Of Occupy Wall Street, bloggers and free jazz giants – an interview with Campbell Kneale

Featherston artist Campbell Kneale’s exhibition 22.11.14 is showing at Mazzola Jewellery & Gallery December 2014 to the end of January 2015.

Interviewed by David Famularo

Campbell Kneale

What’s the meaning of the title of the exhibition “22.11.14”?

I title them with the date of the beginning of the exhibition.

Is this work similar to what you have done before?

No, it’s different to what I’ve been doing before. I’ve been pretty much working in a field that could very broadly, and perhaps not very accurately, be described as abstract expressionism, which I know is a dreadfully loaded term, but it is abstract and it is expressionist. That’s what I’ve been working on for the past 20 years.

This last lot of work, which has appeared in perhaps in the last three months, is figurative. It’s got images, it’s got THINGS in it, which is pretty new for me. I haven’t done that for 20 years.

The works were created in very short time frames and that is part of the abstract [influence]. The abstract work was all about developing a certain handwriting, a physical quality in the work that couldn’t be imitated by anybody else, the result of the fact that my body and muscles remembered emotions in a certain way that made the  paintings look like my paintings as opposed to the guy next door’s.

These ones with their really short time frames, are about trying to capture that same sense of handwriting, almost like some kind of charged improvisation. You don’t have time to fuss over it, you just get the image down.

They are based on photographic images, media images largely, so yeah, in some ways this is quite different.

The thing I always found frustrating about abstraction is its inability to be able to deal with external subject matter. It is very good for internal subject matter and very good at finding what you are about but very poor at being able to address the world around you.

Over the past couple of years I’ve become quite politicized, quite radicalized, I think, to a certain extent, by the current political climate that we live in, in New Zealand. And looking at the world at large through those eyes – the post Occupy [Wall Street] movement. I think for me, I was hooked into looking at the world through this way through the Occupy movement.

It sparked an interest in me to investigate ideas like money and media and public opinion and myth making and war and critiques of capitalism and various kinds of things like that. Those things interest me but the abstract cannon that I was working with had very few doorways to explore those things.

So it is very interesting and it took me by surprise, a lot of the images that I am working with now.

How did you decide what images to sketch? Were you just watching television and reading books?

Well kind off.

Do you watch TV?

No, I don’t have TV. The internet usually. Because this sort of work is quite new to me, the images themselves and the reasons why I painted this particular series of images are probably quite separate.

What I am excited about with this exhibition is being able to see them altogether and to be able to make links between those different areas of interest.

There are links between our current political system and police brutality. There are links between the myths of lot of those traditional pillars of democracy and the reasons why we went to war in World War I. There is a link between our current political system and people going into WINZ (Work & Income New Zealand) and shooting people. I don’t claim to know what exactly that link is but everything is connected in a funny way.

Even if you just think about World War I. It’s been a hundred years and there seems to be a very New Zealand worshipee tendency, because we do worship New Zealand in New Zealand. We have an interesting form of nationalism here. There is this tendency to celebrate and memorialize and make some big drama out of this hundred years thing but the truth is most New Zealanders don’t know their own history. We are completely disengaged from our own history. We are not encouraged to know it and most New Zealanders don’t know why we went to war in World War I. Most New Zealanders still buy into this idea, which is a propaganda myth, and really consciously so. You can read about it in a number of places where the idea was sold to New Zealanders that we were supporting king and country. We still talk about Gallipoli being the birth of a nation and all that stuff.

Okay, that’s a part of the story, but the other part of the story is that there was huge amounts of British capital in New Zealand and just like today we are obligated to participate in coalitions of the willing, or an allied expeditionary force, because if we don’t, the capital will be withdrawn from our country. The reasons we went to war were for money.

The same reasons the Americans joined the First World War. If Britain and France lost the war, which it looked like they were going to do, Wall Street wasn’t going to get their money back, so they sent a huge force, very very late in the day to make sure that didn’t happen.

Why short sketches?

That’s about the handwriting. I didn’t want images that looked too labored over. I didn’t want to lose everything that I had gained over the last 20 years by developing a spontaneous muscle memory with the work that I did. I wanted it to look like mine.

So one way of doing that was to give yourself certain impositions so that you have to do it very fast and it will look how it looks because your body is forced to move very quickly. Whereas if you work over it studiously, you get the time to iron out all those creases.

What does that psychologically do to the work?

Keeping it shorter or keeping it longer?

Keeping it longer.

Well it would ruin it really. It would be like a record that gets over produced. You can take all the rawness out of it and it will end up sounding like everybody else’s record. If you get some million dollar producer to produce your record their job is to iron out all the idiosyncrasies and make it into a polished product whereas I am much more interested in bands that have a tape recorder in the corner.

Why did you choose [jazz saxophonist] john Coltrane?

I’m interested in the way we create super heroes. The way the media manipulates public opinion to create heroes

How does that relate to John Coltrane?

Well, John Coltrane comes into this little cluster of work which are the portraits. There’s [WINZ double murderer] John Tully, but there’s Edward Snowden, and I guess depending on what part of the media you listen to, [Snowden’s] either venerated as a hero, or villainised as a traitor. Whatever you decide is largely based on the media you expose yourself to. I’ve got an image of Batman. Batman is either a hero of the people or he is a billionaire CEO of some corporation who rules an entire city. And is the joker the good guy? Is he the one who represents destruction and introduction of democracy?

