Lie of the Land - Stone Sculptures by John Edgar
by Helen Schamroth, Object No. 4, 1998, pp24-25

One could enjoy John Edgar's impeccably crafted stone sculptures purely for their good looks. These are the largest of his works to date and he uses the hardness and solidity of stone to represent the land in all its meanings. The pieces withstand close scrutiny - their precision of making, their considered balance, elegant abstracted form language and enchanting details all offer visual delight. Edgar's virtuoso handling of uncompromising materials is impressive and, gathered into a single space, a group of his sculptures have considerable presence.

But it would be a huge loss to overlook the verbal language associated with the touring exhibition Lie of the Land. Edgar's social conscience is revealed on contemplation of the complex meanings of his double titles. The abstracted forms distill the essence of his ideas and the titles expand one's understanding of the questions with which he grapples.

With the exhibition title one becomes aware of the terrain - physical and social - of Edgar's vision. The idea that there are untruths about the land challenges the veracity of our observations, and these simple, uncluttered images become as ambiguous as their provocative descriptors. Edgar's criticism of the abuse of land has appeared before in his work; so, too, have allusions to ownership of that land and the deceit surrounding land deals. Guardianship of the land rather than ownership would fit more appropriately with the ideas that percolate through the exhibition. Implicit in his interpretation is an acknowledgement of Maori as tangata whenua - the people of the land. The poetic language of these titles and their multiplicity of meaning offer new insights and pose challenges about social space, cultural identity and land issues.

In the exhibition at Auckland Museum the tall guardians of Loom: Kaitiaki stood proudly at the back of the exhibition hall, expressing the notion of protecting and defining the boundaries of the exhibition space. Loom: Kaitiaki contrasted with the more usual horizontality of Edgar's works, and their scale and columnar nature evoked a remnant of architecture, of a space created by human hand.

Edgar describes his works as sculptures and it is true that these free-standing works are technically three-dimensional. Yet they moderate a space between two and three dimensions. Their thickness is minimal, and they appear as slices revealing multiple layers that visually explain the composition and structure of the land, rather than presenting the outward appearance of a moulded or carved form. Substance here is of concept and vision rather than expressed through the third dimension. The effect of using planar images is a series of screens and paving slabs: canvases articulating the narrative. There is a duality to the screen which presents a mirror image on its reverse face and a wide field of vision. Human profiles can be discerned in Loom: Kaitiaki as black stone interacts with white and white interacts with black: abstracted, ancient spiritual evocations, contrasts of light and dark, of open and closed spaces.

A poetic narrative in Edgar's 1993 exhibition Making Amends was clearly articulated as an accompaniment to his sculptures. Yet Loom: Kaitiaki is equally eloquent if more ambiguous. The weaving loom and societal implications are a gentle take on the word 'loom', while the more threatening meaning gives good reason for protection by these ancient guardians. At the front of the exhibition they might have been a portal, but their positioning suggests a marker at the far end of the social space Edgar is defining.

Markers, the individual works exhibited on the floor are significant for Edgar and Rohe: Boundary Stone is a fractured reference to a fragile concept. Together with the Flagstones they stake out the territory, protagonists in the attempt to define land, nation and sovereignties. Flagstone: White Cross, Flagstone: Red Cross and Flagstone: Flying Cross probe concepts beyond the obvious terrain of the land and each has an alternative meaning and iconographic interpretation. The protocol for the New Zealand flag states that it must not be allowed to touch the ground, yet Edgar's stone flag lies on the ground, challenging conventions. The implications are legal, moral and social.

Badge: Crossbones reinterprets the Union Jack with a cross of beautifully formed marble bones. The human remains - the reminder that all these ideas are about human lives and human actions - are carefully placed juxtaposed with stone stars placed on circles of red dust, as if the red had leached out of the stars. Red dust, the stuff of deserts and barrenness, forms a base for several works. One could see this as a pessimistic interpretation, yet the beauty of the bones is a reminder of the beauty of life.

Loom: Cross Country slices through the landscape, and the broken edges imply damage and a much vaster presence. The fragments are dislocated as though slippage has occurred - slippage of layers, material and intellectual, created by the intervention of nature and human activity. Fragmentary translucent coloured glass offers a window to the space beyond, a way of seeing through the work - like a jewel, a hint of a pristine ocean or lake. The pleasure is elusive, depending on the quality of light behind the work. The name once more leads the viewer in more than one direction, the clarity of the image enriched by the ambiguity of language. Like Loom: Interface the work accentuates the horizon line - the place where stone meets sky.

