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12 October 2017

Engage With Identity

Artist Gavin Jones explores the influences, structures and processes that have helped shape his art practice and questions whether his works could be considered an expression of his cultural identity.


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For Jones, being brought up in Castor Bay on Auckland’s North Shore meant that he never really thought about his Tongan, Welsh and Scottish ancestry when growing up.

Anything brought back from Tonga seemed to get pushed to the background,” says Jones. “Objects like tapa cloth painting or carvings got stored away. Apart from my grandmother’s kitchen broom, there was never any sign of things Tongan that I can remember. It was as though it had all been whitewashed. But then again, neither did my grandmother on my mum's side have any Scottish things around her house.”

It wasn't until 1989 when Jones attended A.S.A (Auckland Society of Arts) in Ponsonby, that his cultural identity became something he felt the need to address. At the time Ponsonby had a diverse socio-economic and cultural mix - it had a feel about it - Sierra had just opened its first cafe and second hand book shops were worth visiting. But the cultural profile of Ponsonby was on the verge of big change and with that surfaced an expectation to engage in the discussion around cultural identity.

It is unclear exactly when he decided to dedicate his time to his art practice, but he remembers as a teenager he would bus into town after school to see exhibitions at galleries like RKS, Sue Crockford Gallery and Artspace. These visits gave him ideas about how to make art, rather than become an artist as such.

A challenge artists’ face when making art is to know when a painting is resolved and to over-work it, often presents little option but to discard the work or paint over it and start again. Jones was fortunate to find himself engaged in this very conversation at quite a young age. It was his first encounter with a real artist, Alistair Nisbet-Smith, who taught art as a guest teacher at the high school he attended.

I will always remember what he said to me, which was: ‘let the paint guide you’.

Because of my inexperience with the medium, I didn’t really understand this at the time. I now know it can be a difficult thing to let the paint guide you. "You want to be in control, so to listen to where the paint wants to go can be a frightening thing.”

He recalls a painting he made in 1993 where the rubbing technique used was much the same way he makes paintings today, but back then he relied more on ready-made surfaces.

“Basically what happened was the painting completed itself, explains Jones. This really bothered me at the time because to me it wasn't finished. I was encouraged by Ian Jervis to leave it alone and go hang it up in the school cafeteria. This was a turning point for me. I'm glad I followed his advice as it may have been destroyed like a number of other works I made that year.”

For a long time Jones was reluctant to engage in printing techniques per se, however the process he elected to use is seen as a rudimentary form of surface printing, or rubbings, and unlike conventional printing, it is one that doesn't require a press. He was yet to make the connection between this and the tradition of Tongan tapa cloth painting.

Jones says, “I had been making these works using rubbings for a few years, then one day by accident, I happened to catch the end of this short documentary and in it they spoke briefly about the process of Ngatu or tapa cloth painting.

As a process, rubbings play an important role in Ngatu - they enable the transferral and duplication of motifs and designs and serve as a framework so that over painting can be done either by an individual or a group. I remember thinking that was what I had been doing only without the Tongan iconography. But if there was any reference to tapa cloth painting in my works it was not deliberate.”

More recently he has worked with printed structures using acrylic paint. To refer to or identify these works as paintings is a challenge he says. It casts doubt over these objects as to what they are because of the way they are made - after all, like printed works and as with Ngatu, they can be duplicated. Perhaps unique multiples would be a more appropriate explanation.

Recently someone said to him, in reference to his show at Lot23 in Eden Terrace, that his works are weird. “They meant that in a good way,” says Jones, “but I agree they are weird. That’s a good thing, as it makes you question what it is you're looking at, and challenges your physiological relationship with the works because of the way they have been made.”

Jones has been described as a mid-career artist, although with a degree of humour he suggests that he is more conceivably an emerging mid-career artist. Regardless of where his career sits, like most artists, Jones has a full-time job. He is an art materials consultant at The French Art Shop on Taylors Road in Morningside, Mt Albert.

To know and understand the materials you use is an important part of being an artist.

"With my own practice, the thing I think about most in the way of materials is colour pigment. What colours are derived from and how they are manufactured, determines the way they can be used.”

His work at The French Art Shop means time spent in his studio is limited so he has to be organised. He keeps a studio log book where he writes lists, keeps track of works and records observations. For Jones, these self-learned systems and orderly structures enable the process and production of paintings to happen efficiently. 

Sometimes he will intentionally restrict the amount of time spent. This helps him make decisions quickly especially while in the process of making the work. He always has more than one painting on the go at a time and has been known to store works away, only to bring them out again once he has forgotten what it was he was originally doing with them. 

For Gavin Jones the goal is to continue to make art, to see where his style of painting leads him and if it relates to what he has in mind. Of course there is always a chance of improvisation and deviation. One thing is certain though, the structures and creative processes he currently uses, whether deliberate or not, have an agreeable element of connection to his cultural identity. 

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