The highly-accomplished Christchurch artist and gallery owner Marian Maguire likes to stay low profile. She explains why to Sarah Lang in a rare interview.
In a long, leafy street in central Christchurch, a grey-and-white villa veiled partly by a purplish tree looks like a regular home, until you spot the sign for PG gallery192 (192 Bealey Avenue being the address). The art gallery is inside the villa. There’s a custom-built printmaking studio at the back of the property, where Marian Maguire is currently working while her painting studio at home gets fixed up.
With her 60th birthday approaching, the printmaker, painter, and gallery director is as intense and passionate about her work as ever. Maguire is best known for her printmaking: lithographs and etchings that borrow from the aesthetics of ancient Greek and Māori imagery, mythology, and history. Many New Zealand art galleries, museums, and institutional collections hold her work, and she has shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions.
Maguire has done many etchings (prints made from metal plates incised using acid). “But lithography has always been my favourite medium.” In this 200-year-old printmaking process, an artist draws with a greasy material like a wax crayon on a finely grained slab of stone or metal plate. The slab is then prepped to absorb water everywhere except where the image has been drawn or painted; the ‘non-image’ areas thus become ink-repellent, as oil and water don’t mix, while the image itself will hold the oily ink. When paper is pressed across the stone, it picks up the inky image. “I like the feel and the smell of the stone, and its responsiveness to gesture,” Maguire says.
However, the last lithographs she made were the 2017 'Goddesses' series. Why? Maguire points to the index finger on her left hand. “Look at that!” she says. It’s clearly crooked. “That joint doesn’t work so well anymore. I also have a problem with my neck. Wear and tear. Printmaking is hard physical work." She’s not doing lithographs now, but won’t rule out the odd special project in the future. “I really miss lithography but I’m finding different ways to get my ideas out.” In recent years she’s produced many abstract paintings. Currently she’s working on digital images, but will only say it involves paintings processed digitally. “I’m guarded about new work because it takes me so long, and I prefer not to put words around ideas too early.”
Art is her life. “I’m quite obsessive about my work.” She works usually from around 9.30am to about 8 or 8.30pm. “During exhibition changeover week, I get hardly any time for my own work, but some weeks when I can, I shut out that [gallery] stuff.”
Marian, who is introverted and quirky, doesn’t like talking about herself or being in the limelight. That’s partly because it takes up precious time. “And it’s partly my personality. Also, I’ve effectively got three different identities in the art world: artist, gallery owner, and a printmaker for other artists. I’ve never wanted my own identity as an artist to get mixed up with those other roles. Hence the gallery isn’t called Maguire Gallery.”
“If, for example, I’m giving a talk about a work dealing with the effect of colonisation on Māori, what I say must be about the subject and mustn’t promote myself as an artist, otherwise that’s narcissistic and exploitive.”
Maguire’s early work was largely figurative. “Think gestural body drawing, with the figure being central. Many of the images were totemic. If I was drawing another woman, or sometimes drawing myself, I’d think about, say, the womb as a generative thing related to the whenua, which means both land and womb.
“I found that early work more emotionally connected to my body, and I miss that, but my work now is more intellectual – and I’d rather spend time on something that has more content behind it.” How did she get, so to speak, to ancient Greece? “I started thinking and making art about the idea of the figure moving through spaces: through archways, along bridges, etcetera. Italian renaissance architecture led me to the architecture and art of ancient Greece.”
In ancient Greece, vases – used for the storage and shipment of grains, wine, oil and other goods – were also blanks for artists to decorate. The popular ‘black-figure style’ silhouetted painted figures and ornamentation on the vases’ reddish-orange surface.
The vessels often depict gods and mortals interacting dramatically. Think Dionysus swilling wine, satyrs with erect penises, human sacrifices. “I’d never liked Greek vases because of their stylisation of violence,” Maguire says, which seemed to her, at odds with ancient-Greek ways of “contemplating the cosmos and pursuing perfection or an ideal way of living”. She began making prints using the typical style of drawings on ancient-Greek vases; many prints actually depict ‘invented’ Greek vases that she dreamed up.
In what one reviewer called a "parallel universe mythopoeia", Maguire merges and juxtaposes ancient-Greek and Māori stories, and their mythological and historical figures, in works that pose questions about colonisation, cultural interaction, and contested histories. She’s placed Greek heroes in colonial New Zealand. For instance, the Southern Myths series of etchings (2001), depict Achilles and Ajax, from Homer’s epic The Iliad, fighting in the South Island.
As Maguire explains, the worlds of ancient Greece and Māori are separated by time and place, but have much in common. “In both of their art and storytelling, gods and goddesses interact with humans and the natural world. In both cultures, oral storytelling passed down through the generations is incredibly important. I ultimately decided ancient-Greek and Māori myths could float in the same ether.” She doesn’t consider use of ancient Greek imagery to be cultural appropriation. “Stories from ancient Greece underpin much of Western culture. To eradicate them from our thinking is impossible.”
Because Maguire is Pākehā, has there ever been talk of cultural appropriation of Māori imagery? “It comes up sometimes,” she says matter-of-factly. “I initially didn’t use direct-source Māori imagery unless I absolutely had to. The Māori imagery I used was mostly drawn previously by Pākehā. But it all just looked European, so it wasn’t telling its own story. I realised I had to use actual Māori imagery. Most reactions from Māori people have been that they liked the Māori imagery.”
