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ART NEW ZEALAND / issue 187    

JACQUI COLLEYWe Played Here Once 

Orexart, 6 June - 1 July 2023

In Jacqui Colley’s We played here once both heart and mind are on show. Each painting is more than just one thing; the artist’s layers of pigment create works that are multifarious and profound. They deal in dichotomies that are, on the surface of things, contradictory. They have backgrounds that are tranquil, washes of colour that create a mood of floaty suspension.

Their foregrounds are the result of vigorous brush movements, almost as if the artist has stabbed the canvas, disturbing the pervasive peace she created with the previous layers. Those backgrounds hold an air of intention, of preparation and calculation; those foregrounds speak of spontaneity, a direct connection between hand and soul, a short circuit that avoids the intellect. The backgrounds are dauby and timeless; the foregrounds intense and climatic. The paintings seem to bloom from Colley’s restricted palette, both individually and across the exhibition, glowing as if to reach beyond their colouristic boundaries.

  The background of Azo, for example, is painted thin and wash-like, dreamy, lush and calming, a sensation abetted by the visible tooth of the canvas, in places, the languid trails of dripped paint, surprisingly horizontal. Its foreground is a tangle of gesture, its vigour at odds with the all-over resolution and balance of the painting. The foreground also provides a focus, an area of intensity and contrast, as if we are looking at an object through a filter labeled ‘abstract’; for all the artist’s adherence to abstraction the central focus means the work takes on the formal qualities of a still-life or a portrait. It looks like the painting of a thing, even if there is no thing there.

  The palette is green, verging on yellow, like it is late summer and the world is heavy with sap; the approach of autumn will provide a release from this weight-bearing fruitfulness.
The foreground’s palette is the opposite— it is upright and evergreen, untouched by the seasons, shadowy, not translucent. The top left corner is left almost unpainted, as if neglected, providing an anchor from which the rest of the painting—dreamy, intense, washed, assaulted—hangs.

  Sedimentary uses a similar colour scheme to Azo, but with more variation in the greens—there is a greater shift from dark to light, as if Colley was painting en plein air, where she could replicate the variety of the New Zealand bush. Magenta Remains takes on the other dominant colour scheme in this exhibition—its use of pinks and lilacs, combined with creamy sheen, makes it gleam like the lining of a hat box. Arpeggio uses a similar palette, and adds depth with violet and rust colours. The title work is the most vigorous in the room, its rusty brushstrokes evoking a vapour trail of seesaws and swings.

  We played here once—Colley’s second solo show at Orexart—is an extremely satisfying suite of paintings that expresses the artist’s depth of experience and willingness to experiment. Deliberation— thought, contemplation, care—is at the heart of her practice and is a joy to see; so, too, the lack of it, when she lets the heart take over.



Jacqui Colley’s artworks are dynamic acts of painting. Each painting is a coherent visual statement within which are embedded moments of deliberation, serendipity, and the somatic experience of making. Colley’s initial art training was in Cape Town, under a curriculum weighted towards the extensive expressionist traditions of Europe and the US. This early exposure to artists such as Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell provided a visual and experiential framework upon which Colley has built her own painting practice.

Colley’s practice sits within a rich lineage of past and present New Zealand artists who have embraced expression in both figurative and abstract practices. Expressionist painting seeks to capture an experience of a subject rather than provide a faithful reproduction of reality. The experience might be emotional or psychological, sensory or spiritual and is intended to provoke similar responses in the viewer: McCahon’s spare North Otago scenes are contemplative and lonely, Robert Ellis’ Auckland cityscapes are frenetic tangles of pulsing arterial roads. Chaotic, unsettling energy writhes through the domestic scenes and self-portraits of Jeffrey Harris and Philip Clairmont.

Abstract expressionism took this a step further. With figurative suggestion stripped away, the experience of the painting is immediate and unclouded by external references. Embracing this style does not erase the artist, rather the content of each artwork is the unmediated essence of the artist laid bare: the painter’s presence, and process, is integral to the subject matter.

