|Visions of Utopia
By James Norcliffe
Art New Zealand Autumn 1999
The images are from the exhibitions "From the Cradle to the Grave" at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts Gallery and "The Future is Now" at the Centre of Contemporary Arts during 1998.
To begin with two anecdotes:
Both Boelee and the Chinese student were and are idealists. And their idealism lies in a deep suspicion of that which would deny expression, equality and security to members of society. Whereas the Chinese student was seeking an alternative to that which dictated that all public expression be filtered through correct state ideology (Oscar Wilde being about as far as he could go), Boelee is motivated by a suspicion of the cynical imperatives of the New Right and how those imperatives are subverting earlier visions of what the society could and should be. The Orwellian nightmare of a static society in which a boot is forever planted on the human face is one he fears.
|Such inter-exhibition juxtapositions are reminders that in Boelee's case the succession of exhibited work we are not seeing the usual progression or development of an artist's style, but more significantly aspects of a total vision, a programme, perhaps. As in the axes of his trademark crosses, the shows present commentaries on the polarities of past and future, optimism and pessimism, idealism and cynicism. His exhibitions abound with linking devices: forms, notably the cross and square, and individual images, notably the Keith Murray derived modernist vase (by the original Crown Lynn).
Superficially, it can be seen that Boelee's art draws from an eclectic mix of influences. The important Dutch movement de Stijl which influenced the Bauhaus is an obvious starting point, perhaps in its best-known exponent Piet Mondrian, echoes of whom are detectable in Boelee's fascination with pattern and geometric form. The geometric forms derive, too, from the Russian Constructivists, the innovative artists, sculptors and set designers of the period following the Russian Revolution. Boelee, too, has been interested in and involved in set design, notably for the Christchurch Free Theatre. In his use of repeated images and colour, suggestive of Warhol's silk screens, can also be seen the influence of the pop movement, although Boelee would deny any connection with the detached and indulgent impulses of the Warhol Factory.
The element in Boelee's art that is most striking, though, is his use of assemblage or collage. He brings together diverse elements all with their own connotations and fabricates striking visual metaphors. In many ways this is more akin to a literary, than an aesthetic device, and quite in keeping with Boelee's view that his art speak to viewers. In a blurb Boelee wrote for his The Future is Now he put it this way: "…The work comments, exhorts, and elaborates on possible directions for improvements to our society…"
True to the collaborative instincts of de Stijl, much of Rudolf Boelee's recent work has been done in conjunction with designers and computer experts, Brian Shields and Craig Stapley, and he warmly acknowledges their contribution to the final shape of the finished work. The collective nature of this work allows Boelee to step back somewhat, ensuring that what it says about the issues is more important that what it says about him. "As I get older," he said in an interview printed in CoCA 9, "the ego becomes less and less important… That's why I like working with other people."
With Shields and Stapley, Rudolf Boelee formed the company Crown Lynn New Zealand, a famous name resurrected as the possibility of using it as a return to the public domain. Their first major collaboration was the 1996 exhibition Crown Lynn New Zealand (A Salvage Operation) at the High Street Project Gallery, Christchurch, a series of retrieved and recontextualized images that were simultaneously reproduced and distributed in multiple postcard-sized sets.
The 1950's has been a rich source for Boelee. In many ways it has been the forgotten era, given the ongoing fascination with the Second World War and the equally magnetic appeal of the Sixties. In the fifties however, in its images and styles, Boelee has discerned a simple optimism and decency which we would disdain at our peril, and in offering comparisons with what we have right now, dares to ask fascinating questions.
It is generally considered smart to sneer at this period. Indeed, the imperative to be fashionable which assaults us from all sides demands we embrace only that which is about to be. The immediate and near past is turned over only for its comic and ironic possibilities. The quality in Rudolf Boelee's work that transcends these facile and cheap ironic possibilities, is the passion behind his vision. Boelee cares about the things we have lost, and frets about the direction the New Right seems to be taking us. He denies nostalgia. He demands we reconsider what once were the assumptions that shaped our society, and equally demands that we question what has replaced them.
Rudolf Boelee does not supply any answers to the questions he raises, although he may hint from time to time. His work is too subtle to be crudely propagandist and he would not arouse the scorn, thereby, of my Chinese student.
And if the problems confronting New Zealand as the millenium arrives are so insurmountable that only Superman, perhaps, could solve them, perhaps the Tianjinese had it right all along.