Robert Ellis has produced one of the most sustained bodies of work in New Zealand art and many important aspects of this are represented in this very significant exhibition.
In Kuaira (1979) Ellis establishes a central symbolic metaphor of an old Maori cloak, fluttering protectively above a cross. Ellis, who has always been at the forefront of our cross-cultural dialogue and debate, has established a large visual vocabulary that is distinct and (intentionally) ambiguous, combining the personal and the particular with the collective and symbolic (Shielded Histories # 6, (2006)). He has identified the important living sacredness of mountains, landscapes and particular places in ways that acknowledge the passages of time and the interconnectedness of everything.
In works such as Rakaumangamanga 8 Pepuere 1986 (1986), he offers an open hand upon which symbols have been inscribed, and flowing to (or from) this hand is the arcing waterfall of life. Behind this a landscape is deconstructed as if a map presenting the unmistakeable structural geomorphology of hills, gullies and ravines. In Ra Tapu Te Rawhiti 4 Pepuere (1990), Ellis boldly sits a chair in the foreground. The chair, which is without a seat, borders on being useless, but carries the contradictory detail of cabriolet legs as a vestige of its design style. In the background a sundial, a cenotaph and measuring device loom while a goblet covered with cloth sits as if in front of the painting (so elevating it to an altar). In other areas he plays with perspective depth and introduces shadow or uses the flattened planes of abstraction by segmenting the background into designs, patterns and visual rhythms.
Ellis has pioneered a method of presenting a landscape as if it is a profile slice. Upon this he places the indices of history, myth, the memories of events and inserts venerated objects like the Pacific ribbon, a sculpted cross, a twig of tanekaha, infinity symbols, numbers (such as that of the 58th Regiment). In this way his works become an accretion of details and sentiments, of facts and possibilities. Reference is often made to celestial events and spirituality is commonly evoked. The iconic Maungawhau/Mt Edenseries compresses history and sentiment, presenting the volcano as a sacrament. Blood lines wander across this like veins and roads, and blue streams flow like waterfalls. The Calendar Series of 2005 contains Ellis’s trademark buttery surfaces and is redolent with the beauty of rich, wet, colour.
In the most recent Shielded Historiesseries Ellis subverts the heraldic tradition of the shield – the Crown or crests are presented like paper hats turning symbols of status and power into a comic statement of parody. He uses the shield as a template but not everything is as it first seems: apparently culture-specific symbols and forms are manipulated into hybrid images representing pluralistic and universal themes.
All of Ellis’ paintings are informed by his long term involvement with Maori culture and society. Ellis references and invents (by altering) a cultural and social archaeology of motifs and he uses these as metaphors. The emblems, symbols and patterns that make up the shields are ideograms. They are placed into segmented spaces and can be read in isolation but the expressive colour and assured composition takes the viewer from one to another. Narrative threads are built (like parables and fables) by a continuum of implication. Political and social debates emerge that engage issues of land ownership, colonisation and spiritualism.