John Edgar's Stonelines
by Graham Price, NZ Crafts, Issue 29, Spring 1989.

A seemingly self-selected diet from childhood of Tolkien, geology, Taoism, craft jewellery, anthropology, minimalist art and a Pakeha's selective receptivity to Maori values has developed me into a custom-made client for John Edgar's work.

I first encountered his work in 1985 at the Villas Gallery in Wellington. Amongst obviously precious objects in their hand-tailored boxes was an immaculately smooth surface with a whirlpool of a yin yang symbol floating as an absence, in subtly-veined black argillite surrounded by a flawlessly fitting copper band. There was a hesitancy to mark these perfect surfaces which nevertheless called out to be touched. In awe of their technical expertise I replace the object, feeling a slight unease at the colonising of an ancient eastern symbol. Did this clever technical achievement have an integrity of concept as well?

For nine months I compulsively returned to hold and wrestle with this object. I saw the Pakohe exhibition at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt which was a wonderful validation of this material and I was reassured that 'my' piece didn't carry the burden of a grand title like Coin for Lord Wu. Not being the Illustrious Ancestor myself, I was free to develop a relationship with the more intimate scale of the unnamed object of my fascination.

On leaving Wellington to return south I claimed what had already claimed me. It held meanings of change for me, like aspects of self not yet recognised. The material history - common mud metamorphosed into rich, strong argillite - a central symbol for both infinity and polarity - the dense black plane which grounded the active central point - the live conducting rim of copper, alchemical metal of Venus enclosing all. It became a personalised object of power capable of being stored away and shared with guests who would value the gesture. It remains a central piece in a mere handful of treasures.

Stonelines was an important opportunity to share the retrospective journey of John Edgar. When I arrived, I had just come from viewing Julia Morrison's Vademecum 1986. There, an array of alchemical, art-historical, architectural logos, and written symbols were woven together. Capable of rich, multiple, coherent readings, they were arranged (they can be variously arranged) into a series suggesting the transmutation of gold into lead - a slowly disintegrating cabalistic tree.

In Edgar's Stonelines I felt as though I was offered the trappings of a similar art context, and gave it full measure as such. The entrance required passage through a delineated fibre pyramid anchored by four stones with a feathered apex. The image of a solid stone pyramid, symbol of enclosed transformation, had been made into a transparent doorway. Already the major theme of earlier stone traditions had been asserted. Much of Edgar's work appeals to past multicultural origins - American Indian, Aboriginal, Chinese and Maori, with 'New Age' overtones. Does Edgar re-interpret these symbols - enlarge or extend their meanings by new association - or is this aggrandisement by cultural appropriation by a superb craftsman? Edgar announces in his exhibition statement: 'I begin to understand the balance of concept, material and process'. I acknowledge Edgar as an undisputed master of material and process. This review focuses on the development of concept over the last twelve years.

The deceptively simple stone disc appears to have emerged in 1979 and remained as a dominant form. In attending to the titled discs (Controller 79, Tao 81, Sign Wave, I am Bound Within This Land Aotearoa, Disc for Lord Wu) we are given clues to John Edgar's imagery. The obvious Chinese references have been mentioned: Sign Wave comes across as a deep and meaningful pun, and I am Bound Within this Land Aotearoa sustains an embarrassingly literal interpretation of a metal JE monogram set between two pieces of Aotearoa! The metal appears to do the binding rather than the stone, and the title actually limits, rather than enriches, interpretation. The appeal for identity in and involvement with the land, while undoubtedly a strong value in Edgar's life, is not explored beyond the literal within the work.

Similarly the Comet series suffers through over-exposure and lack of development. The 'naturally' formed pebble is sliced, drilled and immaculately plugged into a literal depiction of the head and tail of the comet. Where some are titled Stone 83, others are named Sign of the Comet. The inner and outer forms are aesthetically adjusted but no enlargement of the idea occurs. I enjoyed the earlier more ambiguous relief carved forms which added the meaning of highly organic forms like some stone seed or embryo. In the pebble shapes I am reminded of Edgar's acknowledgment of natural forms as 'true forms, true surfaces', as if direct imitation of nature is the highest one can aspire to. Edgar proves in work other than these pieces that you do not have to deny the 'true nature' of artist as shaper and maker to be in harmony with natural materials and still communicate meaning at a rich level.

