John Pule is a Nuiean-born, Auckland-based artist. He came to some prominence in the early-1980s as a poet, and indeed, has subsequently published both poems and novels. While always engaged with art, around the late-1980s he added painting to his bow, and has been pursuing art and writing ever since. Last year saw a survey show at Wellington’s City Gallery and the publication of an allied catalogue, Hauaga: The Art of John Pule (Otago University Press, NZ$120).
In his essay ‘Wherever It Is That We Want To Go’, Nicholas Thomas states that, “Pule discovered a style, a pictorial language, that enabled him to create works that were powerfully original, that bore no resemblance to any paintings that had been made before.” It is certainly true that there is a huge stylistic leap, in almost every respect, from his early paintings and that he found an original voice. But as Thomas goes on to discuss in some depth the relationship between Pule’s paintings and hiapo (Nuiean barkcloths), suggesting some resemblance, he also somewhat undercuts his argument. I can also see elements of Shane Cotton’s work from around the same period and various other New Zealand artists.
Though graphically different, Shane Cotton was doing similarly detailed, large-scale paintings, creating contemporary histories, covering similar ground to Pule, but using Maori rather than Pacific motifs, also with a limited colour palette. If memory serves me correctly, Pule’s works may have preceded Cotton’s by a couple of years, but Cotton’s were the first I was aware of. Interestingly, around the turn of the century, both Cotton and Pule left their land-sited works behind and started painting in space. In some of Pule’s elements I also see references to the likes of Richard Killeen, Colin McCahon, and Peter Robinson (both explicitly and surreptitiously).
In the opening essay “A Portrait Of The Artist Of Many People”, fellow poet and artist (and curator and art writer) Gregory O’Brien introduces us to John Pule, his life, his writings, and his art. He discusses the development of each and how they are all entangled. This is followed by a conversation between Pule and Nicholas Thomas, covering some similar territory with the added bonus of personal reflection.
Peter Brunt essentially writes an academic essay “on the work of John Pule … whose personal and family history spans two great transformations of recent Oceanic history (decolonisation and urban migration), I want to suggest that the significance of his work derives from the way it explores the gamut of possibilities for historical consciousness outlined by Ankersmit: from the imperative to remember the past to the painful confrontation with the irrevocable nature of history.” It’s harder going than the earlier pieces, but does offer some useful insights.
As with books by many contemporary artists, representing large works on the page means there is an inevitable loss of detail and sheer physical impact. Hauaga uses the now common feature of highlighting an aspect of a painting as well as showing the complete work. While this can show the detail of the artist’s hand, the selections seem somewhat arbitrary.
Hauaga ends with a selection of Pule’s writings—poems, excerpts from novels, and other bits and pieces. For Pule the visual and the written are intertwined in his art—the paintings having grown out of the poems. It’s fair to say I’m a bigger fan of his paintings than his writing, but then generally speaking I am more interested in the visual arts than written fiction and poetry.
This volume stands as a decent reflection of a mid-career art. There can be no doubt that Pule is not resting on his laurels, for he is continuing to invent himself as an artist, and still producing vital and exciting works. His journey is well recorded in both images and text, and now in this book. However, I feel conflicted with recommending Hauaga because while it is a well deserved survey of one of our country’s singular artists, and acts as a worthwhile guide, it just doesn’t excite me as a book, an object, and, as with most art, it is no substitute for seeing the original works in all their glory.