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Saturday 10 October 2009

Review: The Male Figure in the Art of John Z. Robinson

Posted in: Books
By David Herkt - 18th April 2009


 Review: The Male Figure in the Art of John Z. Robinson

Brent Coutts, Peter Graczer and Malcolm Templeton

176 pp, $40



As you flip through the reproductions of John Z Robinson's painting-sequence '29 Nudes', your first thought is 'how come I didn't know John Z. Robinson was this good?'

John Z. Robinson painting in his studio

When faced with Robinson's exuberant palette you've immediately realised that the New Zealand paintings you've seen before this have been drab by comparison – all manuka-green and karitane-yellow.

Robinson's lilac-magentas, blush-pinks, peacock-greens and tiger-lily oranges stand out from the average run of New Zealand art like a swallow-tailed Amazonian butterfly in a field of cabbage-whites.

Robinson's bold brush strokes are both tactile and economic. New Zealanders -despite their philistine history – have never been good with the depiction of human bodies in art. Robinson's fluid swathes of colour manage to suggest human volumes and spaces with ease.

And the ice-cream gaudery of his paints simply enhances the fact that you actually want to put these almost -touchable bodies in your mouth...

It is good art. It is bold, original and it says something.

The just-published 176 page 'The Male Figure in the Art of John Z. Robinson' by Brent Coutts, Peter Graczer, and Malcolm Templeton is a well-produced, retrospective look at the life and work of the Dunedin painter - as seen through his paintings and sketches of male nudes.

The book is copiously and beautifully illustrated. It draws on Robinsons works from the early 1980s to the present day and is an attempt to explain just where Robinson has come from and where, perhaps, he is going.

Homosexuality is central to Robinson's work – or at least these particular works. The leading essay by Brent Coutts unearths Robinson's gay history in terms of his depiction of the male nude.

It is a very familiar story – except this one is charted in an artist's paintings. Robinson came out late. In one of his statements concerning this process he says "I didn't want to face up to being gay. So I wasn't looking for myself clearly. So that's how I viewed the world. In my early paintings there was no detail..." (emphasis added).

And, one could even say, there was frequently no gender. It would be impossible to sex many of the human depictions in Robinson's early work.

John Z. Robinson & Malcolm Templeton
If we look at Robinson's paintings as having an intimate relationship with his sexuality, it is obvious that we can see an ongoing revelation and increasing familiarity with the male body. As time goes on, the sexual gaze is more and more relaxed.

By the mid 1990s we can see the rudiments of Robinson's late style being laid down – the bright palette, a real focus on male bodies in movement and rest – and we can also see the abandonment of ostensible content in favour of pure depiction.

Robinson's work becomes more and more joyous as it reaches for and gains its own style but it also becomes more explicit. One quickly realises that prior to Robinson we have no comparable explorations of a homosexual erotic. Homosexuality has been almost silent in the canon of New Zealand painting for two centuries.

Brent Coutts' detailed and considered review of Robinson's career places the painter and his sexuality at the forefront of things. It is a compelling and satisfying narrative which Coutts' relates with much pertinent detail and illuminating quotes from interviews with the artist.

Graczer's essay and Templeton's interview both provide a perspective on an artist by his models – a relationship usually omitted from the history and story of painting. These two views situate Robinson socially in a small group of gay men in a provincial New Zealand city. We see how art happens and who makes it.

This book then is not only the story of John Z. Robinson but of his artistic, social, and sexual milieu. It is an introduction to a painter's career and it is a valuable document on gay New Zealand life.

Which does beg the question why haven't we heard of John Z. Robinson before? Why isn't he a ranking painter in the world of New Zealand art? Why isn't he celebrated as our premier gay painter?

Looking elsewhere we quickly discover that Robinson's work is uneven. If he'd only concentrated on paintings of the male, we'd be easy about our valuation of him. Robinson's body of work – particularly his knock-off postered word-paintings ("It's My Hotere & I'll Cry If I Want to")- needs a really good edit. There are too many temporarily-fashionable works to live down rather than live up to.

All artist's official careers are sleights of hand. The story we end up with is not quite the story that happened. It is all myth and make-believe. It is all selective facts. This book is a great rewriting of John Z. Robinson's career.

By taking a single perspective of the artist and the sexuality evidenced in his works it makes a somewhat muddled back history appear cogent and purposive. It will be interesting to see if Robinson and his future work lives up to it.

In New Zealand, we've often had far, far, far too much 'meaning' in our art. It is as if artists have to justify it within the work itself - as well as make it. It is a very puritan aesthetic. Robinson's joyous exploration of colour, gesture, and male bodies is the exact remedial strategy we need.


The Male Figure in the Art of John Z. Robinson was launched recently along with Amy Bock: A Series of Drawings by John Z. Robinson by Peter Graczer which examines and backgrounds Robinson's sketches based on the enigmatic life of Amy Bock, 'male impersonator,' in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

More information on ordering the books can be obtained from

The retail price for Amy Bock is $25 plus packaging and postage. The Male Figure in the Art of John Z. Robinson is $40 plus packaging and postage.

David Herkt - 18th April 2009

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