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:
One.  In China in the late eighties, my wife Joan Melvyn and our children cycled across the city of Tianjin to see Superman II which had been released with Chinese subtitles. We had been living in China for over a year and this was a rare chance for the kids to see a Western film. The final scene of Superman, having saved the world from catastrophe, flying high above a gleaming cityscape holding Old Glory aloft to the strains of surging orchestral patriotism was so delightfully over the top it reduced Joan to helpless laughter. She was the only one in the packed auditorium to laugh. A couple of hundred local Tianjinese failed to detect any irony and stared with open-mouthed acceptance of the scene.

Two.  Also in China. I was teaching English literature at Nankai University. Relatively late one evening there was a guarded knock at the door and a youngish man introduced himself. He had cycled several miles especially to talk to me because he had heard there was a Westerner teaching English and perhaps I could help him. He was from a technological university and studying science. His passion, however, was literature. He had looked around apprehensively and the situation became a little cloak and daggerish. Could I help him source some articles on a writer? Clearly the writer was somewhat subversive.  Perhaps, I said. The Foreign Languages Department did have bibliographical resources into academic papers and journals. Who was it?

Oscar Wilde, he whispered.

Even in the China of Deng Xiao Peng , Oscar Wilde was a dangerous thinker. Art for art's sake was an insidious doctrine which could white ant at the foundations of what was normative, what was permitted, in Communist Chinese art and expression.

It would have been good to have been able to introduce my unknown visitor (I never learnt his name) to Rudolf Boelee. At first glance they would seem to have little in common, and certainly between the aesthetics of Oscar Wilde and the aesthetics of Comrade Mao there is a substantial gulf. There is however a middle way between the monitory monuments of the state and the hands-behind-your back formalism of what could be termed meta-art.  A host of middle ways, of course. Boelee's way is that of the engaged social critic and commentator.

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.

Rudolf Boelee was born in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, as the Second World War was engulfing Europe. His early memories include the sight of neighbours being forcibly taken away by the agents of an all-powerful state apparatus when the Netherlands was under Nazi occupation.

After some years at sea he arrived in New Zealand in 1963, the heyday of the welfare state, and he came to enjoy the somewhat old-fashioned lifestyle and egalitarian qualities he found here, the relaxed enterprise of the do-it-yourself generation.

His painting career began in the late sixties, and he began to exhibit sporadically through the seventies and eighties. The last few years however have seen an intensity of production and a series of important thematically linked exhibitions almost exclusively in South Island galleries. These shows have included Visions of Utopia, Things to Come, From the Cradle to the Grave,  and just recently at the Centre of Contemporary Arts in Christchurch The Future is Now.

The titles are significant, drawn variously from the ideas of the first NZ Labour Government of the 1930's, from H.G. Wells, and from George Orwell. The names of the exhibitions also reflect the poles of optimism and pessimism which inform Boelee's vision. Boelee's preoccupations centre on society, of society's past ideals and present realities, the what-might-have-been and the what-is, and the gulf between them. His works bring together images and occasionally texts that exemplify and comment.

Boelee uses collage, scale, and colour to recontextualize and lead his viewers to reconsider his selected images, images which are a part, often, of our common background. The benign face of Michael Joseph Savage in both Visions of Utopia and From the Cradle to the Grave smiles gently as it once did from tens of thousands of mantelpieces, but now coloured, enlarged, repeated, at times under a superimposed grid of geometric lines and arranged in a cruciform on a gallery wall. The railway cups, stolid and reassuring, and gone. The flag.

Other images are drawn from that which was once precious and relatively private: lost photograph albums, forgotten pictorial fragments and text.  Here the transformation into giant larger-than-life representations, often spread strip-fashion over several 'canvases' has the effect of generalising and identification, giving as much a charge of recognition as do the iconic images of Savage or Upham or Yvette Williams. We know these people, these clothes, these shoes.

Juxtaposed with the 1950's home grown, exemplified by the boy from Christchurch East school and the legs of the visitors to the Hawera Agricultural and Pastoral Show of the Cradle to the Grave, specifically in The Future is Now are the more monumental icons drawn from Fascist Italy's tributes to itself. These images and others are recontextualised with the "Seven Essential Strengths" for New Zealand drawn from a recent Ministry of Commerce manifesto/mission statement, and these strengths (integrity, innovation, commitment, et al) are themselves recontextualised by being laid over tukutuku patterns.

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.