Reading Vincent O’Sullivan’s recent biography, The Dark is Light Enough was the impetus for this Ralph Hotere exhibition. Owing to a supposed dispute over copyright with his estate, the book does not include any images of Hotere’s works. I found this to be an unusual decision but contrary to my expectation, it strangely added to my understanding of the artist’s life and practice.
As the biographer reiterates throughout the book, throughout his lifetime Hotere made little comment on the meaning of his works and insisted that they speak for themselves. One of few texts he wrote was used decades later to explain new work to which the writing bore no bearing. He is noted for disliking assumptions made by galleries in their press releases.
… what bothered him is that explaining a work so woodenly moved it from the artist’s living conception to the critics confining domain. An image showed what was intended to show, neither more nor less. Start talking about it, and something else is taking place, one medium usurping another.” P.317
In one of the largest solo publications of his work, titled Hotere, editors Kriselle Baker and Vincent O’Sullivan have stated,
Hotere has always been wary of talking about his art, and sceptical of theoretical claims to corner it… anything to be said about the paintings is said in the painting of them. If they seem to pose questions, the answer is in the looking. (introduction)
And Hotere has offered us a lot to look at. After six decades of productivity, he is now widely acknowledged as one of the most significant artists of his generation. He is particularly celebrated for his dexterity across a variety of media and his nuanced treatment of materiality.
Importantly, the void left by Hotere’s lack of written and spoken word is instead filled up by the works themselves. His stoic silence, and condemnation of those galleries that dared to assign meaning to works, means that, today, there is still space for an unfettered interpretation. It invites an intuitive reading by the individual upon seeing his creations themselves. Whether or not this was the artist’s intention, it is the result of his actions and adds to our reading and reception of the art you see today. It shows how the nuances of Hotere’s work are compelling enough, and perhaps this is his greatest legacy.
- Text by Anna Jackson 2021
Baker, K. and O'Sullivan, V. (eds), 2008. Hotere. Auckland, New Zealand: Ron Sang Publications.
O'Sullivan, V., 2020. The Dark is Light Enough. New Zealand: Penguin.