Pleiades: Seven Sisters of New Zealand Painting charts female painters through 100 years of painting in Aotearoa. Featuring a selection of works from canonical artists Frances Hodgkins, Rita Angus, Louise Henderson, and Doris Lusk alongside contemporary artist Sara Hughes and emerging painters Ruth Ige and Vivienne Worn, Pleiades considers the communicative qualities of painting, and celebrates a constellation of artists whose practices embrace and evolve the complexities of the medium.
The exhibition takes its title from the Pleiades star cluster, a constellation of seven bright stars that has been used for astronavigation under different names and in diverse cultures for millennia. Known in Ancient Greece as the Seven Sisters, Subaru in Japan, and Matariki here in Aotearoa, the stars enable travellers to orient their location on Earth. Similarly, painting acts as a navigational tool through history, traversing social, political, and geographical boundaries.
2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Frances Hodgkins (1869 - 1947), arguably the brightest star in the New Zealand painting canon. She worked itinerantly, travelling extensively throughout Europe absorbing and advancing modernist painting techniques as she went. So too did French-born Louise Henderson (1902-1994), whose cubist compositions relish in the colours and shapes of her varying surroundings. For both, geographical location and personal sense of place impacted their works both formally and in terms of mood.
Where Henderson and Hodgkins’ paintings maintain a discernible subject, the works of established contemporary artist Sara Hughes eliminate a physical form altogether and instead strive to capture the illusive qualities of light itself, while remaining tethered to her own experience of her environment. Hughes opines that her works “meld personal experience with science and environmental urgency.” Sharing in this sense of place and experience is the practice of Nigerian born Ruth Ige. The contemporary painter’s canvases at first glance appear as nightscapes where undulating planes of blue are read as landforms. But these paintings are in fact portraits - of blackness, of place, of belonging.
Though Rita Angus (1908 - 1970) and friend Doris Lusk (1916 - 1990) did not lead the itinerant lifestyle of their peer Henderson, the two artists engaged actively in contemporary developments in painting, and their influence on New Zealand art is extensive. Revered for their distinctive post-cubist approach to depicting the land, Angus is known for her grasp of New Zealand light through sharp colour, while Lusk her strong pictorial design. The resulting works have an almost patterned effect which communicates the immediacy of our landscape
Hodgkins too was an exceptional colourist, delighting in adorning her still lifes and landscapes with a non-natural palette. Working in dialogue with Hodgkins’ Marrows and Peppers, Tossa (No. 3 Marrows), Vivienne Worn draws our attention to the vitality of the artist’s work by distilling her brushwork into gentle, contemplative gesture. Each curved mark accentuates the stroke of the brush, which lends the paintings a haptic quality and a quiet liveliness – as if both artists are present on Worn’s canvas.
In mapping the artists in Pleiades, the exhibition makes the case for a continuity of concern, revealing contemporary painters in conversation with the past, and the past answering back with persisting hopes for the future.