Paul Hartigan

New Zealand b. 1953

Paul Hartigan has been a key figure in New Zealand art since the 1970s. The Auckland based artist was born in New Plymouth in 1953 and graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, with a DFA in 1974. Since then he has had more than 35 solo shows, and innumerable group shows.

His work is held in public and private collections throughout New Zealand including Auckland Art Gallery, Te Papa, The National Library of New Zealand, Sarjeant Gallery, The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Chartwell Collection. He is also in the collection of Australia’s Queensland Art Gallery.

Paul Hartigan’s earliest paintings and prints reflect his interest in American Pop Art and his fascination with popular culture. Neon signs, tattoo flash, movie posters, advertising and 1950s modern design were favourite resources. Hartigan was particularly drawn to 1950s pulp comic books like The Phantom and Donald Duck for their mix of Black line and bold colour.

Hartigans’s Phantom has become the iconic image of New Zealand Pop art of the 1970s.

In 1980 Hartigan started working in neon, allowing him to draw simultaneously in light and colour. He developed a quirky personal image vocabulary, a library of jazzy hieroglyphs and modern-primitive pictograms rendered as luminous light drawings – these neon images became his recognised trademark. His large-scale installation Colony, (2004) can be seen on permanent display at the University of Auckland.



 At Home with THE PHANTOM in the 1950s

A steady diet of Phantom, Walt Disney comics and Hollywood movie star magazines featured prominently in my boyhood experiences while growing up in New Plymouth, Taranaki during the 1950s. These popular culture sources transposed their influences into my early Pop paintings, completed at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s whilst attending Elam School of Fine Arts at The University of Auckland. During this period at art school I became aware of the Pop Art movement and my all time art-hero, Picasso, was replaced by new generation Americans Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine and Dan Flavin. British pop movement artists Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield also provided huge inspiration and direction for my work, my artistic aspirations and ideology.

 All my early paintings were based on printed images or print media – imagery from trashy popular culture magazines and comics were my bent. I loved the ‘small ads’ in the very back of such magazines whose readability was almost practically destroyed by the coarse dot screen process used in publishing at that time. I was always fascinated by the actual process of printing and studied the pages intensely, often with a magnifying glass to observe the techniques and happy accidents of printing – quirky off-register mistakes and ink bleeds led me to emulate such effects in my paintings. I translated these observations into my work by applying different coloured layers of enamel paint, but allowing previous applications to show through in the final surface layer. In later post-pop works, this technique was refined to create a type of ‘halo’ around the depicted comic line, an effect that subsequently led me to create my illuminated paintings using neon tube. In employing this medium, to me a kind of ‘electrified paint’, I could combine the trademark Hartigan properties of ‘line and colour’ within one calligraphic stroke.

 I so loved The Phantom as a boy, and even now he has a special place in my head and heart. I still read my old comic issues, of which I have hundreds, to remind me of my artistic origins and concerns. The Phantom, as a comic ‘super-hero’, always seemed to have arisen from quite a different mold to more conventional archetypes like Superman for example. He didn’t have super-powers, he wasn’t able to manage global catastrophes, he wasn’t grandiose or unreal – he was just an ordinary guy in a stylish black and purple costume with a wolf-dog, heart-set on turning evil on its ear – but for readers of the strip, he made the world’s morality of the times a reality. So, being enamored of my hero, I wrote away to the fan club in Australia and subsequently received a skull ring and a printed portrait of The Phantom with a printed gold frame; I made a drawing from this item and used it as the base composition for my large enamel portrait completed during the final months of 1973. The scale of the work was intentionally large, creating a larger than life presence as a fitting tribute to my hero.

 I’d always had a love of enamel paint, I liked the way it smelt and flowed off the brush – with delight I painted my mother’s kitchen pastel green during the 60s. I liked the glossy end result, its mirror like finish. It would dribble and slip if you applied too much at once and I was fascinated by the way it slid down the surface like a snail, slowly descending to the bottom.

 Dribbling paint was a prominent feature of my early paintings during the seventies decade. It was used primarily as a way of ‘softening’ the commercial origins of the graphic source material for that period of work, and paint was applied generously and luxuriously thick to build up the surface, like stove enamel – it turned the base commercial image into something more meaningful, something evidently deeper. I had recontextualized and transformed the ‘commercial’ and the ‘comic’ into ‘fine art’. At the same time I was consciously aware of it being a powerful subversive device in my work – to destroy for the viewer the painted illusion I had created in front of them. I wanted them to engage with the image but be wholly conscious of the illusionistic aspect of image making at the painter’s hand, the idea that ‘a painting’ is in the end, ‘just an illusion’, a kind of trick or even manipulation of the mind.

 Additionally, it transpired by way of ‘editing’ the dribbling paint, that I became conscious of the possibility of introducing pathos into the portrait; I edited out most of the dribbles but controlled them carefully around the pupil-less mask to create an effect of ‘weeping’ or sadness – a clear contradiction in terms of male gender stance of the time, for either hero or mere mortal – “boys don’t cry”.

 Recently, when I got my old mate out of storage for The Cartoon Show exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery I was amazed at how, decades later, he still gripped me with his compelling look of resolve – baddies beware!

 Paul Hartigan



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