As new as I am to the Christchurch art scene, I have to admit
that Paul John (formerly Paul Johns) has the kind of reputation
which precedes actual knowledge of his work. The epitaph of being
the "Warhol of Canterbury" along with numerous stories as to John's
association with Andy, and the real reason why he sold his very
own Warhol, all coloured my perception of the type of work I could
expect. Which is why I was surprised to find at Campbell Grant Galleries
a group of works that affected me quite deeply and didn't seem to
owe anything to any luminaries other than those they depicted.
The portraits in question possessed a deceptive grandeur. I assumed
I was looking at famous people, so archetypal were their poses and
faces. In fact, they were members of John's family, or his friends.
The only real 'figure' of note was a rather amphibious latter-day
Kenneth Anger, somewhat comically super-imposed with an image of
Jesus Christ, and even more comically titled Pity about Sharon.
What drew me to the works as a whole was their all-pervading darkness,
each more reminiscent of a shroud than dedicated to distilling the
essence of a living being. More than Warhol, I was reminded of Joel-Peter
Witkin, whose works occupy the same interior arenas of desire and
despair. But rather than excessive tableaux of the mindlessly morbid,
John's had here managed to imbue an almost religious, mediative
feeling to his paired-down subjects, each becoming an intimate icon,
presenting a road through the canvas to somewhere else.
Decay as something precious and personal made itself felt, with
John's consistent use of old frames, some of which were in a state
of total disrepair, as if they had just been dug up from an archeological
site. Many of the images were flecked with the residue of a celluloid
origin, the scratches in film becoming a kind of code for 'love-worn,'
a short-hand for the ravages of time.
With each of these images, Benjamin's notion that a loss of aura
accompanies reproduction seemed groundless. This is the first time
for a long time that I have felt a distinct sense of presence when
confronted by the imprint of a visage. Maybe Lucifer was rising,
what with Kenneth in the room.
The mood was quite different at the still stare, the Grant
Banbury curated Paul John retrospective at the School of Fine Arts
Gallery. Here, the comparison to Warhol was screamingly clear, perhaps
too clear. Copycat works with local models, for instance Judith
Gifford and Barbara Lee (dating back to 1981) were a giggle, but
Grant Banbury did well to make the defining moment of John's oeuvre
the portrait, and I benefited having the 'gaps filled.' The work
appeared to me, in the twenty years of its evolution, to have two
major categories, the faddish and the sublime. The former included
a range of experiments with novelty frames, along with more brazen
homages to Warhol. But then there were the surprise works, such
as the group of polaroids from a film still which appeared to depict
a woman in the process of becoming an angel. Or the startlingly
good photographs of three young sisters from a local family in the
simplest of formats.
I found the groupings of disembodied facial features the most exciting
works in this show, seeming to be on the edge of something quite
monumental and enduring. But the overall feeling I took with me,
was again, something fundamentally sad. The slightly askew nature
of the group hangings, the sagging frame of Solitaire, all
seemed to speak of a vision too introverted for monuments. John's
work, even in its prime, recalls fragmented findings, the only ever
partial success of archeological digging in the human psyche.
4 September 1997