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Indepth Arts News:

"Heavenly Chance: Denys Watkins"
1999-10-09 until 2000-01-06
City Gallery Wellington
Wellington, , NZ New Zealand (Aotearoa)

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 catalogue.

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