The Restless Pilgrim,
HOW TO BURN THE HOUSE DOWN
by Emil McAvoy
Watch out, you might get what you're after
Cool, babies! Strange but not a stranger
I'm an ordinary guy
Burning down the house
Hold tight, wait till the party's over
Hold tight, we're in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house
Here's your ticket, pack your bag
Time for jumpin' overboard
The transportation is here
Close enough but not too far
Maybe you know where you are
Fightin' fire with fire
- Talking Heads, Burning Down the House
Sometimes you just need to burn it down and leave town. Get on the road and go looking for yourself. At least until the dust settles.
Contemporary pilgrimages also provide passage through inner landscapes. A chance to remember and forget. They offer rituals connecting the mythical journeys of the ancients to the urgencies of the present. Bridging the seen and unseen, they sustain the symbolic pursuit of authenticity. Art as an experience.
Artist Elliot Collins makes broad, contemplative pilgrimages in his own country, roaming widely and finding moments of significance in abundance. If there is a recklessness in this activity, it is perhaps found in a commitment to the poetics of indeterminate wandering. As Collins suggests, it is "a journey, not the journey." If it were the journey it would likely constitute tourism, or enacting someone else's concept of travel.
Pilgrimages offer interventions in the often slow, predictable progression of our everyday lives: a break from ordinary work, routine and the linear experience of time. Artists' often unconventional ways of seeing things make them fitting candidates to embark on pilgrimages to places of significance; to re-imagine such sites and the expeditions to visit them, to explore the fringes of the world and alternative ways of being in it. From the wanderings of the nineteenth century flaneur to the Situationists' psycho-geographical derive, artists have long made movements more focussed on the journey than the destination. In some ways pilgrimages can be likened to art-making: as excursions in to the unknown, where intuition, intellect and improvisation can act as navigational skills within uncharted territories. Of course, you don't have to set fire to anything before you embark, but it may catalyse and hasten your departure.
Collins' exhibition title references Surrealist Rene Magritte's painting The Reckless Sleeper (1928), and though on the surface the association appears loose or opaque, Magritte's sleeping figure and the apparent content of his dreams provide a range of interpretive links. Signs of conventional social expectations embodied in the bowler hat and ribbon are contrasted with more ambiguous and historically loaded symbols, such as the lit candle, mirror, apple and bird. The symbols are grouped together without hierarchy on what appears to be a stylised gravestone. Magritte may be suggesting it is the sleeper's dreams which might prove reckless, or simply the act of dreaming itself.
The automobile is a loaded symbol of, among other concepts, dreams of social mobility, freedom and escape. Collins' S/Z (2017), a customised 1986 Toyota Hilux truck, appears centre stage in this exhibition as both a vehicle for creative pilgrimages and an art object in its own right. Riffing on the license plate (which begins with 'SZ') and semiologist Roland Barthes' text S/Z, Collins' numerous alterations transform this vehicle-as-found-object in to a rich semiotic container for potential meaning.
The exterior of Collins' well-worn truck is augmented with Dark Night (2017), a handmade stained-glass rear window, and a poem painted on the wooden deck. The stained-glass window of Dark Night is reminiscent of an abstracted McCahon landscape, and shapes the quality and colour of light which surrounds and passes through it. The painted poem was written by Collins on the road. Its glowing yellow text set on the wooden deck reminds me of McCahon's reference to the 'Hairdresser and Tobacconist' typography he saw painted on the glass of a shop window in his travels, alongside Ian Scott's eponymous, somewhat ironic piece from 1988.
Inside the truck's cab, a video work, Bodies of Water (passed under, over, through and around), 2014-17 (2017), loops on an iPhone lying on the passenger seat, alongside The Company of Travellers (2017), a collection of kowhai seeds that fills the centre console. Bodies of Water was compiled from five years of footage, and explores his personal voyages in relation to histories and mythologies of water, which, like the artist, are always moving somewhere else. Collins' kowhai seeds offer another container for meaning: the kernel of an idea, and the real dispersal of living memory gathered on the move.
The poetically augmented truck finds a parallel in gathered close in silence (2017), a suite of digital photographs and monochromes of stained-glass set in black frames which are butted together, akin to the thick lead filament of a stained-glass window composition. The photographs record fragments of the truck and are overlaid with lines of Collins' poetry, their yellow letters reminiscent of cinematic titles, internet memes (the work was first released sequentially on Instagram), and painted yellow road markings.
The artist's self-titled word paintings draw on diverse influences and conflate a range of styles and citations. They are rendered in oil on linen, drawing on the history and gravitas of Western traditions. However, their underpainting in 'pop' colours such as pale pink, red, cadmium yellow, lilac, and sky blue complicates their apparent seriousness, and problematize conventional readings of the texts which appear on their surface. They engage rhetorical and literary strategies which open a range of associations, questions and mental images. In a nod to the pithy one-liners of Ed Ruscha's cool conceptualism, Collins' paintings appear at once sincere, ironic, neither and both. HOW TO BURN DOWN THE HOUSE (2017) appears as a rhetorical question, a statement and a set of instructions. Similarly, HOW TO MAKE HISTORY (2017) can be seen to reflect on painting's historical role as a cultural artefact, alongside artists' attempts to enter art history. Fittingly, their Obelisk font, designed by Alistair McCready, is used in gravestones and memorials. In counterpoint, the accompaniment of Collins' feathery, gestural brush strokes in bright pigments appear to negate these lofty and potentially solemn concerns in a light-hearted way. This tension between surface and depth, humour and pensiveness underpin his practice. There are moments which are seriously funny.
Collins clearly enjoys pushing painting around. The colourful markings in these works may evoke numerous references, from the animated strokes of the Post-Impressionists, the chunky viscosity of Abstract Expressionism, to the more self-referential, cerebral strokes of Robert Ryman. In the context of travel, Collins' paintings may also suggest dappled light glimpsed through the trees, caught in peripheral vision while travelling at speed down a rural road, echoed in the words HOW FLEETING IS OUR TIME IN THE SUN.
The Horizon Paintings are constructed from Collins' repurposed canvas drop sheets, complete with aberrations and previous paint marks visible on their unpainted sides. In a range of domestic interior paint colours, they trace the ever-receding horizon as experienced on this travels through New Zealand. Collins' horizon lines are perfectly straight and display a visual congruence with his earlier VTS Paintings (Very Tranquil Sea). The combination of the two distinct tones evoke a third unseen colour in the humming space between; akin to the horizon, ever-present yet always somewhere else.
Collectively, The Reckless Pilgrim charts the artist's inner and outer journeys of significance, materialising their lasting memories, impacts and influences. Yet Collins is aware that to observe is also to affect the object of one's observation. Collins' travels intervene in the landscape he traverses, records and to which he responds, leaving both forever altered.