The Cornish Connection at the Suter Art Gallery, Nelson
“Drawing from the Suter’s significant collection of British Modernist paintings and some star loans The Cornish Connection examines the creative links between Cornwall and New Zealand.”
When I visited this exhibition it hadn’t yet formally opened, so there was a general sense of improvisation: exhibition labels printed out on A4 sheets and taped to the wall, and some loud banging from the room next door as another exhibition was installed. Despite that, this is a strong show that as far as I can tell the Suter Gallery is underselling.
There are no accompanying curator’s descriptions, no publications, and no logical entry-points into the exhibition (three different entry passages mean there is no implied progression through the space). So you’re somewhat on your own in working out what’s on display and what connections there are between studio pottery and one of Rita Angus’ few overseas watercolours, for instance. That’s why it felt that the exhibition was undersold: as though even the curators were hesitant to push the international influences on NZ artists, or suggest why such disparate works should be brought together.
The tenuous uniting theme is that all works in the exhibition were created by artists working in Cornwall. Some of the oils and watercolours are literal about this: Edith Collier’s An Attic in Old St. Ives from 1920, likely depicting Frances Hodgkins’ flat; Rita Angus’ 1959 Seamen’s Chapel, St. Ives, which she completed on her only overseas trip; or a work by Bill Sutton from 1981 showing St. Michael’s Mount, Cornwall. Others link to the theme merely by where the artists were working: a large number of Bernard Leach’s Japanese-influenced pottery that influenced Len Castle, and a brilliant Barbara Hepworth bronze in the very centre of the room that seemed to energise the whole space.
It presents a more complicated picture of the development of early-mid twentieth-century New Zealand art than we’re used to; but that’s exactly why the show works. There are no easy links or explanations here, but that travel and interaction with international artists in a specific location had a great impact on New Zealand art, we see very clearly.
Interestingly, Flora Scales was perhaps the star of the show. A number of her late oils show the range of influences acting on her, and the kinds of skills and style she passed on to Toss Woollaston and, through Woollaston, McCahon.