John Edgar: restorer and healer
by Helen Schamroth, NZ Herald, 17 September 1992.

Making Ends Meet, by John Edgar, at Fingers Gallery, Kitchener Street, Auckland.

Occasionally we see work that, in its simplicity and perfection of execution, allows us to accept it as the most logical extension of what we know. It happens in Making Ends Meet, an exhibition by John Edgar.

Edgar lists key words as clues to his works but leaves his pieces untitled. The viewer is left to interact with the work, unencumbered yet informed, able to form one's own personal interaction and relationship with each piece.

The sculptures of primarily granite, greywacke and wood are worked to elegant formality and sophistication. They have the poise of the perfectly balanced measuring instrument, the symmetry and balance that happens in nature, many being based on rectangular slabs with their edges gently rounded. The slabs have then been modified, sliced and laminated, or inlaid and smoothed to a sleek finish.

There is astonishing seductive power in the unpretentious stone he uses, in the demolition timber given new life, the stone enlivened by the translucence of glass and contrasts of inserted and inlaid materials. These works require the viewer to pause and to contemplate. They invite touch as one wonders at the precision of their making, and invite contemplation about the issues of renewal of resources, of conservation, of repairing harm that has already been done.

Edgar's philosophy is documented in his statement. He acknowledges the intrinsic integrity of natural materials and sees his task as one of restoring, repairing, healing and amending, and questions the right to manipulate the integrity of found materials, of humans making ill-judged marks on the environment.

What he does to the materials honours, respects and conserves resources. No longer does he take precious materials, rather he finds beauty in the prosaic, adding a new element and new order, thus rebalancing the old order.

Acknowledgment of the raw material is evident in No.6, where Edgar exposes the jagged end of the granite. The contrasts in this work are superb. He balances chance - knots and grain of the wood in the base of the work - with his "mending"; layers of translucent glass rhythmically inserted in characteristic fashion in the granite, and reverses this at the end by matching the rough granite with smoother wood.

This piece is more in the genre of rather gutsier work recently seen in A Sense of Prescence at Masterworks, where Edgar contrasted rough with smooth and used the raw edge of the material to define where the hand of the maker had and had not intruded. It seems to be a step that he is not in a hurry to embrace fully. Apart from this one work, the pieces in this exhibition have been developed beyond this moment of tension.

A wonderful sense of illusion is set up in No.12, where a horizontal glass tube penetrates a stack of square vertical layers, alternately glass and granite. The discovery of glass meeting glass a the heart of the piece adds an element of magic, and by comparison, almost unfairly, the neighbouring pieces suddenly lose some of their impact.

Edgar has shown some of his greywacke stones before but they are particularly effective here as a large group. As one ponders them there is a growing awareness of their elongation and distortion of natural proportions by the additions.

The light catches on a sliver of glass. A line of red granite, blood-like, penetrates the smooth grey of the stone, straight lines intersect curved contours. Sometimes the glass inserts suggest still water. The effects are enchanting.

Occasionally Edgar inlays discs of contrasting materials. These works are evocative of a spirit level, the reference to balance and measurement being a recurring theme. The simple geometry and the proportions are always carefully considered, and these pieces are quietly resolved. Whereas the slabs penetrated by linear elements are dynamic and express controlled energy, these pieces have a more static tranquil quality.

The gallery, too, is in an altered state for this exhibition, its windows blacked out, creating a more cave-like setting echoing the mood of the old Fingers Gallery. The arrangement provides extra display space and enhances the work, which responds well to the soft diffused light that is allowed to penetrate the space.


John Edgar - Making Amends
by Helen Schamroth, NZ Crafts, Issue 43, 1993.

Sometimes I look at work that is so complete, the elements so crisply and cleanly integrated, that I am almost unaware of the complexity of its creation. When the crafting is so good that I can take it for granted, I am able to ponder the intention of the artist undistracted.

John Edgar leads me into his work this way. He gets me thinking about how long it takes humans to get beyond the anger, rhetoric and spluttering protest about issues that confront society. At what point does protest translate into positive action? What is the process that heals the land, the body and the soul? What can be done to make amends to fellow humans and to the land, and how can this be expressed?

John, who works from his recently completed studio above the rugged West Coast beach of Karekare, uses stones as a metaphor for these issues, and expresses not just concern for the wrongs of society but the healing process as well.

Making Amends, at the Dowse Art Museum early this year, followed hard on the heels of Making Ends Meet, an exhibition at Fingers Gallery late last year, each exhibition separate yet strongly linked. Making Amends was accompanied by an eloquent statement that reads as a poem or prayer:

