Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art

Split Level View Finder is the first comprehensive exhibition of Theo Schoon’s art in over three decades. Since the first survey of the Dutch artist’s work at Rotorua Museum in 1982, there have been significant shifts in the understanding of the complexity and value of Schoon’s idiosyncratic practice—and, importantly, the issues, problems, and relationships it has generated. Split Level View Finder rethinks his legacy for twenty-first–century Aotearoa.

Schoon is an unruly artist and an even more unruly subject. His practice, like his life, was chaotic, uncontrolled, porous—driven by a strong set of philosophies surrounding the role of art and the artist in the modern world—especially that yet to be forged in Aotearoa. He worked (often problematically) across and between cultures and art forms, seeing Paul Klee in the Ngāi Tahu rock drawings, and art brut in the drawings of Rolfe Hattaway, a patient at Avondale Hospital. His work is idea-driven and process-based. He was never that interested in making or archiving finished works of art, or building a coherent body of work. He made paintings, photographs, prints, pottery, carved jade and gourds—challenging established hierarchies between art and craft, painting and photography, European and Māori. Exhibitions, with one exception, were largely treated as unnecessary distractions. Schoon found more fulfilment in the working through of ideas and possibilities—in various ways, materials, and, notably, often with other artists. He regularly features in art history as a generative, guiding force in the work of others­—notably as mentor figure to Gordon Walters (they are often referred to in shorthand terms as the ‘Picasso and Braque’ of New Zealand modernism). This exhibition presents Schoon as a catalyst, a node, and a problem for modernist art in Aotearoa.

Schoon was particularly interested in what Māori art might offer modernism, and what modernism might offer Māori art. His ‘discovery’ of the rock drawings in the late 1940s and his curious inclusion as a Pākehā in The First Māori Festival of the Arts at Tūrangawaewae marae in 1963 are considered as key moments of encounter and exchange. The exhibition also includes a mural made by Schoon that has been hanging within a marae complex in Rotorua for almost thirty years. Schoon’s interaction with Māori art is complex and problematic. What he saw as a form of collaboration now looks like appropriation and cultural presumption.

This exhibition presents Schoon’s work as constantly in dialogue or dispute with other cultural forms and artists. He shared his interest in Māori art with Gordon Walters. Their works shared a close, decades-long conversation. In addition to Walters, the exhibition includes works by Rita Angus, A.R.D. Fairburn, Rolfe Hattaway, Dennis Knight Turner, Douglas MacDiarmid, Paratene Matchitt, Selwyn Muru, Arnold Wilson, and Ans Westra.

Curated with Damian Skinner, City Gallery Wellington, 27 July–3 November 2019, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 7 March – 31 May 2020