new zealand electronic poetry centre


Ian Wedde


Killeen as History Painter: Stories without narrative

Auckland Art Gallery seminar for Rick Killeen's survey exhibition, The Stories We Tell Ourselves, 1999.

First of all, my congratulations to Richard Killeen, Francis Pound, and the Auckland Art Gallery for producing a landmark project. Everybody's been in this for the long haul, and among the many qualities that this total project reveals, is the importance in our culture of long-term commitment - not just the individual commitments of the artist to his creative career, or of the art museum to reporting on the condition of the culture, or of the curator to the scholarship necessary to inform that report - but the long-term collective commitment to a respectful relationship in which all contribute to mediating an interpretive space in which the artist and the institution can engage with the reception of the work. 

It is a mark of the maturity and the sympathy of the commitment found in this project, that its curator, Francis Pound, not someone who can be easily associated with the 'affective fallacies' of self-expression, nor with the overbearings of content driven by nationalist agendas - that someone who has in fact led the action against these pufferies of local or subjective content, should now, at the very outset of this project, announce its leading agenda with the title 'Stories we tell ourselves', and the term 'meaning'. 

We know from the wisdom of at least two recent generations of cultural production and its attendant theorising in a broadly Western tradition, that the reception of a work of art is not a supplement to that work, but directly constitutive of its meaning. In other cultural traditions than the broadly Western one, it is hardly necessary to state this. We, however, do from time to time have to dispute the autonomy of art, given the privilege it enjoys as an economy.

We have to reassert the importance of reception as constitutive of the work's meaning, and as the result of the work being brought into the theatre of the museum by the curator. What is produced in this theatre, and what is the outcome of this production, is invariably a discussion about meaning.

Needless to say, Francis Pound is not about to propose a definition of 'meaning' as a fatuous precis substituted for the experience of the work itself. He recognises that the question 'What does this mean?' is a complex one. The measure of its complexity Francis finds in a neat aphorism of Killeen's: 'The subject matter of these paintings is a story without narrative.'

A story without narrative: this is about as succinct a definition of allegory as we could hope to find. I want now to go on to think about Killeen as a 'history painter', working with great dexterity the history painter's allegorical mode.


I don't want to get too pedantic here and tie us down with definitions of allegory. We know that allegory is, fundamentally, the narrative treatment of one subject under the guise of another. It is more important, I think, to look at a couple of the principle gearing mechanisms of allegory, how it does that treatment-of-one-thing-under-the-guise-of-another business.

First of all, allegory is primarily a mode of classicism - that is, its appeal is more to the intellect than to the senses - or, its appeal to the senses is a refined one, intended to provoke thought rather than rioting. The allegory is a kind of puzzle, and its meaning is constituted by puzzling rather than by emoting. The mode of reception of the allegory is likely to be: puzzling out its meaning. Of course, this becomes less true when allegory falls into the hands of the pious or the sententious, one of the weaknesses we can honestly disclose in the work of CF Goldie, for example, whose 'absent signified' or 'thing-under-the-guise' was a message about Maori as a dying race.

Secondly, an allegory is, as Killeen has defined it for us, a 'story without narrative': that is, while there may seem to be a narrative proposed as the allegory's first term, such as the rape of Lucretia, the second term of the allegory, that is the meaning of its puzzle, its 'thing-under-the-guise' or 'absent signified', for example 'female virtue', is invariably presented as a kind of tableau or diorama, where symbol rather than action is paramount, where the story is frozen in an arrangement of poses, and also frozen in time, rather than animated by time-based actions. The prevailing sense we have in painted allegories is of time standing still, of an arrangement of elements or symbols whose relationships to each other are more important than any sense of movement between them. If allegories are stories without narrative, they are stories told in and by the posed arrangements of their elements, and not by any sense of movement or progression between those elements. In allegory, nothing is going anywhere, especially the story: you get the point of it by puzzling out what this arrangement means, what those immobilised gestures are pointing at. And one way of doing the puzzling, is by doing the arranging as well: the classical allegory, by moving the pieces of the puzzle around in your mind; in Killeen's allegories, by moving the pieces around on the wall as well.

