Damien Kurth is sitting in a small ordered room adjacent to a garage in suburban Mt Albert. He’s relaxed, at home. This is an efficient workspace. Bottles, jars, and other objects rest on a ledge. Paints, brushes, solvents and sketches sit upon a table. Much of the wall space is covered by oil paintings – some finished, some still in process – of the everyday objects spread around the studio, ubiquitous, unremarkable. Yet there is something eerie to them. Rags are stuck into bottle tops; jars contain unidentifiable liquids – some transparent, some opaque. Some are so dark and reflective they appear like used machine oil. The objects are carefully arranged, as if balancing some invisible scale. Bottles and tinctures are unlabelled, marked simply with ‘X’.
“That came about from a motorcycle carburettor I had sitting around for years. Someone had put this ‘X’ on it in enamel paint. I didn’t know whether it was to indicate that it was faulty, or that it was marked for a particular usage. Over time it just became a marking, something visual. It doesn’t indicate good or bad. It’s definitely not religious, but it is a very fundamental mark. All kinds of symbolism can be read into these objects. Without denying that, I don’t really want to engage with it. These objects come from my studio space; they come from my places of work. For a time I was working as a scooter mechanic, and day after day I’d see these barrels of oil. Gradually it seeped into my thinking. Oil is kind of dirty, but it can have this golden shine to it,” says Kurth. This leads him into discussing his influences: Dutch still life, Morandi, Velázquez. “You can’t do this without acknowledging what’s gone before. Painting has a rich history; there’s amazing work that’s been done.”
Kurth’s compositions are restrained – not minimalist – though pared back to an essence. So too are the items depicted. “These objects aren’t in themselves necessarily interesting or beautiful to look at, but when you really pay attention they change. It’s like when you utter a word over and over until it changes and you hear it differently. In the same way when you look at an object over and over something else emerges.” This close visual examination then shifts into formal concerns. “The objects in one way are there so I can engage with the painting process. Once I’ve started that investigation it becomes a case of reacting to what unfolds. For instance, the tape, the black criss-cross, in one way it is very much a tonal device. It becomes the darkest area in the work. And it works because it’s contrasted against the mid tones or lighter areas. If I took one of the objects out and replaced it with a simple square it would still operate as a composition and as a painting.”
Kurth’s paintings play with representation in a confounding way. There is nothing deceptive about them, though there is an element of mystery, or the unknowable. They present the viewer with something that is familiar and comforting, yet at the same time subtly challenging. The majority of the objects are vessels of some sort, although their contents and purposes are obscure. This shifts us from purely visual representation, and into ambiguous questions of absence or concealment. “If there’s enough fluidity in the painting it goes beyond mere symbolism. How many times can you paint or draw something before it comes apart, and no longer does what you expect it to? Seeing that change, when the object transforms, is one of the most interesting things about representational painting. It differentiates it from being simply a re-creation of what’s there. I think about how that plays out for a person who acquires the painting and then has it in their space. That person can then develop their own relationship to the work and its meaning over time.”
The idea that the humble object can transform into something of greater significance is perhaps central to what painting is and how it works. Painting is ritualistic. Painters often work long hours in isolation. It can be meditative, almost monastic. There’s a type of alchemy to transform pigments into images. In Kurth’s case it’s an examination of a particular way of looking at objects in order to construct artworks.
For all their representational skill, Kurth’s paintings somehow conjure the beguiling simplicity of Robert Ryman. Ryman’s strictly non-representational paintings operate with a visual logic that only asserts itself on the viewer over time. “I love Ryman, you can see his whole practice as asking ‘what happens when you do this one simple thing?’ and then following that up without ever stopping. Minimalist abstraction can engage me every bit as much as photo-realistic painting. Earlier on I worked in different ways, some quite painterly Abstract Expressionist sort of work, along with the representational. There was something about the representational that really engaged me, so I followed through with that. In a sense the work I’m making now is a by-product of that, because I’m still trying to unpick it.” says Kurth.
The more time spent with painting and painters, discussing, analysing, and enjoying the quality of the medium, the more the distinction between abstraction and representation seems irrelevant. As Kurth puts it: “Why differentiate between ways of painting? It’s all about the experience of seeing and creating. The more we demystify it, the stronger it is.”
Essay by Julian McKinnon
BORN: 1972, Stratford
EDUCATION: Master of Fine Arts, Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland; Bachelor of Fine Arts, Otago Polytechnic
AWARDS: Adam Portraiture Awards - Finalist (2002, 2000); Otago Polytechnic Painting Award (1997); Cleveland Art Awards - Highly Commended, Open Section (1997); Derivan Painting Award, Otago Polytechnic (1996)
PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: Spun, Corban Estate Arts Centre, Auckland (2013); About Face: Aspects of portraiture, Papakura Art Gallery, Auckland (2011); Adam Portraiture Awards, The New Zealand Portrait Gallery, Wellington (2002, 2000); Still Life, Arts Post, Hamilton (2000); Hoochy Koochy, Arts Post, Hamilton (1999); Cleveland Art Awards, Dunedin Town Hall (1997)
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: ‘Still Life Revisited’ by Warwick Brown, House and Garden, May 2017, p 163; ‘On the long and winding road’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Apr 2015; ‘Samples offer easy peek’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Jun 2013; ‘The real thing’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Apr 2012