New Paintings from One of New Zealand's Leading Artists
Stanley loves the George Orwell quote about ‘pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information’ and is full of interesting bits and pieces. A chat about artistic rivalry leads to an explanation of the phrase ‘back-biting’, which comes from the banned practice of dogs biting each other’s spinal cords in dog fighting.
This leads to a discussion about one of Cervantes’ short story, ‘The Dog’s Colloquy’ which is about two dogs that can magically speak to each other on Christmas Eve, written by the author of Don Quixote. Stanley’s wide knowledge is partly a legacy of his time as a teacher, before becoming a full-time artist in 1970.
I visited Stanley at his home of forty years in Mt Eden, a couple of weeks before his new show, Chart of the Far North, was due to open and his house was littered with his work. The latest paintings are landscapes of beaches in the far north of New Zealand; the colours are intense blues and greens that almost glow. On the day I arrived they were all standing on their side, which made them look like abstracts; Stanley said, “Well I always paint a bit upside down. I like them to be abstract. Abstract and real at the same time. Hopefully. People say a lot of those old painters like Vermeer are realistic, but they’re not. You know, he could make them completely abstract and completely real. I can’t make them that real!” Each painting is matched with a literary quote, though Stanley has mixed it up by using some of his own poems as well as lines by Auden.
“My new exhibition is called Chart of the Far North. Like that one there with the boat in it, that’s Motuharakeke, Flax Island. ‘Far out, like floating seeds the ships, Diverge on urgent voluntary errands’ that’s Auden. (From the poem Look, Stranger) Often when I read things in books I just remember them and then I’ll repeat them to people. I memorise them because I think they’re really good. I like this one from Kim, which I haven’t used; I was quoting it the other day. ‘Here one day’s march takes you no further than a dream’s clog pacing.’”
Landscapes have a deeper, psychological meaning to Stanley, he told me his father took him and his family to beaches around New Zealand that reminded him of his time spent in Gallipoli.
“My father had never gone back (to Gallipoli) but I realized why he liked beaches, it’s a strange thing; he used to like going to beaches that were like Gallipoli cove. Weird. We went away camping on beaches that were similar.
I think it made him feel better, going to beaches with cliffs behind them. Very similar beaches.” Almost like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo, recreating a moment of trauma. Stanley went to Gallipoli in 2014, to make work as part of the touring exhibition, "Your Friend the Enemy"; “I was the only one (artist) who had first connections, my dad’s brother and my dad were there. My dad’s brother; the good looking one. We used to say ‘Why haven’t you got looks like my uncle?’ and my mother said ‘Yeah, you can go to the Somme and be shot’. He was shot, but not in Gallipoli. They were off sick. He was with my dad, they had dysentery. He was younger than my dad, so he would have been twenty one. He died from war wounds; he was shot in the eye. When he came back to New Zealand he tried to re-enlist.”
His mother was a strong influence growing up, “People forget – my dad was from another era. My mother was a nineteenth-century person. She was forty-six when I was born. My dad was older. We could do whatever we liked and she thought we never did anything wrong. She never took any notice of exams. I used to say ‘Oh I have university entrance’ and she’d say ‘Oh, that’s lovely dear, when do you sit school certificate?’ She’d go to open days at school, all dressed up - a hat and big skirts. We ate roast things. We had some cheap things too, as kids we ate a lot of tripe - that was really cheap. Big Family.
We weren’t allowed to have or read magazines - they were terrible. We had plenty of books. My mother came from an interesting family - her uncle was an inventor. My great uncle; he invented all the modern brake systems, Herbert Frood. Ferodo was his firm, I think it’s been bought out now by an American company. It was out of Manchester. When you read about him you find out that he was the first person to do twenty-four hour testing in the world. Before that brakes were completely hopeless, they were outside, like on old bikes, he internalized it. He invented flak jackets, but General Haig didn’t want them. He wanted the soldiers to be brave. There are letters from Conan Doyle to him, because Conan Doyle had been in Africa and he gave money to test them, but they were never used. The British Military tried to find a sample of them (of the flak jackets), but they can’t. They worked, but they wouldn’t make them. He was my grandfather’s brother; my grandfather came out here. The flak jackets were quite heavy, but they did work. So I’m quite inventive, probably from that, my father was quite inventive too. When he was older he used invent things for people in rest homes. Here’s one here that’s really funny.” (A walking stick that picks them up for you.)
Stanley’s house is full of mementos of his past and also his growing brood; he recently became a great grandfather. He said his grandson Daniel told him that he was stuck in the nineteenth century until recently, “‘When you reached eighty Poppa you were pulled screaming out of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.’ But it’s just my background. I’m way back; I used to think about all the kids at school, when they didn’t know about nineteenth century art, that it was really strange. Because I knew paintings from the nineteenth century. Although I was born in 1936 you do absorb a lot from your parents. I know a lot about Auckland, I’ll be driving around and I’ll tell a story about Auckland you won't believe I know... You know Pitt Street, the corner of Karangahape Road and Pitt Street? I said, ‘oh, there’s a funny story about here’. There was a policeman who was really thick called Dave and a horse died, just on this corner. He got out his notebook and said ‘horse died’ ‘oh’ he said, pull it round to Pitt Street, then he wrote horse died ‘pit’. He remembers when Auckland city got rid of the trams. “You know how many people objected when they took away the trams? About fifteen to twenty people. We just thought getting rid of the trams was ridiculous.” He also remembers when Mt Eden had a milk bar next to the butcher’s.
Stanley likes to listen to Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Sinead O’Conner while he paints in his studio, and Dusty Springfield; “I had a cat called Dusty. My granddaughter used to come over and put Dusty music on and dance around to it with the kitten, so I called the cat Dust. "Dust", I used to say, "here Dust!” At one stage Stanley had a habit of leaving voice mails on friend’s phones of him meowing like a cat.
When he was growing up Stanley admired the films of James Dean, he loves the director Wim Wenders; “Wim Wenders’ German films I really like, The American Friend, the ones he made before he made Paris Texas. I think that’s a good film, but the child is wrong, the background that the child has, it’s too together. They didn’t know enough about children to write that part properly. A child that comes from that background would be rather fractious, not all together.” Stanley should know, at eighty he has seen plenty of children grow up around him. His work manages to convey the history of New Zealand in a refined, modern manner. His new landscape paintings could not have been painted anywhere else in the world.