The Coins of the Realm belong to a group of discs that have landscape references. Again in a literal sense, a coin has he made from the substance of the land, and its form is a reference to sharply delineated horizons. As a title is has overtones of a kingdom and a royal mint, and the colonial implications sit uncomfortably beside bicultural assertions made elsewhere in his work. Going to Katajuta is a sequence of enlarging views of an approach to a red outcrop in three steps. Across the Great Divide is a simplistic sequenced exploration in five steps forming discontinuities from the horizon line. Faults 88 is a literal exploration of a fault series in six steps. If these images were performed in any other media, I would call them tentative, even naive, sketches. It is only the matching of content to material in a literal way, and the superb control of material processes and qualities, that holds my attention a little longer.

The delight for me in this exhibition was to acquaint myself with the development of the rectangular forms dating from 1982. These suggested potency by alluding to electrical gadgetry, conducting and earthing materials and metal inlays carrying ambiguous symbol combinations. Simultaneously they speak of great age and contemporary life. Edgar exploits the orientation of a symbol overlap, an electrical earth 'E', the three fingered hand, his own initial, and compass orientation, East. Transmitter 1985 exploits the powerful combination of dark impenetrable stone and sudden transparency. Viewed obliquely the object suggests a monolith of quartz veined with granite. The burst of parallel shafts of light denies the stone's mass and is a powerful symbol of transformation. Overtones of Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey were not intrusive. However, I am sure if the 'Air New Zealand Musac' sound hadn't been continuously intruding I would have heard the Zarathustra.

It is unfortunate that this work tests the limits of the perspex display cases, as it deserved unbounded space. The Stones of 1988 that use greywacke and glass exploit the same material contrasts in pebble forms. The technical power of tools to slice rock is shared with the viewer as the fragments are recombined with glass inserts. I do not see the 'heart of the stone intact', as Edgar suggests in his exhibition statement, however, but a balance of fragmented wholeness. The delicate balance of mass to the visual force of light can be recognised if you visualise these works with their figure-ground reversed and attend to the change in meaning and balance. John Edgar never fails throughout the exhibition to reach an aesthetic equilibrium by an acute sensitivity to material combination and proportion.

Tablet 1985 is a powerful synthesis of much of the exhibition. The earliest comet motif is restated in relief as is the reaching figure and the somewhat literal Rocket Tablet. Associations with adze form are apparent with the deviation from strict oblong format. The use of broken edges suggest a deliberate antiquing which is visually satisfying and adds to the ancient-modern connections. The broken stone edge is a surface which is quietly present throughout the exhibition. It would be very satisfactory to see this contrasting surface given more power and complexity beyond antiquing.

As an overview I am left with a feeling of a journey which began with a material and process knowledge that out-stripped conceptual content. The search for themes has occasionally reached a significant image, but has then become lost through repetition.

The role of magic and mystery in Edgar's work must be acknowledged. Occasionally however, I feel confronted by an unclear distinction between mystery and mystification. Mystification is a pretentious claim upon profundity, whereas mystery is not a problem to be solved or cleared up, but something to be witnessed and attested. The artist and viewer do not claim to know mystery, but be open to its action upon them. In claiming amulet status for some of his work Edgar aligns himself with an ancient belief that the magic act of transforming material itself invest a condition of magic to the perfected object. The amulet was kept as a protection against the unknown. In Edgar's case I sense his use of amulet as the opening up to the unknown rather than protection from it. Authentically spiritual art does not so much communicate as induce an attitude of contemplation requiring sincerity and humility from the viewer and the maker. A conflict arises when this object is reduced to a luxury product where spiritual claims are used to further enhance its value and status.

In the face of such obstacles how does one retain the spiritual integrity of the work? The attempt to encapsulate transcendence in material has a long alchemical tradition. It is a union of opposites as extreme as those of stone and light. For me, some of John Edgar's work begins to take that path and produce a sense of the monumental made intimate. In others, those forces are domesticated into harmless aetheticising.


John Edgar, Amulets and Alchemy - NZ Crafts, Summer 84/85
Bone Stone and Shell New Jewellery - New Zealand 1988, Catalogue
Denis Donaghue, The Arts without Mystery - BBC Reith Lectures, 1982
Untracht - Jewellery Concepts and Technology, 1982
Kuspit - Concerning the Spiritual in Contemporary Art, Los Angeles Museum of Art, 1986.


Time to Romance the Stone
Crafty Carvings Give a New Insight by Michael Gilchrist, NBR Weekend Review, 18 August 1989.

The distinction between art and craft is not a popular one these days. We tend to regard it as an unnecessary, not to say unsavoury, categorisation of personal creativity. Categories, or labels, in general are scarcely better than the root of all evil - the public enemy of the private life. Unfortunately this is not an enlightened attitude because it is not based on any (new) knowledge: either of categories or the objects and people they purport to describe. Legitimate distinctions, foolish prejudices, naive enthusiasm - these continue as before, only unacknowledged.

