Rob McLeod to exhibit in Wellington

Rob McLeod in his studio in Wellington's Mt Victoria. He taught art at Wellington High School for 34 years until six years ago.
Rob McLeod in his studio in Wellington's Mt Victoria. He taught art at Wellington High School for 34 years until six years ago.

Most New Zealanders, even those with only a smattering of knowledge about football, are likely to have at least heard or read in passing about Celtic and Rangers  the two biggest clubs in Glasgow, Scotland.

But chances are few Kiwis have heard of another Glaswegian team called Partick Thistle. Artist Rob McLeod, who emigrated from Scotland to Wellington 40 years ago, hasn't forgotten the team. He used to live above their home ground. Most Glaswegians support either Celtic or Rangers. Only a minority support Partick Thistle, the perpetual underdog, the team that never wins.

It's one reason McLeod has called his solo show at Wellington's City Gallery Supporting Partick Thistle. "It's having faith in something, believing in something. In Glasgow you support Rangers or Celtic, but if you don't want to get your head beaten in, you support Partick Thistle. Everybody's like, 'Oh yeah, right'. But there are people who did and do support Partick Thistle. That's a statement of faith.

"They might not win the cup, but they are there for playing the game and doing the work. They're there every week. They might lose, but they're back next week."

In a sense there's a little bit of Partick Thistle in McLeod. It's having faith in the long term. His work has been exhibited widely throughout New Zealand and Australia and is in Te Papa's collection. His last solo show at City Gallery was 31 years ago. McLeod never stopped painting, but for 34 years, a good chunk of his energy also had to go into his job teaching art at Wellington High School. He left teaching six years ago.

His students included artist Michael Cubey, director and actor Danny Mulheron and Shihad frontman Jon Toogood.

"I've never allowed teaching to get in the way of painting, but then I had a full-time job and four kids. I would never rely on painting as a living. It is not regular money. If it becomes regular money, then you are instantly tied in to making a product. So teaching gave me the freedom to do as I please  except I had to teach."

A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, McLeod came to New Zealand fired by abstract artists, including Willem de Kooning and Alan Davie, so his previous City Gallery show emphasised expressionist and minimalist abstraction.

But most of the work in his new show comes from the past decade since McLeod has embraced figurative painting. A good proportion features cartoon-like imagery depicted with brightly coloured oils  even those with a dark-edged theme.

McLeod is aware of the irony, because at the Glasgow School of Arts in the early 60s, he rebelled against its very traditional training, which included life drawing.

"For 30 years, I wanted to be an abstract artist, but when I gave in to the figuration, all that training suddenly came out of the end of my hand. I thought, 'I actually can draw. This has actually paid off'. And I hated it at the time. I'm so apologetic to some of those teachers [I had] when I fought so hard against it."

Along the way McLeod abandoned painting on canvas. Instead, he prefers sheets of plywood. Another McLeod trademark has been cutting around parts of the works, which can emphasise the figures.

He feels he is still developing a group of characters that appear in his paintings. Some of the earlier works "were quite limited. There was too much surrealism. They've become more in your face as people. Even in the 90s, when the works were halfway between abstraction and figuration, I thought of them as people.

"Up to three or four years ago, I was still heralded as one of New Zealand's most interesting abstractionists  not now."

McLeod credits City Gallery's previous director, Paula Savage, who finished in February, as the instigator for the new show with curator Aaron Lister. "It was the last thing she did. It was a very gracious last move as she left. I want this show. I need this show."

Lister had been following McLeod's oeuvre since the artist embraced the figure, including his early "mutant mickey" works.

"It has been a really amazing privilege to be there at that moment when an artist like Rob reorientates and rethinks their whole practice and know the previous works. We were always going to do a show together," says Lister.

The two have worked on a few projects over the years, including the book Dandini Comes Clean: Paintings by Robert McLeod.

McLeod has lived in the same house in Mt Victoria since the mid-80s, which also contains his studio, which he built. When The Dominion Post visits, the studio is nearly full of new work, not for the City Gallery, but destined for other shows, including an exhibition in Australia.

So unlike Partick Thistle, McLeod is a winner. He considers himself a New Zealand artist. He wouldn't strictly consider himself an outsider and is wary of the label, because it gets confused with the unrelated genre of outsider art.

But like Partick Thistle, he doesn't see himself as an insider either. "I quite like to be on the fringes. I'm the guy at the party in the corner with a beer in my hand and everybody's dancing and I'm quite happy.

"And if you stand there long enough at the party, a lot of people come across and talk to you."

The Details

Supporting Patrick Thistle: Paintings Rob McLeod is at City Gallery, Wellington, from Saturday till September 23. Rob McLeod gives an artist's talk on June 29 at 12.30pm.

The Dominion Post