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Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 14. 1969.

Art — Inside Illingworth

page 10


Inside Illingworth

Image of painting by Michael Illingworth

"I'm painting a little world of my own in a little world of my own. I'm building a facade for my own world, against the established facade, the facade of hypocritical suburbia."

This, to quote Michael Illingworth, whose exhibition is peering out at us from the Peter McLeavy Gallery, is an explanation of what he is trying to achieve through his act. Whether this is a sufficient objective or in fact a fulfilled objective can only be discovered by examining his work.

Michael Illingworth was born in England and came to New Zealand in 1952. He has been working in New Zealand for most of the seventeen years since then. One of the Auckland group of professional full-time painters, his work is now well known in New Zealand.

For some years he has personalised his work by his little wooden man with mobile eyes and no mouth. Whether it is fair to say that Illingworth has used his motif as a recognisable commercial signature in the way that Don Binney's thrilling birds endlessly come home to roost is a debatable point. His "little man" is manipulated very cleverly in the artist's aim of reducing complexity to a more naive simplicity but occasionally too it would seem he has carelessly done a hacked job on his own little man.

"Lovers" is perhaps the most interesting as well as amusing of Illingworth's work. I doubt if it will create controversy in well-bred Wellington since it is to join the export market at the close of this exhibition, but the fire in the male's eyes and his generous genitalia are a delightful accompaniment to the ample orbs of the female breasts and bottom. It is a very gentle picture and most lively.

The picture "Portrait of a Man of Consequence" is a pink version of his "little man", this time the politician, or official only half-willing in control manipulating us underlings. This light social comment is obviously the weapon Illingworth chooses to best satirise the outside world. Where it is amusing and his touch is light as in the above and "Flag for a Nation he successfully jollies people into facing the ridiculousness of their accepted beliefs.

Illngworth's painting is constantly excellent. He has an exceptional eye and uses the breadth and depth of colour to paint open wide his pictures. His picture 'Man with Red Tie" with its rich colours has a warmth and tonal depth absent from most contemporary painting. His imaginative details—the tweedie effect of the suit, the polished glow from the expressive face, the mute sad eyes—are selected to best illustrate the mood and character of the person behind the universal encumbering mask. The excessive shine and bright finish he achieves seem to put a plate-glass, sometimes reflecting sometimes distorting, between and facade of the inside and that of the outside.

His more mediocre "Painting with Rainbow" and "Tree Deity" reveals where his technical excellence is let down by the inappropriateness of the use of his motif. The unhappy marriage of the subject matter and form shows us the weakness which must occassionally be revealed when one idea is exploded unselectively. They are token Illingworth in form but not in feeling.

Illingworth's two still-lifes have a type of deliberate scaling-down. It is as if we are only seeing part of a bigger picture. His "Still Life No 7", the better of the two is however beautifully balanced in itself with a patch of blue in the right-hand corner leading us delightfully out from the picture in search of another morsel. "Landscape of Puhoi", a mini-picture suggests this same compaction, unappropriately like a seller's sample of bigger, better things to come.

This picture "Flower Painting" is a trifle twee for my liking and "Pylon Flower" which I understand is Illingworth's personal favourite, seems, apart from a sly dig at flower power, a decidedly empty canvas. His North Auckland landscape in this and several of his other pictures rolls rhythmically across the picture but there is no sense of the opposition or contrast of form one might have expected.

Illingworth is, if he can be believed a serious painter and his sheer craftsmanship is enough to guarantee him a prominent place in New Zealand art, but whether the one worked-over building block can, or should be used for a multiplicity of purposes is something Illingworth will have to resolve before again taking uncertain steps forward. Building a defence against "the more unpleasant aspect of an urban community" outside is one objective but diversity as artists like Max Ernst, Picasso and others have discovered, forces the artist to face himself as well; on the inside looking in.