and is also known for his sculpture, ink drawings, works on paper, and artist’s books. The New York-based artist has an exhibition opening at Wellington's Page Blackie Gallery this month.

Here, he talks of themes, influences and enlarging his language of vision.

Who are your biggest influences?

Sengai Gibon, Tesshu the No-Sword Warrior, Fra Angelico, de Kooning, Picasso, Matisse, and Jackson Pollock.

Fra Angelico is said to have cried when he painted Christ on the cross.

De Kooning taught me to paint in the air on a plane in front of the primary plane.

Tesshu, the No-Sword Warrior’s wife, asked him why he was doing so many drawings. He said he was doing one for everybody in Japan. She said, ‘You’ll never make it.’ Tesshu said, ‘Pretty soon I’m going to get rid of this shit-bag of a body and get another one.’ I got Tesshu’s body.

Picasso is endless.

And Jackson Pollock is the profound New World classicist.

What materials are integral in your work?

Acrylic paint. Aquasize. Precious metal leaves. Thai Garden Smooth Paper. Arches 300lb Rough Watercolor Paper. Chinese and Japanese calligraphy brushes of a variety of sizes. Sumi ink. Colored inks from all countries. This range of materials gives me the widest entry into my ideas about modernism.

I paint with acrylic because it dries fast, does not have the difficulties of the chemistry of oil paint, and allows me to paint into field again quickly and on a large scale.

I collect papers from all over the world on my travels. There was one shop in New York that stocked marvelous papers, and I experimented with a lot of them. If you get the paper right and the liquid medium right and the brush right the drawing almost gives birth to itself.

Sumi ink is Japanese. It is dense. It feels like charcoal. It is somewhat thick and thins beautifully with water. Some calligraphers use a thimble-full of ink and some calligraphers use an ocean of ink. I am the latter.

I utilise flat house-painter’s brushes from the hardware store and the most delicate Japanese calligraphy brushes from my trips to New Zealand, all different sizes, mainly horsehair. I love them.

In San Francisco, in 1980, I bought metallic pigments, gold, silver, copper, bronze, and some years later employed the late Moira Robinson to gild my paintings and have had precious metals gilded on my paintings ever since.

What themes do you pursue?

Chroma color, not mixed. Turning color into light. In calligraphy, loaded to unloaded brush, one stroke bone, all mind / no mind.

In 1967, in Bloomington, Indiana, my drawing impulse shifted from Matisse to Japanese masters. I began with a calligraphy brush on sheets of paper laid out on the floor and these masters visited me out of their bodies and gave me instruction. Calligraphy became at one with me and in 2006 I took my vows and sought sanctuary in the Lord Buddha.

Gesture. I started with gesture. It was natural, athletic and supported my doodling as a child. Len Lye, my mentor, had doodling at the center of his impulse. And of course there was de Kooning.

Amongst my many shapes there is the quatrefoil, stating quaternity, the world, the four-leaf clover, medieval cathedral windows. I had a dream of a quatrefoil and it spoke and it said, ‘Paint me and I will heal you.’ I immediately ordered six quatrefoil stretchers, painted them one a week for six weeks, looked at them, and thought to myself, ‘These are awkward and difficult. These are a Eucharist no one will swallow.’ I was wrong. They found immediate acceptance.

A major theme is death and rebirth as a continuous state, which I express with the skull, the bone structure beneath the face. The skull entered my oeuvre in 1986. I live with a real skull that I bought in an antique shop in Amsterdam many years ago.

What project are you working on now?

I’m working on ten new paintings—interpretations of the famous Ten Ox Herding Pictures, a series of short poems and drawings from the Rinzai Zen tradition. Oxherding is an ongoing collaborative project with the brilliant author and scholar Lewis Hyde, who has translated and commented on the original text and is currently writing about my drawings. Hopefully we can reveal some exciting Oxherding-related news soon. We exhibited drawings and texts a few years ago. We are planning now to publish a book based on this project and I am planning to do a series of Oxherding paintings.

My ongoing project, which is seasonal, is to enlarge the language of my vision in new drawings and paintings, ever changing and ever spilling over from my centre.

What's the most indispensable item in your studio?

My studio manager, Matt Jones.

You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What colour would you be and why?

Cerulean blue – the sky, Mather Pacific, Fra Angelico, the chord that leads to gold, royalty.

What do people quote or say that you think is complete nonsense?

Delacroix said, ‘If you are not skillful enough to sketch a man jumping out of a window in the time it takes him to fall from the fourth storey to the ground, you will never be able to produce great works.’

While it makes a good story, it is simply not true. Anyone can draw and it’s important to know that.

Where were you three hours ago?

Three hours ago Barbara and I were in our new loft in Lower Manhattan, which is undergoing renovation. We are on the fifth floor of a six-storey 1884 landmark building. We plan to drive straight from the airport, when we return to New York City from Auckland, to the loft and to sleep there for the first time. This is where I will now paint, and where Barbara will now write and cook. A whole new chapter of our lives opens.

Max Gimblett: Creation

Page Blackie Gallery, Wellington

7 - 30 March 2019


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