Slide (1): Woman dancing in blue, 1969

Woman dancing in blue
1969, oil on hardboard
Collection of the artist

If what I've said so far makes sense, then we'd expect Francis Pound's interpretation of the paintings of Richard Killeen to disclose a number of allegorical story-headings, and indeed this happens. 

Stories of place: under sub-headings of nationalism, landscape, and national identity, Francis Pound shows how Killeen puzzles us with the meaning of belonging.

Stories of gender: Killeen puzzles us with the politics of difference.

Stories of war: Killeen puzzles us with the meaning of war - as Pound writes, 'War is inextricably in New Zealand, riddling it to the very heart.'

Stories of his own art: Killeen puzzles us with the meaning of his heterogeneous self.

Stories of the self: Killeen puzzles us with the meaning of his authorship - his signature, if you like.

The trick in all of these, is to recognise that not one of these 'stories' substitutes for the work of art. With them, Francis Pound has provided us with keys in, with clues, to the allegorical experiences which the works offer. You still have to go there and, armed with your key or clue, do the puzzle for yourself.

Time to change male institutionalised war
pencil, acrylic, collage on .5 aluminium
Collection of Peter and Anne Webb

What you will find, even after attempting to put together the conglomerate puzzle-pieces of the artist's entire oeuvre, as this exhibition proposes, is that there is no closure in any of these 'stories', there are not conclusions you can walk away with, even where it is clear enough that Killeen's own conclusions appear to be blunt, for example, that it is 'Time to get rid of male institutionalised war'. In this, Killeen's allegories are like certain classical Old Master models, for example Andrea Sacchi's Allegory of Divine Wisdom in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. In Sacchi's allegory, we do indeed discover a conclusion: that there is divine wisdom - but what this wisdom is, how it acts, what is its relation to the orb of the earth, what is the significance of the Divine gesture towards the earth - the meanings of these parts of the puzzle are frozen in the tableau, and we have to return again and again to an exploration of its parts. What we discover in the repeated explorations, is the allegory's refusal to conclude - in a sense, the movement that is immobilised in the tableau of the allegory is given to us to further. What goes on, is our quest for meaning. What is empowered above all by the allegory, is the process of its reception: the on-going, the infinite reconstitution of its meaning by the puzzlers who come to it.

Slide (2) Black Grid, 1978

What you will also find, as you come optimistically to Killeen's allegories with Pound's clues, is that these puzzles have been constructed within a very particular history, and within a very particular moment in the continuum of that history. I don't want to call this history an 'art history', because I think that to do so would beg a number of questions which Killeen, in particular, continues to want to ask. 

History painting

In an essay called 'History Painting: Paintings of History' which Tony Green wrote for the Now See Hear! Project in 1990, he posited two very succinct pieces of definition: of istoria, 'the old master kind' of history painting, as being 'not the painting of historical event'. A history painting of this kind, said Tony next, pitching us towards allegory, 'is one that involves the representation of figures who can be identified with those of a classical literary text, for example Homer, or the Bible.' Further on, he reiterated that "The 'absent signified' of the history picture is not actual people or events, primarily or exclusively, but the various texts: Ovid, Homer, the Bible ..." - which is where I've gone to borrow the useful term 'absent signified'.

These definitions of Tony's help us towards a necessary rigour. We have to distinguish between history painting (without quotation marks) of the Old Master kind, as Tony calls it, for example the paintings of Raphael or Poussin, in which meaning is almost wholly constructed as allegory; paintings of historical subjects or events, for example the paintings of official war artists, in which meaning is almost wholly constructed as representation, with only meagre extrusions of allegory such as 'war is suffering' and 'heroism is good'; and paintings whose 'absent signified' is a kind of acute historical consciousness, not found in or as a specific text such as the Bible, nor in historical representation as such, but the key driver of meaning in the work nonetheless - a kind of painting very familiar to us in New Zealand, exemplified brilliantly in the work of Michael Shepherd.

Let's now look at the history, which we are not calling an 'art history', in which Killeen is 'at home', so to speak - that history whose mode of allegorical history painting is driven and made puzzling primarily by the 'lost signified' of an acute historical consciousness.