Slices through the landscape, guardians and markers in that landscape, human bones in, on and under the surface of the land, flags, motifs from those flags fluttering to the ground and flagstones on the ground - these are discrete potent images in themselves. Edgar sees land as symbol, identity, source of sustenance and the final resting place for human bones. He revisits the landscape and the national flag, questions and challenges how we perceive them and offers us a way of seeing how the land lies for each one of us.


Thinking in Stone: John Edgar's Lie of the Land
by Peter Simpson, Art New Zealand, No. 88, 1998, pp64-67

I think the rock
thinks and my thought is what it thinks.
Allen Curnow, 'Dialogue with Four Rocks'

Lie of the Land is a touring exhibition of stone sculptures by John Edgar. It opened at the Auckland Museum - which used to go under the name of Auckland War Memorial Museum - a venue the 'memorial' aspects of which the artist was not unmindful as he conceived and constructed the ten (named) pieces which make up the installation. After all, Edgar's art of cutting, shaping, and polishing stone has (among its antecedents) direct lines of connection to the products of traditional stone-masonry: gravestones, monuments, memorial plaques. In Auckland Lie of the Land - along with Ilse Von Randow's finely complementary woven textiles in the twin gallery across the atrium - served to open the Museum's new exhibition galleries. It then moved to the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, and will later be shown in Christchurch, Invercargill, Nelson and Wanganui.

The Auckland Museum's new galleries are stark concrete bunkers, in a style which might be described as modernist brutalism, with the holes and striations of the manufacturing process fully exposed. As spaces for showing art they worked reasonably well for both the warm colours of von Randow's textiles and for the stark black and white contrasts of Edgar's granite and marble. In one case the grey chill of the concrete was offset by the softness and colour, in the other the intensity and finesse of the pieces was somehow enhanced by the blunt grey cliffs of the walls which surrounded them.

Lie of the Land is the third in a series of touring exhibitions of Edgar's sculptures, preceded by Making Amends (1993) and Cross Country (1996). It is hard to think of an artist in any medium - especially a sculptor - whose work has had such wide national exposure over the past five years. Yet despite this evidence of institutional support there is a curious silence about Edgar's work in the mainstream art media. There is nothing sinister about this. It is rather that he has always taken a somewhat idiosyncratic course, and he continues to carve out (so to speak) 'a place to go to in his own direction' (in Wallace Stevens' phrase).

The exhibiting of his work often in 'museums' as distinct from 'art galleries' is characteristic of Edgar's somewhat off-beat career path. He began carving stone in 1977, and constructing artifacts out of stone, metal, and glass from 1982. In 1987 he curated the exhibition Bone Stone Shell - devoted to studio jewellery - which later went to Japan. In 1989 Edgar put together a survey his own work - Stone Lines 1977-89 - which in retrospect looks like the end of the first phase of his career. Most of Edgar's works prior to the 1990s were small; some belonged to the category of studio jewellery, while others - such as the exquisite Coins of the Realm series - were small sculptural objects made from cut and polished stone, glass, and/or wood. Critical reception tended to place him firmly in the 'craft' not the 'art' category, partly because of the company he kept. The journal most frequently listed in his bibliography is New Zealand Craft; there is nothing about him in the 'art' magazines. However meaningless such distinctions ultimately are, they nevertheless have a pragmatic reality in the careers of artists, affecting how their work is funded, exhibited, marketed, promoted, and critically received.

In terms of his practice if not his reception, Edgar unmistakably crossed over this invisible but palpable craft/art barrier when he built a new studio at Karekare, near Auckland, and started making much larger works from 1992. Lie of the Land includes the largest pieces he has yet made. LOOM: Kaitiaki, for instance, consists of two simplified figures in black granite and white marble 'looming' like contemporary Easter Island statues over 2.5 metres high. In this work the landscape instead of 'lying' horizontal has reared up vertically into giant guardians (kaitiaki) of the land - a fusion of land and people which recalls the Maori myth of Ranginui and Papatuanuku. Yet, while massively increasing the scale of his work, Edgar has sustained the impeccable craftsmanship which characterised his hand-sized pieces of earlier times. The exact juncture of stone with stone, the precise mortising of pieces in different materials, the flawlessly smooth surfaces across joins, the immaculate bevelling of a basalt ring - all this is brought to a pitch of perfection as if the objects were twenty times smaller, and signals an awesome level of technical skill and know-how.