In 1952, Harold Rosenberg coined the term “action painting” and described the canvas as “an arena in which to act”. In Aotearoa, Allan Maddox (1948-2000) and Judy Millar made this arena their own. Characterised by a contemporary as a painter who “danced” as he painted, Allan Maddox’ canvases are shaped by the rhythms and repetitions of grids and X’s. They stake a defiant claim to space, providing the most fundamental artist’s signature. Millar continues to revel in the act of painting and the actions of paint; she comments that “without our body we don’t exist, this to me is our experience of the world and this is what paintings can directly address.” Millar’s paintings are overt and intimate expressions of material presence, and her painterly actions are deeply embedded in her works.

Jacqui Colley’s practice has this same materiality; her paintings are rich with movement and it is impossible to see them without being aware on some level of the somatic expression of the artist. Her most recent body of work explores the fundamental elements of painting: pigment, movement, composition. Referencing geological processes that grind, scour, and compress landforms over unimaginable timelines, these works (with titles such as Rhodonite, Serpentine, Red Oxide) are muscular and dense. Layers of line and mark are fractured and broken, replicating in human time the dynamic creation of place on a crystalline level.

Colley’s large scale paintings require constant shifts in perspective and the back-and-forth needed to fully experience her works describes in spatial terms the conceptual relationship between the viewer and the artist.

From a distance, it is possible to experience the work as a whole, self-contained object, and to search out the hidden rhythms of absence and presence in Colley’s composition. ‘Visual islands’ may appear, providing painted moments of respite for the eyes, or acting as signposts to traversing the visual plain. With the entirety of the canvas in view, it becomes clear how this looping arc of colour is essential to the structure of the work or how those staccato brushstrokes disrupt the painted surface.

At close range these elements disappear and are replaced with a vivid and intimate sensory experience of the work. The material properties of viscosity and opacity, texture and colour demand attention. The ways in which the paint clings to and stains the surface, and the observable textures of a stiffened brush or sponges intensify the overall experience of the artwork. Colley describes this as “a sort of organised chaos” that ultimately records the nexus of the artist’s gestures and the action of the paint.

Like Judy Millar, Colley works into the painted surface, rubbing and scraping at pigment and scoring through layers of paint. Millar’s technique has been described as “painting backwards”, where she finds a balance between the deliberate and the spontaneous. Colley’s negative mark-making is an integral part of the process of creating through experimentation and risk-taking; like a sculptor releasing the form from the stone, she manipulates the surface to find the painting.

Part of this manipulation is the restricted palette Colley employs. Colour is an essential, but ancillary, element of the painted object. It expands or contracts visual space, blurs or delineates structure, but is not intended to be the primary focus of the artwork. Like a bassline running counterpoint to melody, Colley uses colour to accentuate her painting without overwhelming it.

Every mark on a painting’s surface is the result of a decision-making process in which a myriad possibilities have been pruned down - consciously or not - to one gestural moment. US abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler describes how failed efforts lead to “one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronized with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore [the painting] looks as if it were born in a minute.”

In a similar way Colley describes how the dynamic within her works is something that occurs in response to the act of painting itself: thought/act/outcome are not discrete but simultaneous. She eschews deliberate thought processes, relying instead on a creative process that draws upon intuition and the providence of an instant. Echoes of automatism combine with the immediacy of physical action as Colley follows "the sensation of the work unfolding". This extends to the rotation the canvases as she works with them as a means of disrupting the mind’s unending search for recognisable patterns to follow.

Based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Jacqui Colley’s paintings are informed by continual observations of the environment around her: they are distillations of her experience of place. Colley’s acts of painting express place as a series of imagined spaces where her intentions and the reactions of the viewer meet. This blurring of time and space opens possibilities and suggests potential readings of works without clearly defined boundaries. Mediated through the material object itself, it is in these discursive gaps that meaning gathers and accumulates.

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