A Tourist in Paradise Lost: the Art of Michael Illingworth

I myself have reached the age of thirty-three without being activated by money, political, academic, religious or plain middle-class motivations. It has not been easy, yet over the years I have managed to paint a body of work sufficient now to start looming over me, and when this happens one begins to realise one’s own size.

Michael Illingworth, Artist Statement, Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, 1965

Michael Illingworth: A Tourist in Paradise Lost investigates the energy, humour, pathos, and biting satire of Illingworth’s art. Although in recent decades Illingworth’s work has been featured in numerous group shows and exhibitions of public collections, it has never been brought together to ‘loom over’ audiences. This exhibition offers an unprecedented overview of a remarkable painter in the cultural life of our country.

As his 1965 artist statement reveals, Illingworth adopted the role of an outsider, an individual who rejected the demands of middle-class society in the pursuit of ‘the good, the true and the beautiful.’ His canvases are a product of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture—they embody changing attitudes to the environment, gender relations, and morality. They are often unashamedly sexual and shocked some members of the public when they were first exhibited. Indeed the police received complaints of obscenity against As Adam and Eve when the painting was first exhibited in 1965 and then again in the 1970s. He knew these complainants well, and even satirised them in his ‘Piss-Quick’ figures—symbols of well dressed, middle-class Pākehā mediocrity living in their ticky-tacky suburban boxes (and sometimes shown visiting art galleries), alienated from the natural world and their own desires.

Casting a disapproving eye on both suburbia and bureaucracy, Illingworth used his art to vent his disenchantment and rage. But, the exhibition seeks to expand the understanding of Illingworth’s work by revealing the different strategies he developed for letting his paintings act in and on the world. The paintings swing from the bitterly satirical to the idealistic, even the sentimental—all underpinned by a supreme faith in the power of art and the role of the artist to transform the world.

Curated with Damian Skinner, City Gallery Wellington, 13 July–28 October 2001, Auckland Art Gallery, 26 January–21 April 2002; Manawatu Art Gallery, Palmerston North, 4 May–30 June 2002; Dunedin Public Art Gallery