This collection of paintings brings together works by seminal New Zealand abstract painters Milan Mrkusich (b.1925) and Geoff Thornley (b. 1942). As the transition from representation to abstraction occurred in New Zealand art history in the mid-twentieth century, abstract artists faced widespread antagonism. As a young artist Mrkusich’s works were often met with criticism as they outlandishly deterred from the well-known regional concerns of contemporaries such as Colin McCahon and Rita Angus, yet by the 1970s he was firmly established as a leading exponent of modernist art in New Zealand. Thornley, seventeen years his junior, has similarly remained loyal to abstraction and throughout his career has engaged with explorations of colour and its emotive effects. Spanning two decades, the works in Milan Mrkusich and Geoff Thornley provide a snapshot of twentieth century New Zealand abstraction, comparing and contrasting two painters who, through their commitment to abstraction, have both emerged as influential artists of their generation.
Mrkusich is perhaps most known for his acclaimed Corner paintings. The Corner series, to which Painting 11 (1972) belongs, were painted in the late sixties - seventies. As the series title suggests the works are characterised by a singular field of colour marked by the addition of four triangular sections in each of the corners. Void of any obvious subject matter they eschew all references to conventional meanings and interpretations. Yet, despite this they have meaning. “They are non-objective, autonomous objects that refer to nothing beyond their own immediate reality… In line with his belief that art for art’s sake, the use of form and colour to produce pleasing designs, was pointless, Mrkusich’s work ‘does not exist for itself, but for man as a vehicle of awareness. In the corner paintings he [Mrkusich] was able to achieve a perfect synthesis of form and meaning, even though the majority of critical and art historical interpretations have centered around their significance as purely self-referential objects.” (Hanfling, E. Mrkusich, p. 61)
In 1989 Milan Mrkusich began a series of works exploring the five traditional Chinese elements of water, wood, fire, earth and metal. These are the five basic forms of energy that are constantly being transformed from one into another through the natural world. The Chinese Elements series with their symbols and corresponding colours of black, blue-green, red, yellow and white are, although still abstract, among Mrkusich’s more representational paintings. The Chinese Element series was succeeded by the Alchemical Progression works of 1990-91. Although related to a symbolic system of alchemy, they do not depend on literal illustrations of alchemical theories. As with the Chinese Element series, these works “generate a range of effects for different viewers, which transcend the material facts of the painted panels themselves as well as the literal symbolism of the colours within Chinese philosophies” (ibid P.94), or Alchemical theories.
Although now widely known for his refined minimalist images it was Geoff Thornley’s Albus series of 1974 first brought his name to prominence. The Albus works use formal elements, such as grids, as a structure within fields of colour, allowing an even focus across the picture surface. Colour is laid down on the paper then blotted up creating mood filled modulations of tone within the compositional austerity of the grid constructions. The viewer is encouraged to contemplate and thus arrive at an emotional response to the colour of each individual work. The Albus paintings were exhibited as New Zealand's contribution to the 1975 Sao Paolo XII Biennale in Brazil. Ochre/Grey Painting No. 21 was painted in the same year and the body of work produced at this time is still regarded by many as a highpoint in his artistic career. (Anna Jackson, 2013)