The colour purple

Leon van den Eijkel merges the Mondrian colours of his childhood, the modernist grid and the lushness of the Pacific to make work filled with joie de vivre.

Growing up in wartime Holland, multimedia artist Leon van den Eijkel was five before he saw a tree. He recalls, “All the trees in our neighbourhood had been cut down for firewood, so one day my father took us for a two-hour walk to a park in The Hague, where a massive oak tree still stood, defying the oppression and occupation of the previous five years”. As a child, van den Eijkel remembers collecting pieces of glass, wood, metal and cloth to make trees and forests from and playing with them.

Fast forward over 40 years and van den Eijkel had another arboreal epiphany. “After migrating to New Zealand I saw my first kauri tree. When you stood in front of these massive trees, you shrank; you became a child again.” The immense kauri trunks inspired van den Eijkel to create his first ‘urban trees’, culminating in his creation in 2007 of the Wellington Urban Forest on Cobham Drive, which leads to the airport, for the Wellington Sculpture Trust. Drawing on the vast column of the kauri trunk, van den Eijkel developed a more sophisticated form, akin to a child’s multicoloured building blocks stacked one atop the other, but his forms spin, alternatively clockwise and anticlockwise in the wind.

He traces his lifelong love of colour to a school trip to the Municipal Museum in The Hague when he was ten. “After looking at the boring history exhibition we had come to see, we had half an hour to spare. Everyone else went outside, but I walked around the rooms, and in a small gallery was transfixed by a small painting of blue sky and a red cloud. Immediately I thought, ‘Wow, how can you have a red cloud?’ When I was a child there were rules about painting and one of the rules was that clouds were white. The painting was The Red Cloud, an early Mondrian painted in 1907, and it was then I knew I wanted to be an artist.”

Another fast forward to 1986. By now van den Eijkel had studied art at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague, and worked as a graphic designer at the University of Delft, before deciding to join his older brother who had migrated to Wellington in the 1950s.

“I’m a planner in life; I’m a planner in art. My brother had always asked me to come and visit, but I said, ‘When I come, I come for a minimum of ten years. I come when the time is right, when I want to widen my horizons.’

So when my brother asked what I needed, I explained that I would need a studio facing north to give me steady, consistent light, so he found me a studio overlooking the harbour. On my first night I looked out and saw a beautiful sunset and thought, ‘Something is not right here,’ and realised in the Southern Hemisphere the steady light is from the south.”

But the sunset unlocked his ‘Mondrian memory’ of the red clouds of his childhood. Van den Eijkel’s art tradition is steeped in black and white, and the basic ‘Dutch’ colours of red, yellow and blue, as typified by the works of Mondrian, van Doesburg and the De Stijl movement. However, on the other side of the world, he was facing an unfamiliar horizon.

“I always think in colour,” he explains, “so I came up with the concept of creating a new palette of colour.

I looked at that sunset and then the next morning, with the colour still in my mind, I mixed the colour and painted a small square. Over the spring and summer of 1988-89, I painted the colours of 190 consecutive sunsets, coming up with my new palette of colours, and calling the work Official Dialogue with Mondrian. By now I’d also met Maori artists who’d talked to me about how they learn their art from the art of their ancestors. In Europe we don’t think that way any more, but it made me think, ‘Who are my ancestors in art? And for me, the answer kept coming back to Mondrian. So I even painted my studio in Mondrian colours, and when you flew into Wellington airport you could see the house with the yellow roof and the Mondrian colours.”

But a new colour had asserted itself into his palette—lurking at the edge of the sky at dusk and dawn, in the night sky and in the deep shadows of the lush Pacific foliage—purple. “I think that in the Pacific you must have purple—everything you look at, everything you pick up, purple is there.”

By the late 1990s van den Eijkel was showing regularly in Wellington galleries, as well as returning to and exhibiting in The Netherlands. In one exhibition in Leiden in 1993, he created a work of 25 large floor-mounted cubes, each painted in the colours of his ‘Pacific palette’. After returning to New Zealand van den Eijkel showed his work Mondrian after Mondriaan at Te Papa, where it attracted the attention of collectors Jenny and Alan Gibbs. They commissioned him to create a larger variation of the work at The Farm, north of Auckland, entitled Red Cloud Confrontation in Landscape, which was the first of van den Eijkel’s larger outdoor installations.

