Billy Apple (b.1930)
From the V.U.W. Art Collection 2005
acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, 762 x 533mm
Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection
In 2000, I organised a small exhibition, ‘Language Matters’, to accompany the installation by American Conceptual artist, Joseph Kosuth, at the Adam Art Gallery. Here I included a 1954 painting by Colin McCahon, Object and Image (Hamilton: Waikato Museum of Art and History). This work, exceptional in McCahon’s oeuvre, reproduces in the artist’s distinctive script the Oxford English Dictionary definitions for the two key words of the painting’s title. It served in this context as a pointed complement to Kosuth, who had launched his career as a rigorously Conceptual artist with his series of text-works, Titled (Art as Idea as Idea) (1965-8) that also reproduced dictionary definitions.
What fascinated me about McCahon’s work was not the suggestion that he had made a presciently ‘conceptual’ work, but rather the painting’s original purpose. This was to announce the ‘Object and Image’ exhibition McCahon curated at the Auckland City Art Gallery, also in 1954. In other words, McCahon had made a work that was both a painting in the exhibition and a poster for it. One might think of it as New Zealand’s earliest site-specific painting. I wonder if McCahon appreciated the implications of this extraordinary gesture. It meant nothing less than an attack on the central tenet of modernism that painting be autonomous; a self-sufficient, bounded object.
McCahon, perhaps unwittingly, inaugurated a pointed challenge to modern art’s ontology, which has been taken up with a vengeance in a different era by New Zealand’s leading Conceptual artist, Billy Apple. From the V.U.W. Art Collection fits within and extends this lineage. It is a painting made for the University Art Collection; an exquisitely finished canvas that bears as its principal content the words of its title. It operates, therefore, both as a work in the collection and as a sign that en-frames it. Corporate badge or work of art, this painting, like each in this ongoing series, exposes art’s dependencies; it is both the conscience of the collection and its effect. Like McCahon, Apple posits a critical purpose for art, but unlike his predecessor, he challenges any suggestion of artistic freedom. In this, his work is post-modern, a perfect embodiment of our current situation—Christina Barton.
Victoria University of Wellington Art Collection Inventory September 2011 [PDF]