I’ve never understood how Batman can be a super hero with no special powers

He’s got a suit! I think about our society and the way we venerate people because they have a suit and a nice car. Why are those people celebrated in our society?

He’s the one they keep on making movie after movie about.

It’s because he’s a dark hero. He’s a bad guy. He’s not superman. Superman’s a squeaky clean vegetarian nutcase.

Maybe it’s because he’s imperfect?

Yeah, but you don’t know. You don’t know if he is a billionaire capitalist, or working for good. There’s obviously a huge PR campaign around Batman in his movies to convince Gotham City that he is a force for good but actually he’s a billionaire capitalist who owns the city.

You’ve got a sketch of [blogger Cameron] Slater and [New Zealand Prime Minister John] Key. Any particular reason you went for them?

They are topical but in the same way that John Tully is topical. There is a link between the things that happen in society and those who run that society. Again, I’m interested in the way that media or the way that we create super heroes, the way that the media shapes our public opinion. Depending on what sort of media you listen to or watch, to how you understand the link between John Key and Cameron Slater, it will be either a none of your business kind of thing, or a right wing conspiracy, or something completely despicable, or absolutely fine. The fact is, those two people exist, they have a link, and you put them next to a John Tully painting, and it begins to link the actions of the corporate elite with the actions of the grass roots people who are being affected.

To go back to John Coltrane, I’ve depicted him in his military uniform, in his pre “jazz hero” days. He was a poor guy, a black guy, so again an outsider. You could think of him as a destitute black jazz musician or you could think of him as the instigator of a form of blacks only music like free jazz which alienated everybody white who ever heard it as a squawking horrible noise.

And yet his intention was the revolutionisation of black society, the Africanisation of jazz, the expulsion of white corporate values from jazz, and he was really the sound track to the black civil rights movement.

I thought he was only playing free jazz right towards the very end [of his life]. I thought his music was just a new formulism, a new way to play jazz?

That could well be what was in John Coltrane’s mind, the spiritualization of jazz. But the fact that this all happened at a time when black people in America were fighting for their civil rights, and this music was blacks only music, to white jazz ears this was an unlistenable noise. So he came about in a place and time where somebody had to step into that gap, to be a black role model and espouse African American values at a time and place where that was pivotal in society.

Do you like listening to Coltrane?

I love listening to Coltrane, especially his later stuff.

Why did you choose the World War I landscapes?

There is a bit of an unspoken tradition in the Wairarapa to paint nice twee décor type landscapes, the classic Wairarapa landscape which I’ve always been fairly ambivalent towards. I don’t really want to see paintings of people’s lifestyle blocks and their weekend holiday properties.

The World War I landscapes, the exhibition being in Featherston is kind of important to me. This whole town is pretty obsessed with this notion of memorialisation, of claiming its little place. But again, people don’t really know their history, they don’t know why we went and actually your understanding of why we went to war changes your whole perspective on what memorialisation is about. This was the centre of training for a lot of those [soldiers] and we sent a lot of those people to fight for British capital

It’s the same today. It’s the John Keys, it’s the land owners, it’s the capitalists, who don’t have to go and fight, who send young boys under this myth of nationhood and everybody doing their bit for King and country.

Well we’re not. If anything is worth memorializing about the First World War, it’s the people who decided they didn’t want to go. I think the only people who are worth celebrating are the conscientious objectors who were basically tortured by this country for their refusal to take part.

And to put that into contemporary terms, we are currently in the process of joining yet another coalition of the willing? What are we going to do?  Are we going to surrender our rights under a new trade agreement to American capital? Well, yes we are, and who would be worth celebrating in our society in 100 years time. I would like to think the only people who would be worth celebrating are the people who stood against that.

And just like the [1981 South African Rugby] Springbok tour [to New Zealand]. What do we remember the Springbok tour for? Do we remember the [New Zealand Rugby Union chief] Cess Blazeys and the [New Zealand Prime Minister] Robert Muldoons? We don’t really remember those people. What is synonymous with the Springbok tour is a bunch of blokes, a bunch of gangs with crash helmets and hockey masks fronting up against the police. I think that is worth memorializing. The fact that thousands of New Zealanders stood against something which was wrong in order to create genuine change. And it did. It created genuine change. If anything is worth memorializing about the Springbok tour  it is those events, not rugby, not the superstars of the day, not sporting winning out in the end and isn’t it great that we can all come together and play sport and put these other concerns aside. It is the fight for a better society.

I guess that depends on whether the present government and its supporters succeed and their point of view becomes history or not. I like the Martin Luther King quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

That’s interesting but the Springbok tour is a good example of what happened in New Zealand in the 1980s which like going nuclear free and gay rights, seems quite inconceivable now. There has been a huge shift in New Zealand society towards conservatism, and that’s been brought about by media manipulation, by consumer choice, by this idea that if we consume certain goods we are certain people. It’s simply not true. And again, this plays into this whole idea of how we create myths about ourselves, what we think New Zealand is all about in terms of our identity, and how it is completely at the mercy of corporate forces. We don’t actually have any control over our New Zealand identity any more. It doesn’t matter what new Zealanders say about whether we should our assets or not. The government is going to sell them and New Zealanders are not going to do anything about it. They will not come out in the street. They will not protest. They will not front up to the police. They will go “Woe is me. No one listens to me.”

Campbell Kneale Exhibition

You can read the artist’s statement and view the works here