The artist’s creative oeuvre has also expanded over the past decade, and as well as installations and paintings, he also creates video and digital works. On his return visits to his homeland he has been accompanied by New Zealand-based artists, including Gretchen Albrecht and James Ross in 2001, and by a number of emerging New Zealand video artists in 2004. One of van den Eijkel’s works for this show comprised 25 iconic three-legged backyard Kiwi barbecues that were painted in his familiar Pacific colours.

But it has been van den Eijkel’s larger outdoor works that have really confirmed his ability to marry the subtleties of the southern colour and light with his poignant, whimsical childhood memories. His Urban Trees appeared at Wellington’s 2006 ShapeShifter exhibition, Waiheke’s 2007 Sculpture on the Gulf, and on the Brick Bay Sculpture Trail. His latest series, Smiling Windmills, unveiled at 2008 ShapeShifter, now grace Lower Hutt’s Avalon Park and a similar series, Memory Windmills, was recently installed at Brick Bay.

“I read somewhere ‘irksome wind is not an adult friend’ but for my art I always want to make negative things positive. Wind can be exciting, so with my wind sculptures and windmills, I capture the enjoyment of the wind. I remember the toy windmills I had as a child; when you run something exciting happens in the wind. For a long time I didn’t think about the past, just looked forward, but I don’t want to forget the past and the positive, rich memories of my childhood.”

For his gallery-based exhibitions, van den Eijkel has created four new ‘series’, all developed within the parameters of 21st-century digital technology. He explains, “For the past five or six years I’ve been working on my ‘next big’ series, and they are The Next Big Family, The Next Big Religion, The Next Big City and The Next Big Aqua. The idea came to me when I saw an exhibition of 16th-century paintings at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and realised those works were created with the best techniques and paint available at the time, so I’m doing the same with the technology available to me. With each work I’m creating usually two panels, one—in the case of the Family series—of a slightly blurred, digitised, old family photograph; the other panel is my visual diary where I use colours to show the mood and the moment behind the image.”

Here the blurred snapshots of van den Eijkel’s childhood become familiar; the children straddling the old motorcycle could be the viewer’s brothers or cousins; the woman in a print dress the viewer’s mother or aunt; the picnic group could belong to any time or place.

His Next Big Religion has a similar comforting synergy as well. At the opening of the second exhibition in the series at Bath Street Gallery in April 2008, the works segued between images from Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and other religions. As he states in the exhibition catalogue, “My feeling is that the next big religion is an individual mix of the best ingredients. It’s like cooking a nice meal for your family, and everybody will be satisfied and live happily ever after.”

A central piece in that exhibition comprised paint-splattered wheelbarrows arranged like a cross. For van den Eijkel the humble wheelbarrow is the 21st-century donkey, the archetypical beast of burden, as well as the humble bearer of Christ. This work Crusade 01 reappeared as a more relaxed, circular gathering at Sculpture onShore at Fort Takapuna in November. And a larger cross-shaped wall work provided the basis for van den Eijkel’s work in this year’s headlands Sculpture on the Gulf on Waiheke Island. The purple and aqua work Cross(Road) combines the ambiguities in van den Eijkel’s philosophy—as well as giving us a glimpse into the spiritual world, it confronts the temporal journey we take through life and the choices we face.

Van den Eijkel is an artist filled with ideas and plans for projects and his own journey is proving to be a rich – and enriching – one. Like his Dutch forebears who happened upon this spidery coastline over 350 years ago, and the subsequent migrants from The Netherlands in the years since, he adds a fresh perspective to our art.

“I’m not a writer,” he states. “I can only make small statements. But for me, my colours are my way of writing. I’m living now where I want to live, in the Pacific. I like working with the links from my old to my new life, which is why I want to relate them to the Pacific colours.”

Dan Chappell

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Clare Corbould and Hilary Emmett on an artist addressing the Pacific slave trade.
Gavin Hipkins celebrates a new storyteller.

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