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Auckland-based painter Gretchen Albrecht talks about the process of creating her work In a shower of gold (2011), and about how the history of her own work sustains her now.
Gretchen Albrecht: I’ll start with how this painting came about, which was a wonderful invitation by a young Auckland dealer called Michael Lett, who approached me with a project idea. He said, ‘I would like you to work with a young woman called Eve Armstrong on a project where she selects some of your work, and we exhibit that, and you do a new work, and she does a new work, and a conversation may arise through us getting together and talking and selecting the work.’
So that’s how it came about – the dealer’s idea of putting two people together, two women, a younger woman, an older woman, responding to each other’s work, quite different – Eve Armstrong’s work is quite different to mine – and taking her to a lock-up, which is where I store 51 years of art, and selecting from that what she particularly responded to.
I had this stretcher in my studio at the time. My father made all my stretchers for me from when I was a teenager, and when he died, my brother took over and made all my stretchers and still continues to make them. This stretcher was made by my brother. It’s made out of cedar and it’s quite beautifully architecturally structured behind.
Anyway, it was in the studio and it said, ‘Paint me! Paint me! I want to be in Michael Lett’s gallery with Eve Armstrong.’ So I hauled it out, and of course it is huge, in two quadrants that are bolted together at the back so I can work on them lying on their back on the floor unjoined, standing on an enormous ladder to look down on what I’m doing, and putting a kind of Heath Robinson structure of concrete blocks and planks so I could get into this part of the painting, because my arm doesn’t reach that far unless I’m crawling along a plank. So what seems to be Gretchen’s arm width as a process painter in fact is an artifice. It’s not ‘I need to carefully plan how I get into the centre of this work on both sides.’
So the invitation had come in 2011. I got my stretcher out. I looked at what material I had to put on it, and I happened to have some beautiful Belgian linen that I’d imported from America many years ago on a great big roll. It was 15 feet long, and I thought, ‘I’ll use that.’ The thing about Belgian linen, which you can see here in the unpainted areas, is that it’s got its own colour. It’s this beautiful wholemeal bread or sourdough bread. That colour, which is its natural flax weave and fibre, allows me to have another layer of paint and colour in the painting. So I stretched this up. The two quadrants were stretched up, and then the canvas is wetted, soaked, because there is a lot of residue in Belgian linen. It sort of comes out greeny dirty brown, and I wash and I wash and I wash it until I get that completely washed out. Sometimes it’s five or six goes with great big buckets of water. If I didn’t wash the Belgian linen and it still retains its linen colour, then it would affect every wet piece of paint I put on the canvas. It would make the yellows go green and it would just alter things.
So I wash the canvas. That’s quite an arduous task in itself, and I use a lot of towels, and there’s a laundry system going with my washing machine and the drier, and that goes on for about a week. And then I re-stretch again so that I can get it really, really tight. For the last 20 years I’ve employed young women graduates from art school to work as a studio assistant for me. My one that’s just left worked for 21 years, and I’ve just got another one. They’re very strong, and so I tend to let them stretch these paintings now. I can do it if I have to, but it requires a lot of muscle power. It requires a beautiful pair of canvas pliers and thousands of stainless steel staples.
So I’ve stretched out the canvas, and it’s propped up on the floor against the wall, and I just wait for it to talk to me, which is very nerve-racking because sometimes nothing’s coming back. The great advantage of getting older as an artist is that you have a back catalogue of work. You have work you’ve done 20, 30, 40 years ago. My first show was in 1964, which was 51 years ago. So I have got quite a history of my own work that I can be sustained by, and in times of isolation – emotional and physical and whatever isolation - I get great comfort at looking where I have been. So I draw on. I haul in those lines out into my early work and into my work done last year and my work done last week or whatever, and somehow that pushes me into the future.
