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Guest Voices: On Don

Author: Courtney Johnston, Director
Invited Guest Voices writer Simon Gennard's new zine 'Curiosities' was inspired by encountering Don Driver's dolls.
The finished zine with Don Driver's 'Untitled (Doll on Drum)

The finished zine with Don Driver's 'Untitled (Doll on Drum)", 1991. Jim Barr and Mary Barr Loan, The Dowse Art Museum.

Collection store photo

Collection store photo

Collection store photo

Collection store photo

Pages in preparation

Pages in preparation

This is our fifth post in our Guest Voices series. Check out the earlier contributions:

Rachel O'Neill on ceramics and screenplays
Catherine Field-Dodgson on Project Sunshine
Anna Hesp on Richard Parker
Megan Dunn on a Friday morning visit

On Don by Simon Gennard

Beguiling is a fun word. It starts on the lips, moves towards the throat and ends just behind the teeth. I used it in an email to Courtney recently. I was talking about how I found working on my Guest Voices project. Exhausting is another word I used or meant to use.

I first visited The Dowse in October last year. It seems like a long time ago now. It is. Relatively. It was a fairly hurried meeting and there was a lot of ground to cover. I found it difficult to comprehend much, beyond what I could see directly in front of me. You could say I was having trouble with peripherals. You probably wouldn’t say it, but you could. There was one thing though, something pretty important. In a dimly lit corner of the collection, behind empty rolling shelves sat three of Don Driver’s dolls.

They’re terrifying, in a kind of comical way. All sickly coloured and plastic, one wears a teeny traffic cone as a hat, another has a circular saw through its tiny hands. I probably saw them only for a couple a minutes, I took some photos but they aren’t very well lit. They hung around. Longer than I would have liked.

•••

I was talking to a friend in a poetry workshop I took recently. She knew Don when he was alive. She was talking about how warm he was, almost antithetical to some of his pieces. She told me about Don’s dynamic with his wife, Joyce, how supportive she was throughout his career. She told me an anecdote about being shown around Don’s studio by Joyce, she spotted a broom hanging on the wall as part of one of his assemblages. She cocked her head and said something like ‘Oh, that’s where it went’ and continued her tour.

My friend turned to lamenting that a lot of young curators, art writers and students seem to have lost interest in him. Courtney said something similar on my second visit to The Dowse. I’m speculating, of course, but maybe this lack of interest is due to the time it takes to think about Don’s work.

Don’s work is complex, layered, confronting. At times it is sleek and cerebral, sometimes it’s garish and precarious. It can elicit fear, or a weird comfort, or repulsion, but it seems to evade any singular, reductionist reading.

I decided to produce a zine for my Guest Voices project. It’s a forgiving medium. One that doesn’t beg for neat conclusions or smooth arcs. It was an opportunity to try and decipher. To reflect on my feelings about Don’s work, his pull, where he fits within an art historical context. A movement towards something, rather than an arrival at any particular place.

The following is an excerpt:

To the Periphery

I have trouble piecing things together. Knowing exactly where everything should go. Knowing exactly what it is I should include. Knowing exactly what it is I am trying to say.

This is what I know about Don: I first met Don Driver in art history class. I was aware, but not familiar with him, beforehand. I associated him with a lurid palette, with dresses on the wall, ladders, and the provinces. I remember him among those who shook us from our stupor. Who helped realign our perspective from that awkward, pubescent post-settler desire for a language of our own, to a concern with the magnification of the periphery. An upright position—backs straight, heads forward, doing our best not to think about pillars of salt. This omits nuance, of course, but my point is that I met Don’s legacy before encountering his work.

This legacy, it seems, is one of provocation. Of being embraced by an artistic infrastructure and loathed by a parochial audience. Public commissions being removed from public libraries. A ‘molester’s wet dream’ in the National Art Gallery. Don, as we seem to remember him, worked with a sneer, exposing his fellow constituents as philistines, affronting for the sake of it.

Or perhaps not quite.

