New Len Lye show explores Christchurch resonance for global art star
It started with a kerosene can in a backyard on Christchurch's Manchester St.
Artist Len Lye was a young boy and his father was dying. He was ushered into the backyard while the adults talked.
He kicked an old kerosene can, which made a massive crash and flashed as it caught the sunlight.
It was an inspirational moment for Lye and the dazzling, globe spanning artistic career that followed.
A major new exhibition at the Christchurch Art Gallery explores how that moment resonated through Lye's career and artworks. Just like the kerosene can, many of the artworks selected for the show move, bang and flash, but at a much larger scale. His artwork Large Blade, which features in the show, is a 5 metre-tall strip of steel that moves and makes a noise.
Lye was born in Christchurch in 1901, moved to London in 1925 and then the West Village in New York City in 1944, working in an art scene that gave birth to the abstract impressionist movement and titans like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. He was hailed by Time magazine as England's alternative to Walt Disney and one of his films was preserved for all time by the US Library of Congress.
Christchurch Art Gallery senior curator Lara Strongman said Lye often returned to that childhood moment.
"It is something that stayed in his mind and he returned to again and again. It was the fundamental basis for thinking about his work and it happened on Manchester St in Christchurch," she said.
"I spent quite a lot of time going through the Len Lye archive and I kept on finding reference to this story, which he wrote and rewrote from many different angles.
"Later in life, after he was quite famous and doing lectures in America, he would always bring it up.
"The works selected for the show relate to that moment and the kicking of the kerosene can. The works bang and flash and boom in different ways."
The exhibition includes 11 moving sculptures, paintings, drawings, doodles and eight of his experimental films.
The title, Len Lye: Stopped Short by Wonder, is taken from a passage where Lye wrote about the childhood moment.
"We're all stopped short by wonder sometimes and that's when it first stopped me in its tracks."
Many of the sketches in the exhibition relate to another informative period Lye spent in 1920s Christchurch.
"While he was here he spent a lot of time in Canterbury Museum looking at the tribal arts in what they called the ethnographic room, which was everything that wasn't Maori, New Zealand or European," Strongman said.
"They had an extraordinary collection of artefacts from around the world because a previous museum director had swapped moa bones they had dug out of the swamps in Canterbury for all these amazing worldwide artefacts. It was an extraordinarily big gallery full of all these artefacts.
"Lye sketched them all, but he lost his sketchbook in Wellington, diving into the sea to save someone. When he got back, the sketchbook was gone. But we have his next sketchbook, which was from his trip to Sydney, which includes a series of drawings of Maori artefacts from museums in Sydney."
Strongman said it was the "perfect moment" to bring Lye's works to Christchurch.
"Len Lye's work is so full of life and energy and it fundamentally impresses everyone who sees it. They have an emotional reaction. It lifts you out of yourself and charges up your spirit. It is so full of life and cheer and vigour.
"There are a generation of children who have not experienced these works and I would like to share them with them."