Perhaps her best-known works are three print series which reimagine New Zealand’s colonial past through the lens of ancient Greece. The first series, The Odyssey of Captain Cook (2005, 10 lithographs), shows Pākehā and Māori figures, with Greek warriors arriving to settle in Aotearoa, joined by the goddess Athena. The second series, The Labours of Herakles (2008, 12 lithographs, eight etchings), casts Greek hero Herakles as a coloniser of New Zealand In one work, he signs the Treaty of Waitangi; in another, he wrestles a taniwha.
The third series, Titokowaru’s Dilemma (2011, 25 lithographs) shows Ngāruahine prophet and leader Riwha Titokowaru during the New Zealand Wars. Scenes depicted include Titokowaru talking with Greek philosopher Socrates; the Greek king of the gods, Zeus, stalking the Māori earth goddess Papa; and Persephone (the Greek queen of the underworld) keeping company with Hine-nui-te-pō (the Māori goddess of the night and of death).
When making Titokowaru’s Dilemma, Maguire made several visits to Titokowaru’s descendants from the Ngāti Hāua hapū of the Ngaruahinerangi iwi in Taranaki. “As a thank-you, I gifted a fireplace to the iwi, which will go in a new marae.” A fireplace? Some of her works are fire surrounds: free-standing wooden structures with decorated panels that look like they could surround a fireplace, but with a central illustration instead of a grate. “The hapū renamed the fireplace Te Toi o Takuahi, The Heavenly Fireplace. It contains imagery relating to their tribal history so is very much theirs not mine.” In 2018 Maguire was formally adopted by the hapū. A sudden smile shows how much this means to her.
The British Museum acquired Titokowaru’s Dilemma, and one lithograph from it was shown in an exhibition about Troy. She appreciated the layers here: the fact that an artistic institution from an imperialistic country was exhibiting a work “that questions what peace is” in a colonised country. “That, and putting it in the context of Troy, interested me.” Meanwhile, The Labours of Herakles was exhibited internationally and in (often regional) New Zealand museums. “Some curators exhibited it alongside works from their collections. I like it when people connect with my work, understand what I’m trying to do, and link my work to something I hadn’t thought of. Then, discussions and dialogues arise.”
Art always attracted her. “I grew up in Christchurch in a Catholic family with seven children. My parents were reasonably educated but we didn’t have much money. We were taught to be self-sufficient and practical – not necessarily to be terribly ambitious.”
In the 1980s, Maguire studied at Christchurch’s Ilam School of Fine Arts, majoring in printmaking. In 1986 she undertook the Professional Printer Trainer Programme at the Tamarind Institute of Lithography, in Albuquerque, USA. “I never dreamed I’d make a living as an artist. I thought ‘I’ll do print-making for other people while I make my own work’.”
She did just that. In 1984, her final year at Ilam, teacher Barry Cleavin suggested she and Ralph Hotere (1931–2013) collaborate to produce lithographic prints. That working relationship lasted 24 years, making around a hundred lithographs and the pair becoming close friends. Over 25 years, Maguire also collaborated with significant New Zealand artists to create original lithographic prints. Think Bill Hammond, Gretchen Albrecht, John Reynolds and Euan Macleod, for extended periods. She has also worked with Dick Frizzell, Fatu Feu’u, Bill Culbert, Philippa Blair, Alexis Hunter, Robert Ellis, John Pule, and Richard Killeen.
"Sometimes it was one project. Sometimes it was 10 years. It depended on whether we could build a rapport and work well together. In fact, the idea that artists should work alone, and that the integrity of the work is in its ‘aloneness’, is only about 150 years old – and actually it’s pretty unnatural. Artists were once trained within a studio context. A master painter might have people with diverse skills working under them. As master printer, I led a team of usually two or three printmakers and assistants. Projects were often three-generational – I was working collaborating with older artists, and I’d employ younger people – so it was a type of family.”
Collaborative projects were interesting, stimulating and challenging. As a printmaker working with an artist, you’ve got to suppress your own ego and your own aesthetic, while maintaining your visual engagement.” She undertook this master-printer role through her studio Limeworks and, later, PaperGraphica. The clear next step was establishing a gallery. In 2000 Papergraphica shifted to Bealey Avenue, where Maguire and partner Nigel Buxton (an artist/curator) opened PaperGraphica gallery in the villa, and built the studio. “At first PaperGraphica mostly showed limited-edition prints from the studio but soon it was exhibiting artists’ drawings, paintings, photographs, and sculpture, with works on paper the backbone.”
“From 2000 to 2011 I was running a gallery, a printmaking workshop, and making my own work. It was exhausting.” She began cutting back on printmaking collaborations, largely stopping in 2019 to focus on her own work and the gallery. Maguire walks around the gallery (renamed PG gallery192) with a palpable air of satisfaction, pointing out why Maurice Lye’s photographs hang best in a certain area. “The artists that keep most galleries running are mid-career, well-selling artists. But some neglected older artists, and younger artists, need support. I see all art as important.”
Few artists have the desire or skillset to run a gallery, but Maguire has owned her own businesses for 35 years. “Yes, I could live off my own work, but I see a gallery’s value in terms of society, connectedness, and culture. The dreary tasks take up lots of time, but I enjoy the curatorial parts and being in touch with artists.” Buxton has some input, and Polly Gilroy manages the gallery day-to-day. Might we one day see a survey exhibition on Maguire’s collaborative career? “I’ve been frequently asked to curate and tour one, and create an historical record about my printmaking workshops. But that would take time away from making my work and running the gallery – from getting on with what’s most important.”
First published in ArtZone #89