Something to laugh at

JUDITH RITCHIE
Last updated 15:02 18/12/2013
Art Bank
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Showing the giant variegated kiwi at the Venice Biennale, 2005.

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When the director of a museum speaks of a current exhibition in terms of being "real smile on the dial territory," it warrants checking out. So I took a stroll down to the Nelson Provincial Museum, looked at the show titled The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy, and indeed smiled, and more.

Percy is perhaps one of our country's best kept secrets as an illustrator, commentator on life, on being "Kiwi" and through his work weaves humorous glimpses of being human, famous, musical and a Kiwi living away from home.

Born in Stratford, Taranaki in 1938, Percy studied art at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, graduating in the early 1960s. He lived most of his adult life out of New Zealand, but before that was, among other jobs, employed as an illustrator for the New Zealand School Journal, a school book which many of us remember well or perhaps vaguely, depending on age.

In 1964, Percy received a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in London, where he lived and worked as a successful illustrator and artist until he died in 2008. He produced work for the Times and Harpers & Queen, but it was his illustrations for children's books that gained him world acclaim, with more than 100 publications.

What strikes the viewer most about Percy's work is his command of illustration, whether in ink or wash this man was a master illustrator, I just wish I knew about him earlier.

This exhibition draws on the artist's comprehensive collection of work; not only his published drawings but also his many works created for family and friends. His humour though, is what will bring the crowds into the Nelson Provincial Museum, and rightly so. Funny little observations, incongruous images with the most ridiculous narrations written along the edges, top or bottom.

These illustrations and "Imagined Histories" depict an eclectic host of characters who go about their activities with strangely serene and determined attitudes - a Venetian Kiwi complete with masquerade mask, Sigmund Freud in Dargaville and Johann Strauss recreated as a hot air balloon.

Continuing the whimsy, another illustration in the series depicting Franz Schubert being inspired to write a quintet, is so obtuse, it's just delightful.

The likelihood of seeing a world famous musician out fishing while a row of five rabbits watch from the sidelines leaves the viewer wondering how he came up with such a quirky idea. And I also wonder how this work and the others in the series were received when he produced them?

This exhibition will also appeal to children, not just the humour of his drawings, but there is an animated feature film, Hugo the Hippo, which will occupy small people while adults have time to linger on the rest of the exhibition. Percy was art director on this Hungarian film, made between 1971 and 1973, while also continuing as an illustrator.

The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy is a must see, and while it has moments of sombreness, the over-riding impression is one of fun and leaves the viewer with a feeling of awe for this wonderful artist.

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In the words of Nelson Provincial Museum director Peter Millward the exhibition appeals to "a broad cross-section of people."

"I have seen so many folk coming out grinning from ear to ear or laughing out loud in the gallery - very cool indeed," he says. "And all ages; kids and families seem to get it."

  • The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy, Nelson Provincial Museum, Town Acre 445, cnr Trafalgar and Hardy streets, Nelson, to January 26.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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