HOW TO BURN DOWN THE HOUSE

Text by Emil McAvoy

 

The Reckless Pilgrim

Elliot Collins

Tim Melville Gallery

2 - 24 June 2017

 Image: Kallan Macleod

Image: Kallan Macleod

Watch out, you might get what you're after
Cool, babies! Strange but not a stranger
I'm an ordinary guy
Burning down the house
Hold tight, wait till the party's over
Hold tight, we're in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house
Here's your ticket, pack your bag
Time for jumpin' overboard
The transportation is here
Close enough but not too far
Maybe you know where you are
Fightin' fire with fire
- Talking Heads, Burning Down the House

 

Sometimes you just need to burn it down and leave town. Get on the road and go looking for yourself.

At least until the dust settles.

Contemporary pilgrimages also provide passage through inner landscapes. A chance to remember

and forget. They offer rituals connecting the mythical journeys of the ancients to the urgencies of the

present. Bridging the seen and unseen, they sustain the symbolic pursuit of authenticity. Art as an

experience.

Artist Elliot Collins makes broad, contemplative pilgrimages in his own country, roaming widely and

finding moments of significance in abundance. If there is a recklessness in this activity, it is perhaps

found in a commitment to the poetics of indeterminate wandering. As Collins suggests, it is “a journey,

not the journey.” If it were the journey it would likely constitute tourism, or enacting someone else’s

concept of travel.

Pilgrimages offer interventions in the often slow, predictable progression of our everyday lives: a

break from ordinary work, routine and the linear experience of time. Artists’ often unconventional ways

of seeing things make them fitting candidates to embark on pilgrimages to places of significance; to

re-imagine such sites and the expeditions to visit them, to explore the fringes of the world and

alternative ways of being in it. From the wanderings of the nineteenth century flâneur to the

Situationists’ psycho-geographical dérive, artists have long made movements more focussed on the

journey than the destination. In some ways pilgrimages can be likened to art-making: as excursions in

to the unknown, where intuition, intellect and improvisation can act as navigational skills within

uncharted territories. Of course, you don’t have to set fire to anything before you embark, but it may

catalyse and hasten your departure.

Collins’ exhibition title references Surrealist René Magritte’s painting The Reckless Sleeper (1928),

and though on the surface the association appears loose or opaque, Magritte’s sleeping figure and

the apparent content of his dreams provide a range of interpretive links. Signs of conventional social

expectations embodied in the bowler hat and ribbon are contrasted with more ambiguous and

historically loaded symbols, such as the lit candle, mirror, apple and bird. The symbols are grouped

together without hierarchy on what appears to be a stylised gravestone. Magritte may be suggesting it

is the sleeper’s dreams which might prove reckless, or simply the act of dreaming itself.

The automobile is a loaded symbol of, among other concepts, dreams of social mobility, freedom and

escape. Collins’ S/Z (2017), a customised 1986 Toyota Hilux truck, appears centre stage in this

exhibition as both a vehicle for creative pilgrimages and an art object in its own right. Riffing on the

license plate (which begins with ‘SZ’) and semiologist Roland Barthes’ text S/Z, Collins’ numerous

alterations transform this vehicle-as-found-object in to a rich semiotic container for potential meaning.

The exterior of Collins’ well-worn truck is augmented with Dark Night (2017), a handmade stainedglass

rear window, and a poem painted on the wooden deck. The stained-glass window of Dark Night

is reminiscent of an abstracted McCahon landscape, and shapes the quality and colour of light which

surrounds and passes through it. The painted poem was written by Collins on the road. Its glowing

yellow text set on the wooden deck reminds me of McCahon’s reference to the ‘Hairdresser and

Tobacconist’ typography he saw painted on the glass of a shop window in his travels, alongside Ian

Scott’s eponymous, somewhat ironic piece from 1988.

Inside the truck’s cab, a video work, Bodies of Water (passed under, over, through and around),

2014-17 (2017), loops on an iPhone lying on the passenger seat, alongside The Company of

Travellers (2017), a collection of kowhai seeds that fills the centre console. Bodies of Water was

compiled from five years of footage, and explores his personal voyages in relation to histories and

mythologies of water, which, like the artist, are always moving somewhere else. Collins’ kowhai seeds

offer another container for meaning: the kernel of an idea, and the real dispersal of living memory

gathered on the move.

The poetically augmented truck finds a parallel in gathered close in silence (2017), a suite of digital

photographs and monochromes of stained-glass set in black frames which are butted together, akin to

the thick lead filament of a stained-glass window composition. The photographs record fragments of

the truck and are overlaid with lines of Collins’ poetry, their yellow letters reminiscent of cinematic

titles, internet memes (the work was first released sequentially on Instagram), and painted yellow road

markings.

The artist’s self-titled word paintings draw on diverse influences and conflate a range of styles and

citations. They are rendered in oil on linen, drawing on the history and gravitas of Western traditions.

However, their underpainting in ‘pop’ colours such as pale pink, red, cadmium yellow, lilac, and sky

blue complicates their apparent seriousness, and problematize conventional readings of the texts

which appear on their surface. They engage rhetorical and literary strategies which open a range of

associations, questions and mental images. In a nod to the pithy one-liners of Ed Ruscha’s cool

conceptualism, Collins’ paintings appear at once sincere, ironic, neither and both. HOW TO BURN

DOWN THE HOUSE (2017) appears as a rhetorical question, a statement and a set of instructions.

Similarly, HOW TO MAKE HISTORY (2017) can be seen to reflect on painting’s historical role as a

cultural artefact, alongside artists’ attempts to enter art history. Fittingly, their Obelisk font, designed

by Alistair McCready, is used in gravestones and memorials. In counterpoint, the accompaniment of

Collins’ feathery, gestural brush strokes in bright pigments appear to negate these lofty and potentially

solemn concerns in a light-hearted way. This tension between surface and depth, humour and

pensiveness underpin his practice. There are moments which are seriously funny.

Collins clearly enjoys pushing painting around. The colourful markings in these works may evoke

numerous references, from the animated strokes of the Post-Impressionists, the chunky viscosity of

Abstract Expressionism, to the more self-referential, cerebral strokes of Robert Ryman. In the context

of travel, Collins’ paintings may also suggest dappled light glimpsed through the trees, caught in

peripheral vision while travelling at speed down a rural road, echoed in the words HOW FLEETING IS

OUR TIME IN THE SUN.

The Horizon Paintings are constructed from Collins’ repurposed canvas drop sheets, complete with

aberrations and previous paint marks visible on their unpainted sides. In a range of domestic interior

paint colours, they trace the ever-receding horizon as experienced on this travels through New

Zealand. Collins’ horizon lines are perfectly straight and display a visual congruence with his earlier

VTS Paintings (Very Tranquil Sea). The combination of the two distinct tones evoke a third unseen

colour in the humming space between; akin to the horizon, ever-present yet always somewhere else.

Collectively, The Reckless Pilgrim charts the artist’s inner and outer journeys of significance,

materialising their lasting memories, impacts and influences. Yet Collins is aware that to observe is

also to affect the object of one’s observation. Collins’ travels intervene in the landscape he traverses,

records and to which he responds, leaving both forever altered.