Denys Watkins turned his usual ways of working upside down for a new body
of work called Heavenly Chance, the result of his visits to Vietnam.
Hitching a ride to the studio on the back of a motorbike, communicating
designs via an interpreter, and working alongside Vietnamese artisans
became the norm for the Auckland artist, who named the exhibition after the
hotel he stayed at in Hanoi.
Watkins worked with Vietnamese artisans in a traditional lacquer workshop
to produce a series of richly coloured abstract panels. The exhibition also
includes 3D work based on his experiences in Hanoi. Drafting scale drawings
for the panels after his first trip to Vietnam in 1997, he returned with
stencils and measurements on his second trip in May 1998. These had to be
modified to fit in with the unique techniques of the lacquer artists.
I had a preconceived idea of what I wanted - something very accurate,
tight and controlled. But because of the physical situation, and the
lacquer process itself, it wasn't going to work that way. I had to let
process determine the results, he says.
In the panels, Watkins picks out words and shapes in gold, pink, silver and
turquoise, against a glossy black background. A three leafed flower form
recalls the chrysanthemum, popular in early Vietnamese ceramics - but it
also suggests a plane propeller or fan. The symbols are an extension of my
own visual language, incorporating motifs and signs that arose from being
in Hanoi, he says.
The thermos flask is another recurring form, and the inspiration behind an
illuminated 3D work in Heavenly Chance: The thermos and fan are common
commodities there, and they were some of the things I decided were
elemental to the physicality of Hanoi. It's the light and heat that is
striking. The buildings are very dark, with small dark alleys between them,
and everything is lit with fluorescence. Then there is this intense heat
outside, so you have that extreme contrast.
His contact with the culture began in 1996 when he met Vu dan Tan, a
prominent Vietnamese artist, and was invited to participate in Looking In,
an exhibition in Hanoi by international artists who were influenced by
Vietnam. He then began researching how Eastern materials and objects could
be incorporated into his practice. Lacquer working, introduced to South
East Asia by the Chinese in the 15th century, is often used in Vietnam to
create elaborate, pictorial 'paintings'. Watkins' abstract designs were
therefore unusual for the lacquer workers, though the same laborious
process was used to make them. The sticky, varnish-like substance was
harvested daily from a tree native to the region, and the wood panels were
covered with many coats of lacquer. Coloured areas were produced by cutting
shaped pieces of silver leaf and applying a lacquer and pigment mixture.
I wanted to look at an optimistic reflection of Vietnamese culture rather
than the history and social conflict that's gone on there before. This is
another culture that is obsessed with efficiency and achievement as it
makes its way into the millennium, from very primitive beginnings. The
shifting, isolating and analysing of the artefacts and mannerisms of
contemporary eastern culture is of great interest to me, he says.
Denys Watkins is a senior artist, represented in all major New Zealand art
collections. He has exhibited widely in this country and overseas, most
recently at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Hamilton (1994). Parklands
(Auckland Art Gallery, 1990/91) was his most recent show at a public
gallery. Born in Wellington, he is a Senior Lecturer in Painting at Elam
School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland. Heavenly Chance is an artist's
project for City Gallery Wellington, supported by Creative New Zealand,
Asia 2000, and the University of Auckland. It will be accompanied by a