Prospecting for gold

Tony Lane's paintings are like contemplative objects where the secular meets the divine.

It’s here he spends his days painting works, which at first glance strike you as contemplative and quiet, like his garden, but on closer inspection reveal themselves to be a busy highway of ideas and associations played out through the repeated forms and objects he has developed over the last three decades. This unruly family of images has a wide genetic pool drawn from a grab-bag of art historical references, different centuries and geographic regions—all of which are capable of happily co-existing in a single painting.

Now 57 years old, Lane is one of New Zealand’s most respected painters and was recently honoured with a large-scale survey exhibition, Tony Lane—Practical Metaphysics at City Gallery in Wellington. This included works from 1989 to the present day drawn from a vast array of public, private and corporate collections. A fine catalogue with text by Senior Curator Heather Galbraith was published by City Gallery to accompany the show, which she also curated.

A highlight was Lane’s largest painting to date, In Time Like Glass, 2006, commissioned for the cellar of American philanthropist Glenn Shaeffer’s house on the Woollaston Estate Vineyard in Upper Moutere. Painted on three gesso-coated wood panels, the work is over 10 metres long and 2.4 metres high and combines two aspects of Lane’s work that have previously existed as separate projects—landscape and still life.

Many of the pictorial elements we’ve come to recognise in Lane’s work—wounds, hearts, necklaces, glasses, bottles and hands—float on the surface of the picture plane. Picked out in silver and gold leaf, they seem to escape the painting’s surface and shimmer like holograms in space. Meanwhile the bumpy hills and misty horizon line create a deep, receding pictorial space reminiscent of pre-Renaissance frescoes. The palette is pale and washed out so when the painting is installed in the dark cellar, it will appear luminous.

“This painting is a sort of visual index or coda of all the things I’ve done,” says Lane. In it you can see his distinctive image bank, whose beginnings can be found in the sketchbooks stacked in his studio, built up over decades of practice.

“The landscapes and still lifes are hypothetical and imaginary. I’ve never set up still lifes or made sketches of actual landscapes. The imagery comes from everywhere—everything from comic books to food; looking at real things; remembering things. It’s built up the same way you build up vocabulary in your speech.”

For Lane there’s a high degree of uncertainty in the process of wrestling a painting into existence.

“I constantly rework things and I sometimes end up with a completely different painting from the one I had in mind.”

Does that make him anxious?


Is he an obsessive person?

“Yeah, yeah…”

Are all painters obsessive?

“I’ve got no idea; I hope they are for their sake.”

Sometimes the paintings themselves take control.

“That’s what you’re trying to get to in a sense; it’s like having children—you can’t say, ‘You have to be like this’. All you can do is help them into the light of day.”

Does it ever go badly?

“Oh yes. Sometimes you have a blank and you can’t seem to break through. You know there’s something there; it’s like wading through a very deep swamp. You’re trying to get to the other side but it’s really hard to give form to this inchoate idea. The best thing is when it’s going well and it’s telling you what it wants to say; you’re connected to something that is almost outside yourself. But you have to work all the time for that to happen. You have to get through the dross before you get to the gold.”

“When I was 25 I would paint a work in a single day but somehow as I get older I want to build it up like a pearl around the core of an original idea.”

First he coats wooden panels with gesso and then draws onto them with gouache, which can be washed off, allowing him to explore an infinite number of ideas. Next he begins the process of applying areas of gold or silver leaf before beginning to paint the many layers of transparent oil glazes.

“I have a whole lot of notebooks filled with various shorthand drawings of my own which are ideas for things. I often work with gold leaf and I have to put that on first. So essentially you have to map out the painting as the process of putting on the gold leaf is quite complex.”

The paintings’ frames are often painted or gilded, making them indistinguishable from the paintings themselves. This three dimensionality emphasises our reading of the works as aids to contemplation and meditation. Adding to this sense of materiality is the paintings’ gesso ground, which creates a chalky, weathered texture.

Though Lane references frescoes, which were graphic representations of Christian narratives for people who couldn’t read, his work is never didactic. Instead he emphasises the importance of allowing space for the viewer’s interpretation.

“I’m very wary with titles because by giving the works certain titles you impose a much more specific meaning, which can limit a painting. Sometimes I try to give things rather enigmatic titles so you start an open-ended conversation.”

Lane’s forms are elongated and emblematic rather than representational and the disembodied limbs that reappear in his work suggest the archaic, attenuated forms of 13th-century fresco artists such as Duccio. One writer suggested these limbs might stem from the fact that Lane’s father wore a prosthetic limb after losing his arm in an accident.

The influence of McCahon is in there too—in works like Terra firma, 1998, and Three Stigmata, 2000, the 20th and the 13th century collide. In the first, bumpy McCahon-like hills are overlaid with dark rents like the wound in Christ’s side depicted in ‘pietas’. In the second, hills are overlaid with gold leaf ‘stigmata’.

You can also see allusions to Pop Art in Lane’s still life paintings where speech bubbles, hearts, necklaces and women’s shoes congregate.

It’s this conflation of opposites, the Old and the New World, the sacred and the profane, landscape and still life, the light-hearted and the dead serious, that gives these paintings their emotional depth and resonance. And the exhibition’s title Practical Metaphysics underscores Lane’s playful approach—after all metaphysics, the study of the ineffable, is anything but practical.

Lane grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Katikati. “My family had a few photos in the house and that was it. I had no exposure to art at all.”

His first experience of contemporary art came when the family moved to Mt Roskill, then a raw new suburb of state houses, and he attended Mt Roskill Grammar where Don Binney and Gretchen Albrecht were both student teachers. “Gretchen lived down the road from me; her sister and my sister were good friends. She came to school as a student teacher when I was in the fifth form. That was great—it was like someone opening a window onto another world.”

Both artists ended up profoundly influencing Lane who attended Elam in the 1960s when McCahon was teaching there. The latter cast a long shadow for young painters like Lane who wanted to forge their own language and reputation in an art world where very few artists made a living and day jobs as a postie or labourer were essential.

After graduating from Elam in 1969 Lane forged a new path, moving to Wellington where he worked at Avalon moving sets for the television series Close to Home and saving enough money to buy his first house. In Wellington he met painters Allen Maddox, Phil Clairmont and Rob McLeod and enjoyed being part of an artistic community, something that is still important to him.

Asked about his position as a painter exploring notions of sensuality, beauty and the sublime at a time when conceptual, new media and performance art are very much in vogue, Lane says, “I think every artwork has to have an aesthetic—otherwise it remains as merely an object. For me the art world has become a place where some of the work seems to be much closer to theatre—it exists in time rather than in space as a visual object.”

He’s currently working on illustrations for a book of poetry by Charles Spear that was first published in the 1950s by Caxton Press. “I’m trying to capture the ideas in these poems by making simple pencil and charcoal drawings in two colours.”

As with all of Lane’s visual projects, we can expect works that arouse a sense of beauty, mystery and wonder laced with perhaps a hint of irony.

Virginia Were

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