Making Amends

for the tool that becomes the weapon
for the pill that becomes the poison
for the cure that becomes the sickness
for the panacea that becomes the placebo
for the road cut through the valley
for the tree felled in the forest
for the rock crushed on the roadway
for the mine that becomes the slagpile
for the gold extracted in greed
for the rapacious spoils of the earth
for the quarry dug in the hillside
for the river diverted for power
for the lake that is lowered and poisoned
for the island made uninhabitable
for the swamp that is drained
for the ocean that is polluted
for the water that flows down the drain
for the people that live in the future
for the ones that live in the past
for the millions that live without hope
for the children that starve in the desert
for the warlords who usurp the aid
for the strangers over the border
for the refugee in fear of the soldiers
for the rifles trained on the peasants
for the bombs dropped on the city
for the books burned in the purges
for the teachers killed for their knowledge
for the person who is not honest
for the politician who will not account
for the priest who fools little children
for the husband who bashes his wife
for the mother who abandons her children
for the father who never comes home
for the freeman jailed without justice
for the official taking a bribe
for the secrecy surrounding the funding
for the confession extracted by torture
for the hate in the eyes of the jailer
for the pain which has no relief
for the hours alone in the dark
for the teenagers killed in the car crash
for the driver drunk at the wheel
for the police beating a black man
for the pardons given in guilt
for the knife that cuts through the flesh
for the sacrifice made on the altar
for the sins never committed
for the religions that offer no solace
for the gods invented by man
for the heaven promised by preachers
for the hell created on earth
for the dreams that become the nightmare
for the wish that never comes true
for the magic spell that is broken
for the secret that is stolen
for the lies that are told
for the rumours that are spread
for the familiarity that breeds contempt
for the little we learn from our mistakes

for the smallest part of anything
we are each and all responsible.

The poetry is echoed in the works, each a quietly resolved, beautifully crafted expression of healing. Greywacke and carved granite are the media of expression. The aim is to retain or return integrity to the materials. Working the stone is a means of making is whole, to make amends for damage inflicted.

These are not the precious stones we have come to associate with traditional carving, but John imbues them with a preciousness that comes from sensitive handling, technical expertise and a respect for the materials he uses. In the past he used greenstone, and still does for commissions, but in the past few years he has abandoned the intricate work where so much of the precious material was washed away during carving. Rather the forms are kept simple, the materials dignified by being allowed to speak for themselves, and human interference kept to a minimum.

John adds glass to many works, no doubt influenced by his partner Ann Robinson's work, but the use of the material is never gratuitous nor inappropriate. Rather it offers a lively dimension to the work, reflecting and diffracting light, creating illusions, and contrasting with the stone to express layers of meaning analogous to the layers of material.

Distilling the essential meaning of the work becomes paramount, as does conserving resources, while communicating with the viewer in a modest, restrained manner. Minimalism gains a new dimension. Like the early minimalists, John wants process and materials to speak for themselves - colour and form matter, and are a means of expressing his concerns, and for him there is also an important statement about conservation and using materials respectfully and sensitively.

One of the most dynamic works in the Making Amends exhibition is Earthquake Slip Joint, which refers to the Clyde Dam and the unique earthquake slip-joint included in its re-design when it was discovered that the Dunstan Fault ran to within three kilometres of the dam. John compares this to Damocles, feasting with King Dionysius while sitting under a naked sword that was suspended by a single hair. The tension and danger is created by taut steel wire linking the two grey arms which are separated by a wedge of red granite. The structure appears precarious, and one intuitively seeks reassurance that the connections in the "keyholes" are sound.

The wedge is a recurring symbol, a device that symbolises sacrifice and division of people. Similarly granite is an intrusive rock that forces its way through bedrock, splitting open other land masses. The wedge violates the solid mass, running the full length of the work in the Knife, the Altar, the Sacrifice, which was first exhibited in A Sense of Presence at Masterworks last year. The contrasts of jagged and smooth surfaces define where the hand of the maker has been, rough broken surfaces awaiting the smoothing healing hand.

In Intrusion the red wedge fits nearly, only its colour interrupting the smooth monolith. By contrast the wedges in Too Much Sea Between Us are entities in themselves, partially penetrating either end of a shaped grey granite beam that sits poised on its extremities. An analogy can be drawn to granite forming under a land mass, the red "headlands" at either end of this mass, and the geological impact of this formation. The smooth wavy surface suggests liquid movement, a visual device that recurs in John's work and a direct reference to the title. The ruggedness of some of the surfaces contrasts sharply with the smooth finish, and there are wonderful tensions set up in the structural balance, composition and surfaces of this work.

The wedges are of glass in Time is Running Out at the Speed of Light, which is in the form of an hourglass, with the wedges meeting at their tips. The urgency of the message comes from the title, with the image being more remarkable for its precision.

Dividing the mass is sometimes achieved with inserted slices of glass. With geometric precision John cuts the materials and reassembles them, an act of making amends - the main motif in his exhibition Making Ends Meet. The use of African granite that have been battered and bruised from earlier use as headstones is a conscious move to bring the material back to life. The objective is to give the stone some of its original integrity, to repair the damage.

There is an elegant formality and sophistication to the smoothly finished pieces with titles expressing measurement as in Spirit Level, Measure, Ruler, Compressor and Grindstone. While lacking the energy and tension of some of the other works, these pieces have a sense of quiet resolution and control. It is the same control that is evident in Light Stones, three groups of altered greywacke stones, each slightly elongated by inserting parallel slivers of glass that alternate with the stone.

Primitive Palliatives and The Modern Pharmacopoeia is a series of hammers and large smooth "pills". The hammers are stones seemingly violated by the handles, which are driven in much like the wedges, and one is struck by the thought that neither hammer nor pill will cure the ills of society. The pieces are of glass, stone, copper and wood, each complete in itself, but it is the power of the installation, with each component interacting with the one beside it, that reminds us too, of the patterns of human interaction.

Of all the works this is probably the most thought-providing. It reinforces the perception of John Edgar as not just a master craftsperson, but as a thoughtful, intelligent human being who cares very much about what we are doing to ourselves and our environment.