It’s a great leap of faith that any creative person has to take where you’re working towards something – you really don’t know where you’re going, but you know you’re going with a trainload of baggage behind you, and that’s very good. Anyone who’s just starting out or is at art school now, the only advice one could ever be given that’s worth anything is keep on working, keep on making. Dig that soil over. You know, you plant and then you reap further down. It doesn’t happen instantly. And in fact you really need that long-term investment in your own work for you to be sustained through to your 70s and, hopefully, into my 80s.
It’s a great leap of faith that any creative person has to take where you’re working towards something ... Anyone who’s just starting out or is at art school now, the only advice one could ever be given that’s worth anything is keep on working, keep on making.
Anyway, I was reading – I do a lot of reading. I love reading poetry and literature. I happened to be looking up something, and the name in my Greek mythology dictionary jumped out, and it was Danae. I thought, ‘Oh, yes, I remember that myth, the Greek myth of Danae and Zeus.’ That was my jumping-off platform for this painting. Its title is In a shower of gold. If anyone has a rudimentary knowledge of that story, it’s simply Danae being imprisoned by her father, the King of Argos, because a prophecy came along that said, ‘You’ll be killed by your grandson.’ So he locked his only child, his daughter Danae, in a tower so she couldn’t get out and meet a man and so on and so forth, but Zeus came in, and in a shower of gold he impregnated her, and she bore a son, Perseus. And the story goes on. Perseus was the one that rescued Andromeda, and he also slayed the Gorgon and took the head of the Medusa back and so on and so forth - they’re wonderful stories.
The story doesn’t need to be known to read the painting. This is not a literal thing. I’m not writing a story, I’m painting a painting. But it helped me. It gave me a platform, or a step, to launch into something. And I thought I’d quite like to use that metaphor of sperm, pregnancy, moving from one side of the quadrant in the hemisphere into the other side. How could I do that? And in a shower of gold, what colour or colours could I use to suggest that? So I started off with a deep chrome. You can see it here – deep chrome yellow, cadmium orange mixed with cadmium yellow. I put that down first of all, and it sort of decided it didn’t want to go down to the edge. I am a process painter. In other words the work and the content emerges as the painting is done. There is no fixed idea; there’s a starting point and then that spark is allowed to organically grow.
So the painting insisted on sort of being up here and down there, and I thought, ‘Oh, well, I need to have some stepping stones or some movement here to suggest perhaps Zeus climbing up to the tower where Danae was in prison. That actually gave me these squeegee’d and dragged with a rubber blade across to give me layers going up. So you step up and into the yellow painting. When the chrome yellow dried, I then went over it with the lemon yellow, which you might be able to see in the background there, pushing and pulling with my squeegee toing and froing to this edge, sometimes going over into that canvas on this side, sometimes spilling and dropping down. This side started after I’d done the first couple of layers on the yellow. This was quite a struggle - to get a pink that seemed sensuous and fleshy and female to go with the aggressiveness of the yellow. So it went through about four layers, starting with a pale pink that looked sickly and insipid - and it certainly wasn’t what I was trying to create - and ended up this rich, deep reddy pink. So there are about three or four layers of both paint and colour on that side.
Then finally I felt, well, Zeus really needed to do his stuff, so the top layer was this yellow lemon called yellow azo? I think it is, it’s all acrylic paint. And here he is splashing over into the Danae side. This took about 5 weeks, but not 5 weeks of painting. It took a day of painting and then getting up on the ladder and looking down and then letting that dry and then worrying about it. Because I do worry my paintings, and in the past I’ve worried them to death and I’ve had to put them aside and start again. And then letting it come together slowly over this period of about 5 weeks.
At the end I felt I had an image that stood on its own. It didn’t need a story. I gave a hook in the title, but I could have called it something else and nobody would have objected, or I could have called it Pink and yellow hemisphere. What I ended up with was something that was very, very strong, that drew me into it, that allowed the centre join to play its part in the painting. I call it, like, a union, the union of the left and the right sides joining together with the bolts at the back, the union of what prompted the original idea of the male and the female, and the use of this rhythm, this rhythmic movement of the paint pushing its way to the centre and then retreating, pushing its way to the centre and retreating and finally coming out to the outside edge of the curved stretcher.
