An artist of reclusive brilliance

BIG FOLLOWING: James Blackie hangs works by late Wellington artist Gordon Crook at Page Blackie Gallery. "People who are fans are huge fans," he says.
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ
BIG FOLLOWING: James Blackie hangs works by late Wellington artist Gordon Crook at Page Blackie Gallery. "People who are fans are huge fans," he says.

A Wellington gallery believes in the brilliance of late, local artist Gordon Crook and wants to spread the word wide, writes Diana Dekker. 

An exhibition intended to elevate Wellington artist Gordon Crook's national reputation is to be held, ironically, in Wellington, the place Crook barely budged from.

Wellington is where Crook lived and worked for four decades, keeping himself to himself apart from chosen, often long-suffering friends, and chopping and changing from gallery to gallery and their - sometimes long-suffering - owners.

THE COLOURIST: Gordon Crook in 2002 in his Aro Valley cottage. He died in 2011.
ROSS GIBLIN/Fairfax NZ
THE COLOURIST: Gordon Crook in 2002 in his Aro Valley cottage. He died in 2011.

He didn't travel to speak of, he exhibited almost entirely in Wellington and he made a life in art strictly in Wellington; where his most notable works are the huge, bright tapestries in the Michael Fowler Centre.

Marcia Page and James Blackie, of Page Blackie Gallery, consider Crook an artist of reclusive brilliance, who has never had his due in the art world.

They hope his brilliance will ripple out, posthumously, with their survey exhibition: Biography of the Mind.

They are to show a selection of the prodigious and varied work he created right up until he died in 2011, aged 89.

They possibly have more chance of establishing a reputation for the mercurial artist now, than they might have had if they had tried to represent him in his lifetime. He wasn't, by reputation, an easy man, Page and Blackie agree.

Crook pursued, with equal dedication, painting, screenprints, tapestry, collage and photo montage. Although he held regular exhibitions here and there, much of it was never shown and forms part of his estate.

Crook considered himself a colourist - and a Wellingtonian. He got tired of people recalling he was born in England.

He arrived in New Zealand at 51, an artist and art teacher, and thought of himself as a New Zealander, and, in his garden-fringed Aro Valley cottage, part of an even more limited community.

He was creatively driven but Blackie says, for several reasons, he was never to achieve the reputation he deserved.

"The intention of the exhibition is to raise his profile. We felt it was time."

Blackie says one of the reasons Crook , "or others", don't forge a strong reputation in the art world, is that they don't show with a regular dealer.

Crook showed in different Wellington galleries and, because he was working in a plethora of media, "decided when he had made it where to show it.

A lot of artists are painters or sculptors. He would see what worked best for an idea. He was incredible. He was so focused on practising, he wasn't fond of the exhibiting side of things."

This will be the artist's most comprehensive show since a City Gallery retrospective exhibition in 1993, which toured nationally.

Neither Page nor Blackie met the artist, but Blackie says the show "is like looking through his life".
Crook's work, he observes, has not dated.

"A lot of stuff done in the 1980s looked 1980s. His work from the 1980s looks incredibly sharp today." Yet, his signature was always clear.

"You go to Michael Fowler and look up and see those enormous tapestries and though they're completely different, [to the work in the show] the feel is from the same artist."

Wellington art commentators praised Crook's work. The late James Mack, a notable director of The Dowse, considered him a genius and The Dominion Post art critic Mark Amery called him a visionary.

"People who are fans are huge fans," says Blackie. When you see the work and see the skill and beauty and the way of taking an idea and rendering it, only artistic genius can present it in such a beautiful way."

Crook was one of those artists "whose ideas go on and on, like most of the artists we show. They talk with excitement about the next project, and the next, and you start wondering if there are enough years to get the ideas out. He died still working.

"Some of his work was incredibly heavy. He worked with Ron Barber in Aro Valley and some of the frames he made were very heavy timber.

"He lived to create. Every single element of his life was about beauty and creativity. He was obviously a tricky person to deal with. He wanted everything to be done perfectly. The reality is the biggest names in the art world weren't particularly easy to deal with, but they need an easy avenue to get their work shown for people to fall in love with it."

Blackie says he and Page "feel very confident having this show. We feel strongly his profile deserves to be much higher than it is and that his significance will elevate in years to come. We both think he will feature in the story of New Zealand art history."

Pragmatically, says Blackie, there's "something for everyone" in the work selected.

THE DETAILS

Biography of the Mind is at Page Blackie Gallery, Wellington. It opens tonight at 5.30pm and runs until June 1.

The Dominion Post