November 2009 saw the opening of a major retrospective exhibition on the work of one of New Zealand's important abstract painters, JS Parker, and the launch of a much-awaited book on his work by art historian and curator Dr Damian Skinner, at the Millennium Public Art Gallery in Blenheim.
Marlborough's most prominent artist nationally, JS (John Shotton) Parker is best known for his richly worked impasto oil paintings, his superb skill with colour, and his ability to capture the essence of light in the very tangible medium of paint.
The exhibition, a four decade retrospective curated by Damian Skinner, brings together significant works from public and private collections around New Zealand. The early years are presented through a series of figurative drawings and paintings, including landscape, portrait, and still life works, in the smaller Ken Williams Gallery; while the Main Gallery explores the evolution of the Plain Songs, which have become the core of JS Parker's oeuvre.
Born in Auckland in 1944, JS Parker grew up in the South Island and lived on the West Coast, Nelson and Marlborough, prior to studying art at Ilam School of Fine Art at the University of Canterbury. After undertaking the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in Dunedin 1975, he returned to settle in Marlborough. All these regions provided inspiration for his work, from the corrugated iron of West Coast cottages to the light on the hills, plains and rivers of Marlborough. He taught art in Nelson and Marlborough, influencing new generations of young artists in the expressive use of colour. His steadfast vision was recognised in 2002 when he was awarded the Order of New Zealand Merit for 40 years of services to painting.
The title Plain Song refers to the Gregorian chant, and the ways the harmonies of paint in Parker's work mirror the harmonies found within the rhythmic plainsong of the medieval monks. It also refers to the fact many of the paintings are inspired by the colours of, or light upon, the plains of Canterbury and Marlborough ‘as if viewed while passing through on a speeding train' , as Parker explains. And, Skinner explains in his book JS Parker: Plain Song, the title ‘is a statement about Parker's interest in the formal elements of painting, the planes of colour and the investigation of form and tension that sit at the heart of abstract art'.
The exhibition was a journey for the curator and the artist, as well as the Millennium Art Gallery, which fittingly celebrates its 10th anniversary with this exhibition.
The book JS Parker: Plain Song by Damian Skinner is published by the Millennium Art Gallery, RRP $50, available from the Gallery or by phone order.