What I know of Don is that he didn’t share my weakness of structure. His chaos is calculated. ‘His pieces,’ according to David Hill, writing in the Listener in 1999, ‘are meticulously wrought.’ Mine frustrated. There is a photograph accompanying a short write up of a 1983 solo show at The Dowse. In black and white, Don is in stripes, a high collar beneath a suede coat. Donning a grin, embarrassed and warm. He has crinkles where his eyelids meet, they lead around his head, to a shaggy mop of hair. He looks less like Iago than an old friend, greeting me after quite some time.

•••

Anxiety doesn’t shake itself so easily. Maybe I’m remiss in thinking of Don as an artist who operated outside of a nationalist project, that he was fortunate enough to respond to his environment without being implicated in a wholehearted endorsement of its validity.

In 1981, Leonard Bell wrote a feature for Art New Zealand titled Don Driver: On The Margins. Bell writes of Don’s work as a paradox. Unapologetically provincial, yet produced in a milieu that seems antithetical, or at least unsympathetic to his work. ‘New Plymouth,’ he writes, ‘is hardly renowned for the cosmopolitanism and internationalism usually considered necessary ingredients to sustain Driver's sort of work.’ When Bell makes note of Don’s 1968 trip across the American mid-west, and he does often (as do others), it is mentioned as a pilgrimage. Something holy to explain the origins of Don’s work, as if there’s no plausible way it could come from here.

When we speak of Don Driver now, we speak of Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, Kim Dine. I don’t think it works in reverse.

I heard once from one of my favourite lecturers that, thanks to Govett-Brewster, New Plymouth has a wonderful selection of places to get a nice lunch. Maybe that’s why he stayed.

Don said once he wished to create an ‘equivalent’ of the kind of work he saw in the United States. Motivated by an absence here. A movement to mythologise our own mid-West. A self-conscious wink, a laugh between ourselves about our comparative size and distance. An inclination to joke awkward chosen over hubris to the point of parody. Laughter and allegiance as evasion.

I’m speculating, of course, but maybe Don’s reasons for staying weren’t to create works we could look at, recognise ourselves in, and feel proud with our efforts to tame the land. Perhaps he wasn’t bound up in an effort to make the periphery visible, to try and shift the centre, maybe he was more comfortable at the edge.

•••

There is, of course, something of ourselves in the dolls. They unsettle, upon first look, because their form reflects our own. It’s a skewed vision, obviously. There are limbs in all the right places, mostly. Their colour, a little sallow, a little shinier, but we are there enough.

Elizabeth Smither, in her 1983 review of Ritual noted that the scythes carried by the dolls ‘have nothing to do with the New Zealand farmer.’ I am open to accusations of taking Smither out of context, but this seems to me, akin to recoiling in disgust. A statement contrary to the blindingly obvious as a means of solace. Denial is, of course, an act of self-preservation, the brain acting on its most primitive impulses.

A few triggers (according to Natural History Magazine): feces, urine, toilets, sweat, cut hair, vomit, open wound, saliva, bad breath, nose picking, dirty nails, flies, maggots, lice, beggars, crowded trains, kissing in public, betrayal.

A few ways to react: to run, to scream, to speak, ‘I am not here,’ to look closer, to poke a stick inside a dead animal, to move the stick around, squelching noises and guts to one side and then the other, inspecting every part, to complain to your city councillor about an inappropriate exhibition at a local art gallery, to double annual visitor numbers.

To admit.

To say, ‘I am here. This is what I look like when I’m not expecting to see myself.’

Driver’s materials, rusty farm tools, oil drums, ladders and dresses and bones, are all specific to a nonspecific place. Calling the dolls a shock, a thrill, calling them social comment reduces them. Driver elicits denial in his proximity to us. I can, with the benefit of rarely leaving the city, with the benefit of not actually being from here, distance myself from the dolls by virtue of the fact that I don’t exist in the agricultural postcard version of New Zealand, and am therefore exempt from their pull. But that would be false. It is difficult to deny something from a foot’s distance. Maybe Don’s dolls reflect something a little beneath the surface. A vision of the every day that refuses to romanticize anything. Don is more glue than nails, violent in a way that takes a while, less interested in a sensation that will inevitably dull, and more concerned with a slow peel.

Simon's zine Curiosities is available for sale in MINE (our store), online & at Matchbox Studios on Cuba St, Wellington.

Simon Gennard is in his final year studying English Literature and Art History. He is trying not to disappoint his parents any further.

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