The reason why I use the curved stretchers along with ovals and now rectangles – because I have discovered the rectangle about 4 or 5 years ago. Fantastic, as exciting as when in 1991 I discovered white as a colour – well, what a joy. Anyway, the shape is a very important part of the painting, of course. It’s not a circle, it’s not an oval; it’s a semicircle that I call ‘hemisphere’, which implies space, even though this is fairly on the surface. The paint on the surface, it is space. You do go through the pink and the yellow sides into the raw canvas, so you’re reading this painting in its shallow space. I’ve insisted on that word ‘hemisphere’ being used because I want people to feel it is not a flat surface. Of course it is a flat surface, but with will power I can get you to believe there is space in the painting.
The shape originally came from the lunette shapes and the Romanesque arches of European chapels, churches, and places that we visited where absolutely amazing miracles were painted in fresco or later in oil paint and placed within these arched niches or behind an altar or in the architectural form of the tympanum above a door as you enter into the church. What I liked was the way the art and the architecture married themselves together. [If] you took away the architecture, that would not be there above the door or inside in the chapel.
So architecture, which is a great love of mine – my father was a builder all his life, and he took all of us children onto his building sites. Every school holidays we’d ride our bikes and go to where he was building a house. He was a domestic house builder. But one of the great thrills as a child I can remember was my father having a client ringing the front door bell, and about 3 or 4 weeks later these blueprints coming and being rolled out and anchored down with books on the dining room table. The white lines of the house to be built would be there. I’d look at them, and it was wonderful – from these two dimensions a three-dimensional form that human beings lived in was made. So architecture in its most humble of starts was very much a part of my childhood experience. I’m sure as I get older that you drag all of this stuff with you and somehow it permeates your being to the point where you take it for granted, but it is part of why you do what you do.
So I was very lucky I had that, and I was also very lucky that at art school in the early 60s our art history lecturers were two Americans. One was a specialist in Romanesque art and architecture and the other one was more contemporary, but he also lectured in ancient and medieval and Renaissance art. So I had a wonderful background given to me in art history at the time when we were young painters trying to make paintings.
There were two formative experiences that these art history lecturers gave me. The first, Kurt von Meier, marched me down to the Auckland Art Gallery and stood me in front of Frances Hodgkins’ Self portrait, in which there’s a whole lot of personal items. There’s a pillbox hat, there’s a shoe, there’s a scarf, there’s a belt, and they’re hers. He said, ‘Look at this painting and learn from it. This is metaphor. This is taking the place of her portrait-like picture of a person, but it’s speaking eloquently through them out into the world.’ It was a great thing to give me. My first exhibition, with a nod to Matisse and Picasso, were 50 line drawings, and after that I started to find my own voice, which took a while, but that’s what you have to do. You have to find the notes that you can sing beautifully and add to them so you’ve got the whole score at the end, hopefully.
The other art history lecturer, Arthur Lawrence, the specialist in Renaissance and Romanesque art and architecture, drew up a list for me and he said, ‘When you get to Europe, these are the places that you have to go to look at the art that I know will interest you.’ I was about 19 when that happened, and I didn’t get to Europe until I was 34, but I still had that list, and it was an extraordinary year that I spent travelling with my husband and my son looking at those sort of things.
It is a very private place, the studio. I don’t like anyone in my studio, and I’ve only learned after about 25 years to tolerate a studio assistant. It is a very hard thing to be public, and I also feel it is my retreat and haven. I don’t encourage studio visits or people looking at half-finished work or even people looking at complete work, because while they are in the studio, they are very much still in process, whether they’re finished or not. Because in a way, when they leave I guess one would describe them as finished. But if something comes back I’ll alter it, or even feel that I wished I’d never put it out because I wanted to keep it. I always do believe that when you do put your work out into the world, you must love it and not want it to go out. It’s great when it does and that somebody buys it or it ends up in an institution like this. But I would be very happy to have that back home - and I’d have to store it. But, yes, they are your children, of course, and I do like to keep tabs on where they go. If they come up for resale or pass to another person, I like to know where they’ve gone. It’s called the catalogue raisonné, but that’s a cold definition for knowing where your babies are, really.