There is a space of negotiation between document and construct which is where our colonial visual culture was able to begin - rather like a clearing in the bush which inaugurates a kind of opportunist growth. 

Julian Dashper, in a note for the 'Cultural Safety' project of 1995, noted that, 'Images brought into this country were held up to us as examples in slides. Now it seems obvious to me to start sending them back that way.' i Dashper's comment also captures the sense in which images of New Zealand were first transmitted to Europe as scientific samples, specimens, and the graphic records of voyages of exploration. We can now see how the art of Europe that had been influenced by such images was returned as reproductions; how this exchange continues.

From the first returns to Europe of European imaging of the Pacific and of what would be New Zealand, for example in the refined and calligraphic elegance of Isaac Gilsemanns' coastal profiles, there began to be a space of visual negotiation, already tending to allegory, between the pragmatic work of visually representing what was being discovered, often with or for the accompaniment of text; and imaginative recreations of the discoveries and their narratives. The space of negotiation also had a compelling literary pre-history. This text, ripe for use as Tony Green's 'absent signified' of an antipodean istoria, is well captured in the fact that the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bourgainville, arriving back in France in 1769 after voyaging in the Pacific, had on board a young Tahitian man, Aotouru, who was referred to as 'Man Friday', while Bourgainville was known as the 'nouveau Robinson'.ii 

This space between the pragmatic document and the imaginative construct, so ripe for allegory, and already well stocked with the 'absent signifieds' of literary texts, was complicated in the later half of the eighteenth century by the arrival of Romanticism.

The interplay between art as Romantic representation, and art as empirical record, became a basic grammar of New Zealand visual history. We find tensions between picturesque views and ethnographic records (Augustus Earle, 1827), 

Slide (3) Augustus Earle, Mourning over the bones of a dead chief, 1927

between panoramic surveyor sketches and Romantic landscape conventions (Sir William Fox, 1840s), between the documentary records by military watercolourists and conventions of travelogue sketching (E.A Williams, 1860s), between Sublime views and settler propaganda (John Gully, 1880s).

Elements of this grammar can be sourced in the Enlightenment project of Cook's artists. The Scottish artist Sydney Parkinson began to paint flowers for Sir Joseph Banks in 1765, in which year he exhibited a painting of flowers on silk at the Free Society of Arts Exhibition in London. On Cook's first voyage, commissioned by Banks, Parkinson drew botanical specimens; but also coastal profiles, Maori subjects, details of Maori implements and ornamentation, and landscape views. The ghosts of texts, both fictional narratives and scientific briefs, which are the 'absent signified' of New Zealand's visual history, are joined at this early stage by themes of natural history observation, cartography and topography, ethnographic recording, and the kind of picturesque subject-matter associated with the then fashionable 'grand tour', especially of Italy. In the case of the precocious Charles Heaphy, the non-aesthetic intention of the coastal profile became overlaid in itself with the Grand Tour agendas which had been part of his education. Heaphy's Coastal profiles from Mt Egmont to Queen Charlotte Sound (c.1842)iii is a charming example of this folding-together of the functional and the aesthetic.

Richard Killeen's practice of making artworks as boxed ('Solandered') multiples, infolds a visual history of samples and specimens, as do the sculptural installations of Christine Hellyar. Bill Hammond's paintings have included sardonic references to the nineteenth century ornithological artist Sir Walter Lawry Buller, referred to by Bill as a 'bird stuffer', and have also contained phantoms of coastal profiles. The iteration of Maori decorative and ceremonial motifs in the works of Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters has ancestry in the often-reproduced watercolour of 1769 by Sydney Parkinson of decorated Maori canoe paddles, now in the British Library. iv Ruth Watson has referenced cartography in ways that explicitly recall and dispute the 'Imperial Project' and its centring of power in the European metropolis. References to surveying, conveyancing, and other land-transaction documentations have informed the work of many contemporary New Zealand artists including Robert Ellis, Pauline Rhodes, Michael Shepherd, and Peter Robinson, to name only a very few. 