Edgar's medium is stone, and in the case of these works, nothing but stone: black granite and white marble primarily, and red granite is also used for occasional accents, as in VENT: Confrontation and more prominently in FLAGSTONE: Red Cross. Although Edgar has prospected widely for stone within New Zealand - his biography mentions five prospecting trips to the South Island between 1979 and 1994 - the stone in these pieces comes from further afield: the granites from Africa and India, the marble from Italy. Not too much can be read into this - Edgar sources his stone from a local quarry which imports it for commercial purposes - but it does somewhat complicate any reading of his work in purely regionalist terms. While at some level Lie of the Land is 'about' this land, New Zealand, it is not - at least at the level of its materials - amenable to a rhetoric of regionalist fundamentalism, such as is implied in Wallace Stevens' lines:

. . . it is he in the substance of his region,
Wood of his forests and stone out of his fields
Or from under his mountains.

Surprisingly, Edgar might be seen to line up more with someone like Gordon Walters (despite the difference in medium) than with, say, Chris Booth, another stone artist who literally uses 'stone out of his fields'. Like Walters', Edgar's is an art of (literally) hard edges and binary contrasts, but, like Walters, too, Edgar sometimes derives imagery from local sources (I am thinking of Walters' use of the koru and other Maori-derived motifs), and points up such dimensions by his titles. Comparison with Walters also highlights other features of Edgar's work - its immaculate finish, its formal beauty and sophistication, its cunning placement between a regionalist and an internationalist discourse. But the comparison only takes us a certain distance. Edgar departs from Walters most obviously in the degree to which he engages with non-aesthetic (thematic) considerations, through exploiting the semantic, iconic, and symbolic possibilities of his objects, and the meanings constructed by their naming and their placement together.

Unlike a monumental mason, Edgar does not write on his stones - even to the extent of signing his name - but words in the form of titles are a significant aspect of his work and aid in the articulation of the thought which his sculptures mutely embody. The double-barrelled titles are sometimes simply descriptive (FLAGSTONE: Red Cross), sometimes metaphoric (VENT: Confrontation) or symbolic (LOOM: Kaitiaki). In some cases the two halves of a title point in different directions (BADGE: Southern Cross), in others the two are complementary (ROHE: Boundary Stone). Often his titles involve word-play. VENT, for example, is a pun in which the word figures differently if read as verb or noun; FLAGSTONE (used as first title for three of the works) is both a verbal and a visual pun, for the works are both 'flagstones' in the sense of being flat stones placed on the ground, and also 'flags' made from stone.

Furthermore, Edgar has a particular flag in mind, namely the New Zealand ensign with its Union Jack and Southern Cross. Edgar deconstructs the imagery of the flag, unpacking its component parts into the separate works White Cross, Red Cross (saltire), and Flying Cross (which cleverly creates in two dimensions the illusion of a flag flying); the four stars of the Southern Cross also fall to the ground (as it were) as separate stone stars. In BADGE: Southern Cross the name of the constellation is applied to beautifully carved replicas of human bone, lying across each other in imitation of the skull-and-crossbones badge of maritime piracy. CODE: Digital Memory is another work which employs a kind of verbal/visual punning; alternating wedges of granite and marble exactly replicate in three dimensions the appearance of the ubiquitous digital bar code, except in this case the tablet is broken in two, implying fracture and loss of communication.

Edgar's use of titles to describe and complicate the ways his objects signify their meanings to the viewer extends to his choice of exhibition title. Lie of the Land in idiomatic speech means 'the current state of affairs', but of course in origin it is a landscape metaphor. Typically Edgar exploits both meanings, and adds other layers as well. Some works are like cross-sections through landscapes, as in the several pieces sharing the title LOOM. Cross Country and Interface depict quite literally the 'lie of the land' in that they present us with flat sections of earth and sky. Simultaneously, Lie of the Land needs to be read as a metaphoric and cultural construct, meaning something like 'the state of the nation'. Through allusion to symbols of identity such as the nation's flag and Maori myths, the exhibition calls up aspects of our history and culture for contemplation. Deconstructing the flag is symbolically something like investigating the national psyche - taking it apart piece by piece in order to better understand and confront it. The notion that the lives we live in this land are to some extent a 'lie' (in the sense of falsehood or untruth) is a further layer of implication in the exhibition's title, borne out by the implications of works such as ROHE: Boundary Stone (the tablet is broken, the post-hole marking the boundary empty) or VENT: Confrontation (with its suggestions of eruption and conflict).

Edgar is too subtle an artist to beat us over the head with his 'message'. If anything he deliberately complicates the message with his double-naming, his bilingualism, his mixing of literal and metaphorical, his grammatical ambiguities, his repetitions, his verbal and visual puns - all militate against simple and single readings. While visually striking and immediately seductive to the eye, Edgar's works invite lengthy contemplation and reflection before they yield all their connotations and interconnections. To borrow words from Wallace Stevens again, Lie of the Land:

makes meanings of the rock,
Of such mixed motion and such imagery
That its barrenness becomes a thousand things. . .