Unfolding the mystery
Profound excitement – and some apprehension – are felt by painter Bruce Hunt as he treads the South Island landscape. He talks to CHRISTOPHER MOORE.
Bruce Hunt regularly closes the door of his Dunedin studio to go walkabout over the hills and far away. While other men might leave notices reading "Gone Fishing" on their doors, the label on Bruce Hunt's Stuart Street studio reads "Gone painting". The 33-year-old artist is on the road again, sketch book, pencil and camera in hand to explore the mysteries and glories of the South Island landscape.
The rumpled, sinewy hills and shadowed valleys have again sung their siren song.
"There are places I am compelled to return to in my mind and to paint over and over again," he says. And his relationship with these southern landscapes remains uneasy. "I tread the soaring ridgelines and valley floors tentatively. I feel a profound excitement and a fair dose of apprehension when venturing deep into these hills . . . they conceal great mystery within their layers and folds."
It's then that you'll discover Hunt pacing through the tussock, negotiating creeks or scrambling up rocky hillsides to a perch high above the valley floor, where he can fully explore the great mysteries of these southern places.
Back in the studio Hunt will begin the long process of creating the epic landscape paintings that continue to attract the eye of the critics and the public.
Hunt has a fascination with the effect of shifting light. He works on three or four paintings at one time, putting works in progress on one side for weeks or months before returning to them. The paint seems to ferment during this time, allowing colours to mature and intensify.
"While there's always procrastination, I've never abandoned a painting," he says. "I can leave it for a couple of years before returning with fresh eyes. If you start painting with a definite idea, that's the reason to start, however long it's going to take to complete."
Light and geology are the essential ingredients in his work. Light deals with transition and change. It transforms the character and form of the landscape. It distorts and obscures, clarifies and sharpens and excites Hunt's sense of the abstract. In the studio, the painting gradually emerges in the controlled environment necessary for a painting technique that involves using washes of acrylic pigment to slowly build up the work on the canvas.
"The accumulation of many layers, warm over cool hues, creates a velvet-like surface with reflective qualities. The `bones' of the painting applied at the beginning are vital to provide the finished work with vitality and form," he says. "It's these colours, asserting themselves from beneath the surface that create a special luminosity and depth."
The geology in the paintings is also important to Hunt. He spends considerable time ensuring that it is correct – "experience of a landscape is one thing, but if you are going to be a realist painter, you must do it properly in terms of geology. I studied this at university. I guess some things have stuck with me."
You won't discover many human references in Hunt's paintings of an environment that remains aloof and disdainful of any attempt to tame it.
One writer commented that "Hunt's landscapes are not for the fainthearted; too isolated and desolate to be anything other than the refuge of fantasies and dreams or those, like the artist, who have an intimate knowledge of the country and claim it as their own."
Says fellow artist David Barker: `These are vast spaces into which those of us who are unafraid can glide on our own private flights. . . . (Hunt) is devoid of cynicism or pretence."
Wellington born, Bruce Hunt attended Wellington College, where he studied art with Phillip Markham –" a fantastic art teacher who sparked the possibilities of being a full-time artist" – before moving on to Victoria University to study geology. A year after his first solo exhibition at the Molesworth Gallery in 1983, he moved south to Dunedin and Kurow, returning to the landscapes that would mould his art.
By the late 1980s, Hunt was in Auckland, working with a freelance art department and establishing his own design and construction company for television, film and theatre. Throughout the 1990s, he was on the move – Indonesia and Thailand, the United States, Japan, Brazil and back to New Zealand, where he worked in Nelson, Auckland and Kerikeri.
In 2003, he returned to Dunedin, established a studio and put down roots. The studio remains the pivot around which everything revolves.
"The South Island connection probably came with the first family holiday. I was eight or nine when my parents took me on a trip around the place. I remember looking up at those mountains and wondering what lay over the ridgelines and peaks. Back in Wellington, the South Island hovered on my horizon across Cook Strait."
He enrolled at the University of Canterbury's School of Fine Arts, but the offer of that first exhibition at Molesworth Gallery was more tempting and he "de-enrolled".
"It was a sell-out show, with a cheque for $2000 at the end of it. It was enough to tell me that here was something which meant I could live a dream. Today I realise that landscape paintings are considered unfashionable in some quarters, but I can't figure out why. I'm constantly surrounded by what inspires me.
"The physicality of being in the landscape is incredibly important to me," says Hunt. "Back in 1983, I simply painted what I was passionate about – the landscape. Nothing has changed."
Perhaps some things have. More than two decades after that first exhibition, Hunt's critical eye sees more thought and refinement entering into his painting.
"The finished landscape surprises me sometimes. This is not an easy technique – in fact it's bloody hard. Perhaps that's the great thing about it. Each painting is a struggle. It goes through stages of being pleasant or a pain. Then, when you see it hanging on a gallery wall, you are still surprised and excited by it."
He continues to be drawn back by places "where you find no-one else" apart from the scratchings of the miners' tracks and Maori trails across the earth. "I'm constantly fascinated by why people have opened up remote places. They are there, part of the landscape, small scars which tell something of the history of the place. I don't leave them out of the paintings.
"The hills themselves come alive in the changing light. They are sculptural forms – muscular shapes which change from being bland forms at noon when the light is hard to being clearly defined as the day continues. They reveal themselves to a painter."
He describes that spontaneous moment when he focuses on an area he wants to paint. The sketch or photo is often the spark that ignites the work. "That's why those early, quick pencil sketches are so important. They are attempts to trap that first small glimpse. Out of 10 sketches, there will be one which captures the architecture of the landscape. I'll take thousands of photos for reference, but nothing will replace the sketch, however rough and ready. These are the seeds which will grow into a painting."
Apart from the influence of Phillip Markham, Hunt is interested in American art, including the work of Edward Church (19th-century painter of the American West), American expressionism and New Zealand's own Van der Velden, Grahame Sydney and Bill Sutton.
"I'll often use binoculars to focus intensely on landforms. I've often been compared to Grahame Sydney, but I think that we paint from different perspectives. Grahame is an artist who has helped say that it's OK to be a landscape painter."
Is Hunt surprised at the public response to his work? "People tell me that my work demands an emotional response, that you feel as if you are stepping off into a void. I can take people to places where they often cannot go. Receiving a reaction to your paintings is important and I enjoy it. You don't get it working in the studio."
Does he see his painting evolving into a different path?
"It has already subtly evolved. There's a whole part of my work which doesn't involve painting – the interaction with the landscape, the physicality of being there. I'm not obsessed with the process of painting. I don't know how it will continue to evolve. The excitement of actually being able to explore it certainly hasn't diminished. Soaking this all up, being out there is just as important as painting. It can all be incredibly satisfying."