This historical sense may seem to be primarily postmodern. However, New Zealand's visual history traffic in copies and reproductions reaches from the neo-classical 'versioning' by Giovanni Battista Cipriani of Cook voyage imagesv (scornfully criticised by George Forster), through the magazine and book reproductions which educated a generation of Modernist artists in New Zealand, including Milan Mrkusich, to the situation quoted above, in which Julian Dashper was preparing work for exhibition in Frankfurt in 1995.

For the record

Dashper's mention of 'slides' is instructive, because it speaks very directly to a modern condition that is already anticipated in the kind of history outlined above, a history which prepared a space for art to work in between document and construct. The requirement of artists to do the work of documentation at the frontiers of Imperial exploration in the eighteenth century in a sense anticipates photography in the nineteenth. Conversely, much nineteenth century photography aspired to the imaginative condition of art - for example, the 'sublime' views of Dusky Sound by Alfred Burton, or George Chance's lansdcapes. Just as the supposed objectivity of photography in fact disclosed a suppressed aspiration to the imaginative condition of art, so, in the case of a Romantic like George Forster in the eighteenth century, the requirement for objective record was always implicated with the desire for Romantic representation.

There is a sense in which Richard Killeen has not only played with the tension in this historical consciousness, but also played with its modernity - its life since photography. The definiteness, the specificity, the objectivity of almost all Killeen's individual representations, resemble not only the specimen-like records of natural history or ethnographic artists of the Enlightenment, they also resemble a kind of photography - a sense of an image shot, rather than made, of a document rather than a construct. The fact that much of Killeen's practice has been in and with the computer is surely relevant at this point.

The sign of Killeen's modernity, however, is that his historical consciousness seems to reverse the charges on the tension between document and construct which we have sourced somewhere in the Enlightenment Project of the eighteenth century. Where Parkinson and Forster could not resist their impulse to construct as well as document, causing the language of supposedly objective science to enter the subjective lexicon of art, Killeen wishes somehow to make the subjective language of art perform within the objective rigour of science, for example the rigour of photographic record, and in particular the record of the slide, as Dashper calls it, the record of the storable visual specimen, now of course available as a digital file.

Slide (4) Black Insects Red Primitives, 1980

But it gets international

It's important at this point to resist the implication that the 'historical consciousness' I've spoken of, that consciousness of an evolving play in the space between document and construct, that space so ripe for allegory and therefore for kinds of 'history painting' - to resist the implication that this historical consciousness is exclusively local and exclusively invested in local content.

Just as there was a global condition in the eighteenth century which the Imperial Project could allegorise in neo-classical terms as 'the Course of Empire'(where the allegory begins to shift steadily towards an ambiguous interplay between record and construct), so there is another global condition in the late twentieth century, which Richard Killeen can allegorise in terms of art (where the autonomy of modern art begins to shift once again towards other varieties of visual evidence: the ethnographic, the scientific, the archaeological, etc). 

Even the packaging of Killeen's cutouts in 'solander boxes' speaks to this global condition: these specimens are packed to go. While the origins of the historical consciousness I've been speaking of are local, and involve the artist in issues of local content, the general condition within which this consciousness makes sense is a global one.

The sign of this global condition is the museum. This is the obvious destination of the solander box.

In the museum

There is a sense in which Killeen's cutouts are in themselves little museums. In the museum, there is always a tension between the document and the construct - between objects and stories. There is always an acute historical consciousness which is striving to live in the present, to bring a contemporary memory to bear on the archive. The museum is an overpoweringly allegorical space: it is filled with many objects that are standing before 'absent signifieds', to relocate Tony Green's term yet again. The objects in a museum are motionless, and in fact never more so than when they are animated as film or video, because then they simply repeat themselves endlessly. The meanings of these objects, to which curators give us clues, are also constituted by the reception of them by audiences who move among them. It is the movement of these audiences which constantly rearrange the immobile allegories, the tableaux of parts. No narrative is safe from this rearranging movement: not only does this audience move around and in doing so reorder the dispositions of specimens, its eyes also roam promiscuously. These eyes can never be sure that they should believe what they can see. The more the museum asserts objectivity and materiality, the more the audience is likely to experience incongruity and metaphor.

