Exhibiting his first solo show at Gow Langsford since joining the gallery in 2007, Chris Heaphy has produced a bold series of works which will challenge viewers to consider the sum of their parts through a rich cornucopia of colour and pop imagery.
Chris Heaphy’s broad appeal derives in part from the invention and development of a visually arresting personal symbology of signs. Informed by a Derridean analysis of the instability of the sign, Heaphy is particularly interested in the “inevitable change or slippage of meaning of the symbol.” (Artist’s statement, Frieze Art Fair, London, 2007) Drawing from an artillery of motifs both conventional and invented Heaphy constructs signs within signs that piece together indicators of his own identity. Fundamentally his practice engages with the notion that the relationship between sign and signifier, like that of culture and identity, is fluid, ambiguous and in a constant state of flux. Signs are adapted and adopted constantly shifting and mutating within and across cultures. This complex transmutation of signs and symbols is fundamental to Heaphy’s practice.
Sea of Tranquillity takes its name from the vast plains on the surface of the moon formed by ancient eruptions once erroneously thought to have been oceans by early astronomers. Witnessing the Apollo spacecraft land on the moon in 1969 at age four turned out to be a defining moment for Heaphy, whose fascination with astronauts, astronomy and star gazing was at that moment cemented. Works in the show acknowledge this celestial fascination, with playful titles playing homage to space exploration; Armstrong Tranquility (2008), Aldrin Tranquility (2008) and Collins (2008) reference Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins of the Apollo lunar landings and Columbia (2008) the space shuttle voyages of the 80’s and 90’s and it’s final disastrous flight of 2003 .
The skull, a generic symbol whose meaning can vary according to cultural context, is in Western Art genres of the vanitas and memento mori a potent reminder of death and mortality. It is frequently used throughout Heaphy’s practise to apply to no man and every man. Although here too Heaphy acknowledges the specific alongside the general, the individual alongside the collective through symbolic portraits of the Apollo astronauts, their identities revealed in the work’s title.
Like stellar constellations, a myriad of technicolour silhouettes are amassed. Among them skulls, hands, playing card suits, cowboy hats, skeletons, laughing profiles, stars, eyes, human figures, and boots - all invoke immeasurable associations. Universal motifs coalesce with others more culturally specific to Māori prophetic movements in the nineteenth century. These elements resemble flat coloured paper cut-outs invading the entire canvas- their single coloured forms en mass appearing like jewels in the night sky. Initially the assault of colour is overwhelming. In some paintings foreground and background compete and gradually ambiguous shapes come into focus and patterns emerge- advancing or receding. The scale of motifs and their relationship to one another is carefully considered and arranged to construct form - to reveal a grand design; - perhaps a skull, a skeleton or even Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse exposing the bigger picture; the macrocosm and microcosm combined. Veiled within these clusters of signs smaller icons reveal themselves. In the painting Sea of Tranquility (2008) for example, the jaw of the central skull is flanked by two smaller skulls, echoing and mimicking the larger sign- similar yet comprised of different parts.
Heaphy’s works ultimately allude to a wider human inquiry into the universe and our place within it. What makes us who we are - our patterns of behaviour and the small parts that comprise a whole being. Intimately tied to this idea, is the notion of identity and a self-reflexive mortal yearning for life’s meaning.
Chris Heaphy was born in New Zealand in 1965 and is of Ngāi Tahu and European extraction. He attended the Canterbury school of Fine Art (BFA, Painting 1991). In 1998 he graduated from the RMIT University in Melbourne Australia (MFA, Painting). Heaphy has been successful in securing a number of grants and fellowships including: Te Waka Toi (1993;1994), the Olivia Spencer Bower Fellowship (1995), Creative New Zealand (1999) and a WINTEC research grant which enabled him to undertake a residency at Melbourne’s RMIT University. Other residencies include Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris (2000-2001) and the Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin Residency, Champagne (2001). Heaphy has attracted significant international patronage and a stable presence within the competitive global art market. He enjoyed success at the 2007 Frieze Art Fair in London with exhibited works being obtained by important collectors. Heaphy has exhibited extensively throughout Australasia and Europe and his work is included in numerous major public and private collections in New Zealand and further abroad.