Ghost songs

Dark narratives and personal histories unfold in the surreal paintings of Christchurch artist Maryrose Crook

Bob Dylan once said writing a song was like trying to remember a dream. For Christchurch artist Maryrose Crook’s painting Song of the Grey Ghost, which won her the Development Award in the 2006 Wallace Art Awards, Dylan’s analogy is perfect.

Like an elusive dream, which begins to fade as soon as you wake up, the elements in this work – the extinct Grey Ghost or South Island kokako, Guide Sophia Hinerangi, who took tourists to the Pink and White Terraces, and the terraces themselves – all belong to a mythical past.

For Crook, who first painted the terraces after the death of her sister, the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera has become a powerful symbol of loss.

“I’d been reading about Sophia, who had so much integrity and compassion. On the night of the eruption she sheltered 66 people in her small whare and I began to see her as a Madonna-like figure. While I was painting the terraces I became aware that the South Island kokako, called the Grey Ghost because it was so elusive, had become extinct. The painting is partly asking, ‘How much more can you lose?’ The dark things in New Zealand, for example our high rate of child abuse, are often overlooked,” says Crook.

Surreal and dreamlike are both useful adjectives for describing Crook’s paintings and the way she plumbs the depths of the subconscious for startling and often emotionally cathartic imagery. Feminist artist is also a tag that one could attach to this painter whose uncanny paintings often combine the brutal with the beautiful. For instance, dresses, jewels and flowers share space with exquisitely rendered cuts of meat bringing to mind those so memorably painted by Francis Bacon.

Like Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, whose paintings reflect intense emotional and physical suffering – in particular the suffering of Kahlo’s own gravely injured body, Crook has developed her own rich visual vocabulary. Disembodied dresses, carcasses, curtains and drapery suggestive of uterine shapes, mourning irises and pearls to name a few.

These refer to hidden aspects of personality that remain unacknowledged because they are simply too painful to look at.

Of the painting, The Sorrowful Eye of the Pest Dress, Crook comments, “On a superficial level the work looks at pests and how they have overrun the environment. In the bodice of the dress is a pinecone with a couple of South Island kokako sitting on it. But the painting is also about the sadness of the whole thing; the pests themselves are blameless. The unspoken part is that if you do speak about things in society, for example about the way children are treated, you become a pest.”

Crook, now 48, began painting in 1995 when her parents moved house and she found a set of oil paints and she hasn’t looked back since. She remembers painting all the time at school, copying works like Botticelli’s Primavera, but didn’t consider it a career option. Instead she became a musician and survived financially by doing menial jobs like cleaning and organising rock music tours – in the early 1980s she brought British cult band The Fall and Nick Cave’s band The Birthday Party to New Zealand.

Winning the Development Award, which has a value of $15,000 and will allow her to spend three months overseas looking at art museums, confirms what Dunedin curator Gwynneth Porter saw in 1995 when she included Crook in a group show, Pillars of Salt, at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. Though it was early days – Crook had never exhibited in an art gallery and went straight from being a self-taught artist working in her bedroom to having her work exhibited in a major public gallery – the assurance and power of these 10 ever-so-slightly gothic paintings in Pillars of Salt signalled an exciting new talent.

The titles of Crook’s paintings sound like songs or poems. Wearing her musician’s hat – Crook plays in four-piece band The Renderers with husband Brian – there are strong parallels between writing lyrics for a song and noting down ideas for a painting. It’s almost as if the poetic imagery Crook has developed through years of song and lyric writing has found its way in visual form into her art. Unlike many figurative painters, she doesn’t draw but prefers to work visual ideas out through writing and then paint directly onto canvas, using books, photocopies, rubbings and photographs as source material.

“I’m not good at drawing; when I paint with colour it comes alive for me. When I try to draw in pencil it doesn’t grab me and I think that is part of being self-taught.”

You sense that being self-taught has been both a blessing and a curse for Crook.

“When I looked at my early stuff, I didn’t know whether it looked like art. It looked like weird book covers and I couldn’t tell if I had a style until the paintings were all up in Dunedin Public Art Gallery,” she says. “There was something very spooky and dark about all of them but they were also fairly overt.”

Although the paintings have a surreal focus, Crook is also concerned with capturing a likeness, especially in her portraits.

“I’ve had to overcome a lot of things in the process of learning technique. I used to get very dissatisfied if things didn’t look the way they should.”

Interestingly, art hasn’t been the biggest influence on her practice. Books and music both spark ideas and connections for Crook and she also often works from photographs. A Charles Spencer photograph, for instance, provided source material for the Pink and White Terraces in Song of the Grey Ghost. While painting it Crook listened to Bob Dylan’s collection No Direction Home. Given the gothic nature of her work, it’s no surprise she identifies with the dark visual imagery in the songs of Nick Cave.

Hearing her talk about her work you have the impression her paintings almost embody the spirits of their subjects – family and friends, herself as a young child. Sometimes she spends up to a year working on a single painting.

“When I first started painting I carried around photos of the works. It made me feel like I existed. When you come out of being depressed it’s almost as if you don’t exist. The paintings were like my kids. Fortunately I got over that.”

Song of the Grey Ghost is the best thing I’ve done – it’s the most fully realised. After finishing a work, sometimes I feel so emptied out I think I might never have another idea.”

Clearly, there’s no danger of that and it will be interesting to see how Crook’s work develops after her trip to Europe where she will see works by her favourite artists – Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Heironymus Bosch, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo – in the flesh.

Virginia Were

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