Ironic, elegiac epitaph to yesterday's
Utopian ideals
Rudolf Boelee  "Visions of Utopia"

High Street Project, Christchurch
Left Bank Art Gallery, Greymouth
Aigantighe Art Gallery, Timaru
Eastern Southland Gallery, Gore
Southland Museum and Art Gallery, Invercargill
Manawatu Art Gallery, Palmerston North

Review:  Justin Paton.

Not so long ago, art was going to change the world. In the glittery schemes of idealists like the Russian constructivists, art would be the catalyst of social reform, and the very mortar of a new Utopia. Yet it never happened. History intervened, shattering such innocent hopes.

Rudolf Boelee's pithy show, 'Visions of Utopia', speaks straight to the nub of this dilemma. few shows have held the High Street space so well. Boelee's big, bright, iconic works comprise groups of wooden tablets, deployed in chequerboard or cruciform patterns, and screen-printed in ultra-bright synthetic colours. They pack a big visual wallop, but that is not all.

Two tragic histories intersect within these works, and it helps if you know the sources. First, there is the history of the Utopian art movements of the early 20th century, whose pristine geometries Boelee recalls through the use of the cruciform format. Second, there is the history of Michael Savage's labour government, whose hopes for a land of milk and honey Boelee recalls in the desperately cheerful screen-printed daisies that fill these works. So, from the emblems of a failed Utopia to the images of a heartbroken socialism, from Russia in the early 20th century to New Zealand at the same time, Boelee traces a telling arc. We are led to see the old new Zealand fantasy of a pastoral paradise alongside the constructivist fantasy of a revolutionary paradise and it is a deeply sardonic comparison. Sardonic, because the generosity and optimism of that moment begins to look more and more noble from the vantage of our own bitter political times.

The show has its slack points. There are derivations, for sure - Warhol for those repetitive silk-screens, Gilbert and George for those massive, intensely coloured floral tablets. And, as always when art has an axe to grind, there is a nagging sense that we are being told what we already know. But Boelee's show is launched beyond these gripes by the resonance and concision of its historical analogies, and its against-the-wall humour.

Like so many artists right now, Boelee is composing an ironic-elegiac epitaph to yesterday's tragically high ideals, a memorial to an era that was less knowing but also less cynical. 'Visions of Utopia' springs from a reluctant recognition that art today must make do among the husks of those big hopes. Still, it is here, deep in the rubble of old ideals, that art may find its feet.

Rudolf Boelee Exhibition

August 17, 1994

Reviewed by Warren Feeney

Rudolf Boelee's 'Vision of Utopia' at Greymouth's Left Bank art gallery looks at the aspirations of the Russian Constructivist art movement early this century, linking their sense of morality and socialist values firmly with Michael Joseph Savage's Labour Party in New Zealand.

Both sought equality amongst humanity and both, in the context of the 1990's have failed. Boelee quotes randomly from the Constructivist world, utilizing their concerns with geometry in the screen-printed boxed forms on display, mixed with portraits of constructivist artists.

Boelee also demonstrates a good sense of the amoral by quoting equally from pop artist Andy Warhol.

The passionately spiritual and utopian visions of the Russian Constructivists could not be more different from the superficial stylish concerns of the New York artist. This unusual mixture does, however, largely succeed.

The Russian Constructivists wanted art to be closely linked to the needs and aspirations of working people. They called for the abolition of art galleries, with their capitalist pretensions, and praised the work of house painters. The desire for art to have real meaning in the life of humanity was closely linked to the rise of communism in Russia.

They shared some of this socialist vision with the labour movement in New Zealand in the 1920's and 1930's.

Boelee makes this point well in 'Red Cross' constructing a poignant and moving image. Assembled around a cross, Boelee combines Warhol's flowers with a promotional picture of Michael Savage. The familiarity of this image to New Zealanders makes it as powerful to them as any of Warhol's art images are to the international art world.

The combination of cross, flower, and deceased socialist, surrounded by two equally large artworks, 'Japanese Paradise' and 'Paradise no.1' makes this exhibition worthwhile. There is sense of profound and tragic loss, made all the more touching by placing it within the walls of an institution the constructivists hoped would no longer be needed. Boelee conveys a sense of something precious that has been lost. He also gives this a much more powerful meaning by placing it in such local context. The work is firmly balanced between New Zealand identity, and international art.

'Vanitas' is also a work of strength dealing with imagery of time and death firmly organized in a geometric grid. Boelee plays off this inevitable monotonous composition with a rich variety of colours. It is when Boelee is dealing with these and other "weighty" issues that his work at its most successful. The more firmly it is placed within the political and utopian, the more personal and human it is.