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Young abstract and female

Helen Kedgley enjoys the trailblazing palette of three young artists.

Grace Wright, Making A Case For Reality, acrylic on linen, 1950x1500mm, 2022

It is heartening to see the recent success of three young New Zealand women artists, Christina Pataialii, Grace Wright and Emma McIntyre, who are trailblazing an exciting new approach to contemporary, abstract painting. Wright and Pataialii both had sell-out exhibitions this year; Pataialii’s exhibition in August at McLeavey sold out on the first day, while Wright has an extensive waiting list for her paintings. Meanwhile, LA-based artist Emma McIntyre’s first solo exhibition in Paris was a major critical success.

While so many young artists today are returning to figuration, these three artists are breathing new life into abstraction. Their work is resonating with collectors, critics, writers and art institutions alike. Yet there is no doubt that, as female artists, they are still up against it. As Frances Morris, the director of the Tate, says: “Women artists have fared very poorly because there’s been an unconscious collusion between the marketplace, art history, and the institutions. So there’s been a sort of confirmational history which you could call the canon. And, of course, convention and history were framed by the patriarchy.”

Added to this is the curious reality that in New Zealand artists who favour colour are often undervalued. The patriarchy of the post-modernist era favoured a restricted palette. From Colin McCahon to Gordon Walters to Ralph Hotere, the colour black, so popularly associated with our cultural identity, became the dominant colour in New Zealand art. Colin McCahon insisted that that if artists had anything worthwhile to say in their art, “Black and white say it all.” A group of curators, Wystan Curnow, Robert Leonard, and Greg Burke, concurred and promulgated an ascendant view that the use of a restricted palette was the key to success in the post-modern era.

Defiant colourists all, Wright, Pataialii, and McIntyre are challenging those strictures. Each artist has an affinity for colour, a freedom of gesture, and an intuitive feeling for paint and what it can do. Drawing on abstraction and expressionism, they explore the rich possibilities inherent in contemporary abstract painting, overlaying colour field painting with action painting.

Emma McIntyre

In 2019, Emma McIntyre received a Fulbright Graduate Award to study for an MFA at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She found the move liberating and relished the freedom of the LA art scene where “I didn’t feel like I had to conform.” After successful solo exhibitions in LA, McIntyre had a solo exhibition,

Up bubbles her amorous breath, at the Air du Temps Gallery in Paris this year.

Since she moved to LA, McIntyre’s paintings have become freer and more assertive. At her recent exhibition at Chris Sharp Gallery in LA her work was described as “a new sensualisation of abstraction.” A synthesis of intuitive thinking and feeling, her emotionally-charged paintings are arrived at via the process of their making. There is a striking sense of immediacy in her eloquent mark-making. With her fluid application of paint, she embraces spontaneity and chance, impulse and improvisation. Drawing inspiration from remembered landscapes, she begins with layers of thinned oil paint as a backdrop for her compositions, and then uses oil stick, acrylic, and pastel to create her free-flowing gestural paintings. McIntyre is interested in the way colour makes people feel. She contrasts bright, acidic colours – yellow, violet, orange and burgundy – with earthy, muddy colours.

Christina Pataialii

Christina Pataialii’s career took off soon after she graduated from Whitecliffe College of Design in Auckland in 2018, when she won two major awards – the 2018 residency at Gasworks, London, and the Rydal Art Prize from Tauranga Art Gallery Toi Tauranga, where her large-scale murals painted on the walls of the gallery caught the attention of the art world. This year her work was included in the triennial exhibition Soft Water, Hard Stone at the New Museum in New York, and in the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane.

Pataialii’s confident abstract paintings refer to history, nostalgia, and pop culture. She cites her bicultural Samoan and pakeha upbringing as the root of her creativity and draws on her early memories of working on job sites with her father, a house painter.

Pataialii’s eloquent paintings evoke a strong sense of immediacy. Using fluid, sweeping brushstrokes she builds, then erases her surfaces. She often uses floor-to-ceiling canvases and hand-stretched drop cloths, which she layers with heavily applied house paint, acrylic, spray paint, and charcoal to create depth and flatness. Pataialii has developed her own distinctive palette of muted browns, pinks, and greens. Her colours are reminiscent of the state houses her father used to paint, and she uses house paint partly as tribute to her father. She sometimes includes figurative elements in her paintings and enjoys the ambiguity and layered interpretation that her work invokes.

Grace Wright

Grace Wright studied at the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, completing an MFA in 2019. Since graduating from Elam she has had two solo exhibitions at Gow Langsford Gallery and has participated in exhibitions in Sydney and Singapore.

Wright’s dramatic, colourful paintings are monumental in scale. They exude a high energy, a freedom of gesture and a spontaneity that recall the ambitious paintings of Judy Miller, one of New Zealand’s most accomplished and successful artists. Wright says, “Painting on a monumental scale is usually associated with masculine values, but I aim to subvert this, creating work that is bold and unapologetic, while also fully embracing its vibrant feminine attraction and visual pleasure.”

Wright favours an intense, rapid physicality in her brushstrokes, “to allow the painting to come through me….so the painting builds itself.” Like McIntyre, she begins by staining her canvas with layers of transparent colours, over which she paints with loose, flowing brushstrokes that unfurl across the canvas. She achieves a chiaroscuro effect by contrasting vivid, jewel-like colours – magenta, lapis lazuli, cerulean blue – with brooding forest greens and browns. “I want to push this concept of the paintings as landscapes.”

Wright, who is drawn to the religious paintings of the Baroque period, sees painting as a spiritual experience, her abstraction imbued with spirituality. She is interested in the way abstract painting has enabled women artists such as Hilma af Klint to explore transcendence. Her Elam Master’s thesis, “Opening the earth through a glass ceiling: spirituality and the contribution of women artists in abstract painting,” highlighted the power and erasure in the painting of women abstract artists.

Emma McIntyre, Indolent as flowers, oil and oil stick on linen, 183 x 213 cm, 2022

Defying Baselitz’s often quoted claim that “women don’t paint very well,”’ and challenging the theory that New Zealand art favours black, Christina Pataialii, Grace Wright and Emma McIntyre are developing an abstract language of our time. Their work is gaining international recognition and fully deserves to be celebrated here in New Zealand.

Christina Pataialii, Proximity and Distance (install view), acrylic and house paint on canvas drop cloths and wall, 2021. Photo by Sam Hartnett

Currently working as a freelance curator, Helen Kedgley was Director of Pātaka Art + Museum from 2012 until 2015. Prior to that she was Senior Curator at Pātaka where she curated over 80 exhibitions of Māori, Pacific, and New Zealand art, many of which have toured nationally and internationally. Helen was granted a Distinguished Alumni Award from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. Helen is a Trustee of the Wellington Sculpture Trust, the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, the Pātaka Foundation, and the Blumhardt Foundation. She was Acting Director of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery from 2016 – 2017.

First published in Art Zone #92


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