INTERLOCUTION/S: JACQUIE PHIPPS

Some viewers may read this and ask,‘to what end?’The artist has asked the same question. “Sometimes I look at these and think they’re just coloured squares on the wall”, he said to me in his studio in early May. But that’s only sometimes. Symonds also acknowledges that his works “translate or speak between the digital and the traditional, the decorative as decoration or coded narrative, the figurative and the abstract the formal and the expressive. From one culture to another, one medium to another, one visual language to another” (Symonds, 2004). During the process of translation one thing transforms into another, aspects and elements, qualities and subtleties are lost and new ones created. Symonds acknowledges the losses, but the works mostly revel in the new, the hybrids, the new languages and conversations, the spaces in-between and the provoked and evoked narratives.

I know, for example, that the gorgeous pink flowers and blue background in the large triptych (Fig. 3) are digitally plucked from a garish plastic table cloth. Interestingly, this cheap ‘cloth’ is one of the dominant threads of pattern and conversation throughout this body of work (Figs. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6). This changes the conversation I am having with the artist’s own crafted painting or drawing. I think about how the image came to be on the cloth. Was it ‘originally’ painted or drawn and then manually or digitally printed onto the plastic fabric somewhere is a factory in China? Symonds’ appropriation may be honouring the original artistry in a way the purpose of its production never did. Less romantically, it was probably machine generated in the first place. The translation from kitsch to fine art has been successful.
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´┐╝Figure 3 Henry Symonds Big Blue 2004 Mixed media 140cm x 280cm
More to the point it was made in China, bought in Thailand, painted in New Zealand for exhibition in South Africa and the United States and has been translated into art for a new audience and purpose. Viewers more familiar with Symonds’ earlier work may find this work perplexing. He’s best known internationally as a painter. Symonds is speaking with a new tongue; or at least a new accent in the new millennium (and since moving to New Zealand). Symonds sees this work, not as a shift away from painting, but rather an expansion of painting practice. The digital becomes a new medium with which to paint.

Artists are surely gifted and natural translators. Any abstraction is a translation - a distortion of one thing into another. Figurative works are one thing representing another - a change in parole. A painting of a plate of lemons is not a plate of lemons. The three dimensional has shifted into the two dimensional, fruit into pigment. To digitise the painted lemons is to add a further generation of translation - a copy of a copy. It is now abstracted almost beyond reference back to its native tongue. The lemons have been (re)created.

I am pushing these metaphors, but this reminds me of a play I attended recently in Auckland. In Peter Hawes’ Goldie:The man behind the faces - a play about colonial New Zealand painter Charles Goldie - the artist Goldie proudly tells his portrait subject Kaumatua (respected elder) PataraTeTuhi that he has been learning the Maori language and tries to start a conversation in that tongue. No, says Te Tuhi, we will know each other only in English. The colonised subject tosses the coloniser’s patronage back in his face and protects his own language from translation and acknowledges language’s power. He has already allowed his image to be translated into paint.

The works in Interlocution/s are underpinned for me by Symonds’ research in the fields of post- colonialism and globalisation. The media and abstracted subjects (earlier works, still life objects, textile patterns, and colours) can be read as metaphors for cultures, peoples and individuals and global diasporas. Traditions of drawing and painting are nestled alongside brash popular and digital newcomers. Left to cohabitate long enough, the various themes, techniques and media borrow from, argue with and marry each other and migrate once more. In a similar way to how post-colonialism has challenged the power structures of the West, so eclectic and hybrid works such as these, challenge the traditional power structures of art.