Stories of women artists’ overlooked contributions to modern art are all too familiar. But the case of New Zealand artist Joanna Margaret Paul is perplexing. For here was someone whose output was extensive, who received prestigious artist residencies, and who worked prodigiously across different media and genres, yet whose work was rarely collected by our public art museums. She barely features in our standard art histories—only half a page in the revised 250 Years of New Zealand Painting (2020)—and, if she is mentioned, it is likely to be as the partner of her former husband Jeffrey Harris.
A new exhibition—curated by Lauren Gutsell and Lucy Hammonds of Dunedin Public Art Gallery and Greg Donson of Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery—aims to put that right. It is the most comprehensive exhibition to date to reflect the full breadth of Paul’s oeuvre: oils, watercolours, drawings, poems, films, photographs.
Joanna Paul was born in Hamilton in 1945, the first child of pioneering booksellers and publishers Blackwood and Janet Paul. Hers was a childhood surrounded by art, literature, and music, and the effects of her enlightened education counted. After completing a BA in English and Philosophy at Auckland University in 1967, she enrolled at Elam, graduating in 1969 with a Diploma of Fine Art. Among her teachers was Colin McCahon. What followed was a peripatetic and often frugal life as she moved between bases in Port Chalmers, Seacliff, Wellington, Banks Peninsula, Dunedin, and, at the end of her life, Whanganui. It was a lifestyle that caused her to remark, “I have more certainty on the page than off it.” Frugal Pleasures (1999) was the title of her last major work, a sequence of still-life table settings with lines from a satire by the Roman poet Horace. Late in her life, from her Whanganui base, Paul visited Rotorua periodically to draw, paint, and photograph in the environs of the Government Gardens and the Blue Baths. Tragically, her visit in May 2003 became her last, when she collapsed while bathing in a thermal pool.
At the exhibition’s start, I was transfixed by three small works on paper of Port Chalmers, showing criss-crossing red roofs, white stucco walls, chimneys, and the port, with hints of the surrounding green hills. Small, utterly assured, and ineffably heartfelt in their attachment to place, they make Colin McCahon’s Views from the Top of the Cliff of the same year seem contrived and worked up. What captivated me was the special quality of intimacy that drew me into these streetscapes and harbourscapes—the intimate in the private, the intimacy of surfaces that long to be touched. With Paul’s art, it is not simply a matter of understanding the human theme of the intimate self (a mother, children, domestic spaces, a garden), but of responding to the ways the paintings allow access to an experience of human intimacy. We enter a Joanna Paul painting disorientated by our failure to recognise its
component parts, and it is only her meticulous attention to small details that propels us into the subjective inside of an objective world. She does not show what we should look at, but how we should look at it.
Where does the intimacy come from?
Firstly, Paul’s work is domestic in subject matter and in size. Many of her paintings were done on the kitchen table between cycles of domesticity. Many are still lifes that figure the discarded coffee cups, vase of flowers, and baby’s bib left on that table itself (see Still Life, Barry’s Bay, c.1975, and the wonderful series Stanza, 1983). The subjectivity Paul invests in her painting and her relation to what she is representing are essential. Painting, she asserted, “is part of life, subject to the strains, and joys, of domestic life. I cannot paint unless the house is in order. Unless I paint I don’t function well in my domestic roles.” Paul often used a literal window frame or doorway to link her interior space with an exterior view, creating a frame within the frame. One of her most mesmerising short films is of nappies on a washing line, blowing in the wind, seen through a kitchen window (Napkins, 1975).
In her watercolours and drawings of the 1980s, such as Untitled (Edges of the Room) (1980) and Mortality (1981), tangles of pencil line are interspersed with patches of watercolour. In her drawings, Paul is as likely to leave backgrounds blank as to fill them in. Each detail counts, and conveys Paul’s intense gaze at a subject rather than an overall scene. She builds bit by bit, and the vast white gaps on the page become integral to the overall effect. It is an asperity of expression that is analytical in its form and shows a mind at work. With the askew twists of viewpoint, there is the sense of looking around a represented object or mass, not just at it. With the conflation of surface and depth, Paul abolishes perspective by locating the relatively near to the distant through the manipulation of colour. Thereness reigns.
Secondly, Paul’s sense of intimacy is tied to her sense of the importance of place, or, more precisely, of ‘residence’: Port Chalmers in 1970; Seacliff in 1971; Wellington in 1973; Banks Peninsula in 1974; Beta Street, Dunedin, in 1979; and, finally, Whanganui from 1985. Each change of location brought with it new attachments, new symbols in the landscape. Take the photograph of a white farm gate at Seacliff, with its eccentric wide supporting arms, which in her painting of the same subject somehow gather in the sides of her own composition and the very contours of the land itself (Untitled, c.1971). Or the garden suburb of Durie Hill, Whanganui, which provided her with expansive views over the city and inspired the panoramic aspects of two important series (‘Plato’s Cave, Wanganui River’, 1987, and ‘Skyline, Wanganui’, 1987).
Thirdly, Paul’s pictorial intimacy can be traced to the Catholic Church, which she joined in her youth, and her life-long reading of Christian mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen. In Renaissance painting, the theme of the Annunciation reveals this intimacy through the mystery of the Incarnation. In a sense, Paul’s paintings are all Annunciations. She spoke of a “sacramental theology” at the heart of her work. It is not simply that she employs the iconography of the Annunciation, but the way in which the Incarnation is at work in the painting. The theme of the Annunciation—through which something beyond all appearance allows itself to be thought—encompasses her art’s aesthetic and goal. It must have been an enormous blow to her ego as an artist to have her first public commission—Stations of the Cross (1971) for the Church of St Mary, Star of the Sea, Port Chalmers—covered up by more literal depictions of the Stations at the instigation of conservative parishioners. The simple figures of Paul’s Stations show the influence of her teacher McCahon, but the vibrant colours—deep purples, bright yellows, rich blues, and greens—are all Paul. Ten years later, she produced the mystical triptych Be Still and Know that I Am God (1982) and spoke of the painting’s white space as a ‘lens of religious intuition’. Whatever she did acquired its mystique from a deep sense of intimate spirituality.
As the exhibition’s itinerary ended, I was drawn back again to those three depictions of Port Chalmers I had seen at its inception. They now seemed emblematic of much of Paul’s work. Things surfaced that I hadn’t noticed before, such as how my gaze seemed to lose itself in the dizzying layers of distance; the time it took to register the full impact of chromatic harmonies and underlying structures; how, seemingly enigmatic at first glance, the paintings became inexhaustibly absorbing and moving; and how the artist had successfully drawn me into the intimacy and closeness of her world. Far from being incidental or ephemeral, we can now understand what Paul was engaged in as crucial, directed, and prescient. “When my work is all laid out together, the jigsaw of my life will show itself,” she reflected to critic Lita Barrie. In 1989, in an essay for an early exhibition of Paul’s work in Whanganui, Ian Wedde noted how she had reworked “conventions of drawing, still life, landscape and water- colour drawing, when such approaches and materials seemed anachronistic.” But, as he insisted, this instinct ‘made her work anachronistic not in the sense of being out-of-date, but in being ahead of its time’. This exhibition is the final confirmation of Wedde’s conjecture.
Joanna Margaret Paul: Imagined in the Context of a Room was developed by Dunedin Public Art Gallery with project partner Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, Whanganui. It was shown at Dunedin Public Art Gallery (7 August– 14 November 2021) and Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū (14 December 2021–13 March 2022), and will travel to City Gallery Wellington (1 October 2022– 5 February 2023) and on to the Sarjeant.