One motif, thirty years of exploration: Jim Geddes on Gordon Walters

Te Papa’s touring exhibition, Gordon Walters: Koru, is currently being hosted at the Eastern Southland Gallery, Gore (23 April to 6 June), a splendid venue which is affectionately known as the ‘Goreggenheim’! Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, talked to the ebullient District Curator at Eastern Southland, Jim Geddes, about it…

MS: Jim, why did you want to show Gordon Walters at Gore? And why this touring exhibition from Te Papa?
JG: I’ll answer the second question first and say we really value our professional relationship with Te Papa. This is by no means the first such touring exhibition we’ve taken on – Rita Angus, Gericault to Gauguin, Albrecht Dürer, and now Gordon Walters. Walters is rarely seen in the South, certainly in the South of the South, although the Hocken has a nice collection and you sometimes see his prints. But we wanted to have the opportunity to show his paintings as well as other media, to show people how he operated.

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Jim Geddes, standing between Tama, 1977, by Gordon Walters. Gift of Stephen Lachman, 1995. Te Papa (1996-0009-7), and Karakia, 1977, by Gordon Walters. Purchased 1978 with Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand funds. Te Papa (1978-0019-1)


MS: You’ve already got some very good works in your permanent collection by Theo Schoon and Ralph Hotere.
JG: And Walters helps make up a ‘triad’ of great modernists. I thought they might bounce off each other but they emerge as three very different artists even though there are some intersections, with Schoon being a mentor to Walters. All of them are absorbed in image-making, of course, and there really is a sense of mutual respect between them.
MS: What about the Walters exhibition itself?
JG: It’s a beautiful body of work and it looks really good. It’s handsome, austere, it’s graphic – his design sense really comes over, after all he worked as a graphic designer. Walters makes you look hard, you want to enter his world – or at least some people do!
MS: So, what has the public response been like? Do people find his abstraction and austerity slightly intimidating?
JG: Not at all, there’s been a great response. People think it’s great to have substantial works by Walters on display. They’ve really taken to them, there’s been no negativity. His visual tricks attract people. He’s not exactly Escher but in his immediately recognisable way, he’s just as compelling.

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View of installation, Gordon Walters: Koru, Eastern Southland Gallery, Gore, 23 April to 6 June 2016


MS: Do people stand hypnotised by the works, realising that they’re far harder than first appears?
JG: I’ve seen them looking hypnotised, and the kids are about to get started on them, I hope they will ‘do’ Walters…
MS: As they would in our own Whare Toi! Now, do the fame and value that Walters enjoys today affect people’s responses?
JG: Yes, definitely. But more important is how Walters looks timeless and cool. It’s like the rest of us have caught up with him. He was doing corporate logos – only it was 1956!
MS: And of course Māori motifs. Tell me, has there been any discussion of Walters’s appropriation of the koru? This was a hot topic 25 years ago.
JG: That seems to be a thing of the past. Schoon of course is revered by Māori. As for Walters and the koru, that was more problematic but what people say today is how obviously the koru is valued in his art, he gets it and shows immense respect. To get to the exhibition you have to pass through a gateway gifted by our kaitiaki, the Hokonui Rūnanga, it’s on their turf. It’s great that the mana of these Te Papa works can be appreciated and shared here.
MS: So you plan to host more touring exhibitions from Te Papa in the future?
JG: You bet, thanks guys!

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