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The full picture

19 February 2022
jmp 22 royal terrace, painting by Joanna Margaret Paul
Joanna Margaret Paul, ‘Untitled, 22 Royal Terrace’, 1971. Acrylic on board. Private collection. Courtesy of the Joanna Margaret Paul Estate.

Mastering multi-media art decades before it was the norm, Joanna Margaret Paul’s career has been given its retrospective dues thanks to a travelling exhibition. Words Anna Wallace

In Imagined in the context of a room, a major exhibition and book, audiences will discover the broad spectrum of Joanna Margaret Paul’s work – much of which has been housed in private collections until now. Touring the main cities the artist lived in from the 1970s until her untimely death in 2003, the collection of drawings, paintings, poetry, photography and film impressed audiences in Dunedin and is on display at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū until March 13.

An important artist of her generation, Joanna and her work have sustained a fan base for decades, but exhibition curator Lucy Hammonds says her prolific body of work hasn’t had the wider scholarly consideration or public engagement it deserves.

“Women’s art histories aren’t well told,” says Lucy. “Joanna is an important figure as she fits into key moments in the second half of the 20th century, including the ’70s feminist movement.”

Lucy worked alongside her Dunedin Public Art Gallery colleague, curator Lauren Gutsell, and Greg Donson, curator and public programmes manager at Sarjeant Art Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui, to bring the exhibition and book to life.

Ahead of her time

While younger audiences may have come across Joanna’s work in “fragments” or even through her digitised films, Lucy is thrilled to reveal the breadth of the artist’s multi-disciplinary practice to a new generation of artists.

“Joanna’s work really resonates with contemporary artists because the way she worked is similar to the way we work now, across different ideas and different media – boundaries didn’t exist for her. This was quite unique at the time and is something that modern audiences understand.”

The diverse media and subject on display is something to marvel at: self sketches, bold landscapes, studied still lifes, poetry of the body, anonymous portraits, church commissions, annotated maps. She switched between pencil and chalk, oil, acrylic and gouache. Videos give a dynamic perspective on everyday scenes; the viewer is hypnotised by napkins on the line flapping in the wind and the act of swinging in the playground. Photos offer framed views, strongly contrasting darkness and light. It’s clear that Joanna’s experimental approach reflected her lived experience and values.

Autobiographical space

A focus on domestic life pervades the collection, with scenes often framed by everyday objects – a bedhead, closet, window or even a dish rack. She charts inventories of things, room by room.

Moving between landscapes, urban settings and the domestic interior, Joanna’s work was closely connected to identity. In the mid-’70s, she became part of a group of artists who made art that centred on women’s experiences. For much of her career Joanna would navigate being an artist and a mother. Because of this autobiographical approach, an intimacy between viewer and artist is achieved. This makes it a terrible blow when, in the middle of the exhibition space, you learn Joanna lost her second daughter, nine-month-old Imogen Rose.

“The exhibition is intensely autobiographical and so we created a bit of space for her body of work from this time, when words became a primary focus for her. It is a sad part of the show,” Lucy agrees.

Photo still life by Joanna Margaret Paul, inside by the window
Joanna Margaret Paul, ‘[Untitled, Interior]’, undated. Coloured photograph (185 x 125mm). Collection of the Joanna Margaret Paul Estate.

Coming home

For the curator, this project was more challenging than others due to the number of private loans required. The art on display came from the friends and family of the artist and her private estate, as well as other private collections and public institutions.

Moving across the phases of Joanna’s life as an artist, the exhibition traces key journeys that shaped her career – from Dunedin to Banks Peninsula in Canterbury, Wellington and then Whanganui. It is apt, then, that the show is travelling to all these places and features recognisable local settings.

Cantabrians will identify with works set in Okains Bay and Barrys Bay, where Joanna and her family lived in the mid-’70s, and Lucy says there’s also a lot of Dunedin and Otago to be seen in the exhibition, including ‘Untitled, 22 Royal Terrace’ (pictured on page 66), painted in Dunedin and showing her studio there.

“Many of the early landscapes in the exhibition and films are set in Port Chalmers and Seacliff, then later in the exhibition the work returns strongly to Dunedin, followed by Beta St paintings and others from the later 1970s and early 1980s when the artist was living in Dunedin and undertook her Frances Hodgkins fellowship.”

Joanna Margaret Paul: Imagined in the context of a room runs until March 13

Still life painting in Barrys Bay, Joanna Margaret Paul
Joanna Margaret Paul, ‘Still Life, Barry’s Bay’, c. 1975. Oil on board (530 x 740mm). Paul Family Collection, Wellington. Courtesy of Joanna Margaret Paul Estate.
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