Adrienne Martyn: Shift

Adrienne Martyn: Shift
light, surfaces and art of the move

Bridie Lonie
Emeritus Member, Otago Polytechnic

The Invercargill Public Art Gallery collection has been held for more than sixty years, at Anderson House, the stately home built in 1925 for Robert Anderson, who was knighted for his services to industry in 1934. Sir Robert and Lady Anderson were by then in their sixties, with one daughter remaining at home. The Andersons had donated their previous home to the Plunket Society and let it be known that this house too would eventually come to the city; they specified that it was to become an art gallery. In 1951, after Lady Anderson’s death, the city took over the home, added new picture rails and placed its art collection throughout the building. A society was formed that quickly developed the collection, commissioned exhibitions, competitions, musical and social events and provided Devonshire teas. The house then sat between two models: neither a stately home with its furniture intact, nor a dedicated art gallery with temperature and humidity controls and appropriate storage facilities.

         The model worked for more than sixty years, but earthquake strengthening requirements forced issues. Anderson House is a retreat, a peaceful home. Georgian architecture is perhaps the most peaceful of all building styles, and this peace is reinforced by the building’s setting in a large but unfussy park, with a section of untouched bush as well as some regeneration. The notion of art as a place of separation, where, as Wordsworth wrote, emotions could be recollected in tranquility, is only one of today’s understandings of art. However, when Anderson House was built, it was the primary one and remains so for many born midway through last century. The Invercargill Public Art Gallery Incorporated Society is now going to store the artworks in a stable environment and the collection will move to the city. This shift is therefore charged with emotion, as it signals the collection’s departure from the outskirts of the city into its more active centre, and the question of the house’s future.

        Shift is both a record of the removal of the collection and a celebration of the art of the builders, whose surfaces offset the works that were hung there for sixty years. Those surfaces are in Martyn’s DNA. Her grandfather was one of the carpenters, while her great uncle by marriage, Alf Ball, was the contractor who brought sands from Stewart Island and mixed them with cement to generate Anderson Park’s white, glittering and durable external walls. Martyn’s photography has often vied with colour field painting’s concern for the variation within apparently uniform surfaces. Her exhibition Surfaces (1982) celebrated the sharp sparkle of art deco’s stucco, while subsequent work considered the old plastered walls of the Excelsior Hotel, Dunedin and the project Abandoned State recorded disused State houses. A later body of work, Looking for the Subject, explored the concept of art through a study of the impact of the frame without its painting and the interdependence of buildings, rooms and their artworks. Martyn has also documented collections in their archived forms, including the series Kaikauhoe showing pounuma in plastic storage bags at the Tauranga Museum.

            Shift was the perfect project, bringing these factors together. We see artworks that are carefully covered with slip cloths, removed from their walls in the process of their movement to storage; we see the walls that were designed to hold them now emptied of them, making us consider instead their supports in the form of walls, picture rails and lights. We also see the internal details of the building that was designed to be two things in succession:  a home for the final years of the Andersons’ lives and then a gallery. 

            Martyn has photographed the rooms as they sit in a transitional space, neither home nor gallery. Her titles record the rooms’ names, as successive benefactors were acknowledged over time. The artworks themselves make no claims on us; we see neither their colour nor their emotions. Some have their images blacked out while others are covered by slip cloths, or simply absent, signaled by picture rails. While Martyn was allowed to open the blinds, most of the images turn away from the astonishing views.  The house that was built like a camera, open to the northern light, is dimmed. The internal details are naked and insistent. The house was built with double-wall insulation and an oil-fired central heating system. While its fireplaces echo Georgian forms, their fireboxes are small, reminding us that they would need the brightest coal to make an impact.  The house was stripped of its contents when given to the city and the light fittings do not quite reflect the grandeur of the building.

          Martyn’s images give us the sense of movement stilled. The exhibition takes the form of two bodies of work: Interiors, celebrating the building’s fabric, and Objects, the artworks veiled in protective fabrics. Martyn’s photographs recall both the conjunction of the surreal and the formal in painters like Magritte and conceptual artists’ investigations of the ways art institutions function. She treats the rectilinear forms of both architecture and slip-covered frames with a geometrical precision that balances, tilts and often slightly disturbs the sense of formal order. The overlooked aspects of the building are given their turn. Edges, textures, relationships created by shadow and light, are juxtaposed. The photographic prints’ own surfaces demonstrate Martyn’s careful negotiation of texture and tonality, answering the subtlety and delicacy of the plastered surface. They indicate the shifting patterns of light on non-reflective surfaces, surfaces that withdraw themselves until they are given attention.

          Shifting artworks requires both care and brutality. The works’ content is ignored for its material qualities. Similarly, the building, once a vehicle for shared encounters with artworks and the Devonshire teas provided by the caretakers and curators, is now stripped of its contents, open to the investigative eyes of earthquake protectors and heritage reconstruction. It seems important to remember that it was designed in order to be a home for a brief period and then a public amenity in the terms of its own time. It has idiosyncratic features; the billiard room is not, as was often the case, a solid ground-floor wing, but occupied the central upstairs space, providing a clear segue into a large well-lit gallery space before the era of humidity and temperature control and the fear of ultra-violet light on artworks.  By the time it was built only one of the four children lived at home and there were only three bedrooms: the Anderson’s family home had been the busy single-floor villa that they donated to the Plunket Society on moving to Anderson House.

              Martyn’s images give us the sense of movement, of leaving, of the dust settling in a room when both people and art have gone. The house’s mimicry of ante-bellum Georgian simplicity, recognized when it was used as the Civil War setting of an American movie, suggests notions specific to the mid-war years. Anderson was a rich and generous philanthropist, with his face turned toward civic service. His office lies to the left of the main entrance, and while the provision of beds was limited the house was designed to entertain frequent national and international guests. The ultimate designation of the house as a gallery following their deaths reflected the Andersons’ conviction that with wealth must come taste.

              Martyn’s work returns to that notion of taste. The measured and balanced beauty of line and order, the clarity of construction and the tonal subtleties of her work, recognize the building blocks of aesthetic order that were present both in the artworks that were hung on the walls and the walls that were built to hold them. As Martyn’s relatives gathered the sands to provide the glittering light of the external walls, worked on and oversaw the interiors, they constructed a focal point for the community. In turn, her own artworks ask us to pay attention to the relationships between art and philanthropy in the 1920s and to consider what these might be today.