By John Reynolds
Godwit, NZ$69.95 | Reviewed by L M Wallace

MAN IN A HAT, planter of plants, word-fanatic, cloud-enthusiast, and the list goes on. John Reynolds has eluded definition in the New Zealand art world for almost thirty years. He appears to dance around lines of categorisation and expectation, and the book Certain Words Drawn is loud applause for this talent.

For the purposes of this review, I read the book from start to finish. At four hundred and eighty pages, this is not a job for one-sitting. It seems to me that the most beneficial reading would come from plucking particular sections out, whenever you felt the urge. A fits and starts type reading. I think John Reynolds would approve. Reynolds’ own work is most often about seeing things in a new way, whether those things are words or tussock plants, and not directing the viewer in their interpretation. Indeed there may not even be an interpretation to be had, rather an experience; a conversation within the art you might overhear – seemingly un-related words placed alongside each other by Reynolds that riff in unexpected ways.

The book is structured into nineteen ‘essays’, many by friends and colleagues of Reynolds. As a result they range enormously in tone. I preferred the more conversational and personal pieces which provided some insight into John Reynolds the man, or Reynolds the artist at work. Dianne Bardsley provided a very interesting and accessible chapter on the artist’s 2007 work Black Cloud. A section by Frank Stark on Reynolds’ ‘found-work’ from the London Review of Books personal ads had a wonderful balance to it – Stark’s text co-existing with the artwork rather than trying to explain it. Andrew Clifford provided insight into the processes behind Reynolds’ collaborative artwork with poet Anne Kennedy, I tell you solemnly, and more personal essays on their relationship with Reynolds from Ian Wedde, and Shirley and Roger Horrocks were a welcome addition. Excerpts from interviews with Reynolds himself were a particularly enjoyable feature of the book.

There are a number of sections which contain no text at all, and yet were incredibly insightful, particularly into the well-known Cloud installation for the 2006 Sydney Biennale, constructed from thousands of hand-written words on small canvases, lifted from Reynolds’ intensive trawling of The Oxford Dictionary of New Zealand English. The listing of all 7073 words used, 448 photographs of the construction of the work from start to finish, and a series of photographs of the finished product, go a long way in getting across the immense scale, challenge and detail in putting together the ambitious Cloud. This is a fine address to the frequent under-reading of Reynolds’ work as ‘simple’ or ‘jokey’. It’s clear the exhibition was planned and systematic, unlike its random appearance on the gallery walls. A phrase contained in one of Reynolds’ own paintings might sum that idea up quite nicely and provided me with a bit of a giggle while reading: “You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.”

There are also essays of a more academic or abstract nature on the context and interpretation of Reynolds’ work, by prominent New Zealand figures such as Leigh Davis and Laurence Simmons. I found these sections less engaging, but a necessary balance for other chapters. As I said, a reader should pick out the strands they find most interesting, there is something for everyone here.

Shirley Horrocks says of Reynolds, “John’s energy and enthusiasm are contagious”, and the evidence for this is contained in the pages of Certain Words Drawn. Reynolds is so wonderfully positive and passionate about the role art has in our country, by the end of the book you feel confident that in the hands of local artists like Reynolds, New Zealand art has a strong, entertaining, and beautiful future, full of surprises and evolutions.