The work of John Edgar is instructive in many of these respects. Stone Lines is a large exhibition of his stone carvings from the last 10 years which has been showing in Wellington and is due to start in Auckland. The earlier work is mostly done in nephrite jade or greenstone. Later he uses metasomatised argillite or serpentine, greywacke, jasper and granite, often combined with copper and other metals or glass.

These materials are worked using modern tools and it is clear from Edgar's curriculum vitae he has pioneered the establishment of workshops for this purpose, mainly in Auckland. He has also curated the exhibition of New Zealand craft, "Bone, Stone and Shell" now touring Australia. In addition, he is a prospector, gathering all the stone he uses in his work.

Judging by some of the pieces shown here, his skills in this field alone must be quite extraordinary. Edgar describes himself as a craftsman and the first impression this exhibition makes is undoubtedly that of technical mastery. It seems one has never seen such precision and finish in contemporary work of this kind. In every piece there is that property of otherness a material achieves when it is most truly understood in itself. Liquid, soft, light, massive, translucent, artificial, fragile, immutable - these are a part of what stone is.

A 'craft' for Edgar clearly means something both of great pride and great humility. There is the suggestion of disciplines which a mere 'art' may not involve. Strangely, though, it is the self-consciousness of this craft which leads to it being art - to what it has to say, as art.

In examining what it is to be a stone carver, Edgar discovers a different basis on which to understand what it is to be in history, in time. The technique of stone carving discloses technique itself. It is technique which controls our sense of the uniqueness of the present, of the shape of the past (even so far as such modest accounts as the birth of the Universe), and how we address the future.

Our history is, above all, the history of technology. It is this which socialises us in the most intimate and unconscious ways, while at a greater distance we may be more aware (albeit with ever mounting nausea) that our destiny is bound to that of history's true subject, 'man'.

Edgar posits a technique with its own genealogy, not a part of the development of technology that enshrouds and defines the present moment for us. In so doing he enters science fiction of history. Here 'what works/how things work' is stripped of its nature and revealed as power. The utter conviction with which this is achieved derives in part from a consciousness of the materials used.

For stone is itself a transient moment in a history of forces and transformations. And by a kind of microcosmic effect it is capable of portraying a landscape in the same way. But this transformation belongs to one system. It is the tension arising when this system is used to connote a moment in another system that is most interesting.

So Edgar's transmitters, receivers or translators, for example, these forms in stone, metal and glass are both totally mysterious and quite transparent. Their transparency lies in the way that power or function is drawn back into the stone, into its division, its internal difference interleaved with glass. We can imagine these objects 'working'. The self-sufficiency of Edgar's craft has other consequences for his art. It often confers a sublime indifference, an absoluteness on the works.

In Disc for Lord Wu (1987), for example, a double-eyed Taoist design is carved through the centre of a disc of black jade with alarming delicacy and precision. Two comet tails of reflected light, hovering and burning at the entrance to the design, are most extraordinary. It is as if the greatest technique has produced the greatest distance. We can't believe these are intended. They seem instead like historical events.

In Controller (1979), this kind of narrative is again evoked. This frightening work is a large thick circlet of green jade some 23 cm in diameter. The scale and simplicity of the piece suggest it belongs to another order, another system of power. This is the greatest 'art' - but it is not the realm of the modern post-romantic artist, the creator of individual worlds. It is a realm rather of the humility and service of the craftsman, of sovereignties and dominions, vast epochs, shifting technologies and priesthoods, cosmic signs. It is the Chinese history that Kafka describes in his story of the Great Wall, in which individual intentions are carried far into the transcendent mind.

Even in 'I am bound within this land' (1985), we sense, in the juxtaposition of the two sides of argillite geological transformations in which rocks melt and the hardest substratum dissolves into sand. The silver sign in the middle seems to float in its radiance, suggesting it is the dominion of its power that seals the horizon, binds heaven and earth together.

The economy of this desire, of the willed externalisation of sovereignty is explored very little in our thought. It is the being in truth, the experience of truth as circumstance and the identification with it, rather than truth being conferred by individual autonomy. Of course further reversals lie beneath this one - but this desire for historical determination is a powerful line for enquiry.

The most intimate moments in Edgar's work are those when the object is nearest to flux or change. Perhaps for Edgar this corresponds to the real nature of the self. In New River Tablet (1987), for example, the oblong of jade with its brown ends like river banks conveys a living immediacy, a slice of green current that is almost overwhelming.

Clearly dismissing categories such as art and craft altogether is too crude a remedy. Approaching their definition performatively yields surprising results. If this were also to lead to an appreciation of the stature of Edgar's work, which is the equal of any of his fellows in the lines of stone, so much the better.