I have spoken of history painting as being posed, of being 'blocked', as we say in theatre. I've also spoken of the museum as a theatre in which the discussion of the meaning of works of art is produced.

If Killeen's cutouts are little museums, they are also little theatres. They are theatres in which a particular global story is told. 

Slide (5): 'From the Cairo Museum' 1985

This museum was constructed in the first instance by and for the West's antiquarianism, its need to believe in a progressive global history in which the Antique represented a point of historical commencement, and in which the Imperial Civilisations of the west, including their skills of archaeology and ethnology, represented a cultural destination which history was perfecting. Museums like the Cairo Museum represent an historical process through which the Imperial Project has been folded back into those places from which it plundered endorsements of its world view.

Killeen's fascination with museums, the fact that he makes art that is like them, and the fact that his image banks are in themselves like the vast hidden storehouses of museum collections, all tell us that his acute historical consciousness is predicated above all on an intensely political sense of the mobility of the image: that in its traffics, we will discover the shifts and relocations of power, and that the best way to capture that mobility and those power shifts is to immobilise the image in an allegory and empower the reception of it by a restlessly moving audience. 

The picture show:

What follows is a sampler of images which, while they might have been incorporated in the body of the text above, are (for me at least) all the more striking for being run together. Even allowing for the fact that I can manipulate this narrative by my selection of images (thus constructing a history very like an 'art history'), there is nonetheless a narrative coherence in this kind of sequence which could be put together using any number of different specimens.

However, I am not proposing this particular version of a generic narrative in order to assert some kind of authorised (this word needs to be read with a keen lexical eye) version; but rather to say, it is a mark of Killeen's sensitivity, complexity, and personal integrity, that such evidence of an 'acute historical consciousness' can be assembled. I am glad that this evidence does not presume to define Killeen, but rather shows that both his own thoughtfulness, and his belief in the thoughtfulness of his 'puzzlers', can be seen in an historical context which constantly extends beyond the borders of a modern art history founded on professional connoisseurship.

Additional slide images:

John Webber, Captain James Cook, 1775

John Francis Rigaud, JRG Forster at Tahiti, 1780

Richard Killeen, George Forster, Naturalist, 1980

Augustus Earle, Trajan inconsolable after the Battle of Ctesiphon, c. 1827

Augustus Earle, The Meeting of the Artist and the Wounded Chief Hongi, 1827

James McDonald, Group of Volunteers, Gisborne hui, c. 1930

Margaret Dawson, Colonial Vision and the Admiration of David ... with the Artist meeting the Wounded Ch in the background, 1987

Rita Angus, Self Portrait, 1937

Rita Angus, Rutu, 1951

Air NZ logo, McCann Erickson Goldberg, 1973

Colin McCahon, The Canoe Tainui, 1969

Johann Forster, 5 clubs of Tanna, 1774

Richard Killeen, Welcome to the South Seas, 1979

Peter Robinson, Painting, 1993

Ronnie van Hout, Voodoo, 1987

i Julian Dashper, artist's note in Cultural Safety: contemporary art from New Zealand, Gregory Burke and Peter Weiermair eds, City Gallery and Frankfurter Kunstverein, 1995, 35.
ii Duchesse de Choiseul to Pierre Jacques Claude Dupuits, [20 Mar.] 1769, in Voltaire, Correspondence, xxiv (Banbury, 1974), 352.
iii Charles Heaphy, Coastal profiles from Mt Egmont to Queen Charlotte Sound, c. 1842, watercolour, 385x495 mm, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
iv Sydney Parkinson, Three Maori Canoe paddles from Cook's first voyage, c.1769, wash and watercolour, 115/8 x 9 in. British Library, Add. MS 23920, f.71a .
v For example, the neo-classical version of Sydney Parkinson's original field drawings for A View of the inside of a house in the Island of Ulietea, with the representation of a dance to the music of the country, engraving after Cipriani by Bartolozzi, in Hawkesworth, Voyages (1773), ii, pl.7.

Ian Wedde 

Last updated 11 May 2001