So, talking about the things I would say would be my touchstones or that I find I draw sustenance from as an artist would be art history, obviously, architecture, form and colour, and how those four things come together with one’s education, which means reading a lot, going to movies – everything that culture can offer somehow gets all stirred up in this brew, and then you have to give it time for it to ferment and move you on. I do think that moving your work on is, I said, this leap of faith, which I think it is – going into the unknown but knowing that you do have work that you take with you. Nothing is done in isolation from what you’ve already done. It’s there and it’s there to be made use of. I have just recently been turning my eyes back to work I did in the 70s and 80s and re-inventing some ideas from there into my new work, which I think is the luxury I can give myself in my painting life now.
I think this is time again. You have to have the luxury of letting something emerge in its own time. You can’t force it; it has to come out in its own time. I do find it’s quite an advantage to have a few extra paintings that you do think are working around so you can look at them and think, ‘Well, it worked there. That’ll be all right. I can look at that one,’ and then struggle on with what you’re doing. Because it’s not easy. I think it actually gets quite hard as you get older. You have more people looking to judge you out there. So it’s very important that I paint for myself first. If I did not have another exhibition in my lifetime, that would not worry me. I would be making paintings.
That brings me to nature because nature is a very, very important part of any New Zealander’s life, really. You can’t escape it. I did, in the 60s and 70s, live in a suburb called Titirangi, very much in the bush and very close to the west coast beaches. I would go with family at the end of the day in summer especially, and I would take my watercolour block and my little tin of paints, and my husband and son would throw a discus or whatever they wanted to do, and I would come home with these little sort of colour notes, colour sketches. We now have a bach at one of those west coast beaches, and it’s a source of enormous pleasure to sit on the deck and look at the setting sun going down over the Tasman. I think that it has been very much a bedrock of my imagery and still is. So nature, which is kind of an artificial construct, really, but all of us know what I’m talking about, of looking at the sea, looking at the sky. The huge skies that we’ve got in New Zealand and surrounded by all this water, we can’t but not be affected by it, and it does impinge in a metaphorical way on, I think, probably all my work.
Well, I’d like to say that the purpose of art is to bring joy into the world, and I’d like that to be considered as one of what I would like my works to do, but I think the purpose of art is manifold; that it’s a huge – everybody is doing different art and everybody is presenting their own ideas, so the purpose of art for you or me or somebody else could be quite different.
I think it should make you feel you’re looking at something you’ve not looked at before. It adds on to you. It should be a form of discovery, and you should feel changed by it, even in a small way. I mean, we know how – well, I don’t know how other people feel, but I remember I always would go to – let’s say you would go to the Uffizi or one of the great museums of the world, and only when you needed to see a painting did it come into focus. The rest is a blur. You go round and you look at the paintings and you home in on things that you’ve read about or you’ve been taught about, and then suddenly you see something fresh, and as if for the first time. It has always been there, but you haven’t needed to find it until then. That’s part of why I go and look at art, other people’s art, old art especially – to see what I can discover. So if everybody goes to museums in that spirit of discovery, to be added on to, that’s what the visual arts are about, I think.
Sarah Farrar: I think we’ve just received a lesson in looking at art from you, Gretchen. Look, I will call things to a close because, if nothing else, Gretchen must need a glass of water after talking solidly for an hour. But we talked about art bringing joy; well, Gretchen, I think that your talk has been a great occasion. I just feel almost lost for words. It has been such a pleasure to hear you talk about your work and bring your practice to life for us here in this room. I think we’ve been very lucky today, so a heartfelt thank-you, Gretchen, on behalf of all of us for your time and generosity today.
This track and transcript are edited from a recording made of Gretchen Albrecht's artist talk at Te Papa on 21 June 2015.