Chris Heaphy’s new exhibition Bloom explores the relationship between painting and the natural world. Images appear familiar, yet somehow unfamiliar in their relationship to us the viewer and to one another. Plants or trees are placed in vases or appear to grow from silhouettes of Maori portraits or heads, images which themselves are derived from historical portraits; mostly painted by European artists depicting Maori in a contrived style to suit an audience far from New Zealand. Perhaps it is Heaphy’s intent to claim them back and reinstate them into a cultural context from which they were taken.
Heaphy references Ta Moko and Polynesian tattoo motifs, which themselves are derived from the natural world or environment. Some are many centuries old, passed down the generations, with constant change and refinement, where shape and pattern have developed together with the inevitable shift or slippage of meaning along with it.
Heaphy is exploring abstracted plant forms that read like whakapapa or ancestral lineage, with each individual element in the paintings relating to the next, connected by a central stem, which in turn relates to or interconnects to the whole. These hard edge forms which are flat and silhouetted in Heaphy’s trademark style are stacked up the canvas, much like Gordon Walters Koru paintings, which themselves are abstracted plant forms. Heaphy’s use of colour and pattern is perhaps referencing Walters 1944 Chrysanthemum painting, a painting that Walters and Heaphy discussed at length as friends in 1995, together with their shared interest in artists such as Klee, Miro and Mondrian.
Heaphy’s silhouetted heads are both beautiful and powerful, with plant forms and abstracted tattoo references coming together to create new meaning. Where, in the past a subject’s whakapapa was literally carved into their face along with natural dyes, here we see the flatness of Heaphy’s paintings also exploring ideas of surface, structure and meaning with the way paint, along with colour and pattern can activate the surface of the canvas to create moments of dynamic form; and in turn allow new meanings and values to blossom or bloom.