Pat Hanly, ‘Who Am I’, from The Robin Scholes Collection – A discussion with Kyla Mackenzie

By August 4, 2017News

For any Important Paintings & Contemporary Art catalogue, Webb’s commissions a selection of academic art experts to produce insightful essays on some of the key works in each sale. For the August 7 2017 auction, Kyla Mackenzie discusses ‘Who Am I’ by Pat Hanly from The Robin Scholes Collection.

Kyla Mackenzie with ‘Who Am I’ by Pat Hanly, Lot 29.

“I was interested to read Robin Scholes’s comments about Hanly’s Who Am I and her turn-of-phrase: ‘we are all made of stardust’.  This is evocative and apt: Pat Hanly saw art and life as united.  The political climate when he came into his strength as an artist keenly shaped his outlook, activism and oeuvre.  He saw the Pacific environment and life of New Zealand as a vivid contrast to the dark threat of destruction.  His commitment, belief and output set an impressive example for other artists and his students.”

Pat Hanly, Who Am I

Pat Hanly’s well-known idealism, humanism and energy characterised the tenor of most of his imagery. At a time in New Zealand when many were asking themselves self-conscious questions about what it was to be a New Zealander, Hanly was also looking to larger, interconnected questions concerning humanity, science, creativity, nature and the self. Who Am I of 1969 is a seeming ‘self-portrait’ but is also universal in its implication. Hanly was investigating several currents of thought in the late 1960s, including: Zen Buddhism, the ‘divine accident’ – as he saw it – of abstract expressionism, the works of poet and artist William Blake, and molecular biology.

From The Robin Scholes Collection.
Pat Hanly, ‘Who Am I’.

This figure standing in light is very different from the beach subjects of Hanly’s earlier Figures in Light imagery. His seemingly nude silhouette is differentiated from its surrounds by a foundation of deep greens and blues on which constellations of yellow and red droplets glow. He is an anonymous ‘universe’ within a frenetic force field. Around him, thin runs and drips of white enamel whip across horizontal stretches of, primarily, red, blue and orange. Yet, there is a degree of specificity – unusual in Hanly’s oeuvre. We sense a turned head, crowned with buoyant hair, like the artist’s own, muscular calves, and a particularised turn of the ankle and anatomy of the foot. The year before, the artist had produced I Am “Self Portrait Molecular Aspect 1968”, which he referred to as Real Self Portrait: a dark silhouette of his curly-haired head containing vivid splashes of paint.

Biographer Russell Haley noted of Hanly’s preoccupations and formal measures in this period: “The silhouette is, therefore, an appropriate device for conveying that we have a ‘boundary’, a consciousness of self, but that we contain the same indestructible energy that composes the universe.” The molecular activity of the universe was, for Hanly, conceptually bound up with the creative process. The Molecular/Energy/or Creation Series are often complexly variegated, pointillistic compositions and include vivid themes of the garden and nature, such as those seen in the painting entitled Sea, Earth, Sky – molecular aspect (1969, Te Papa), and anonymous individuals and couples.

Gregory O’Brien has pointed to Hanly’s note-to-self in 1968: “There is a sense of the universe, and all the objects therein, caught inexplicably in a process of transcendence…” This extended self-portrait, then, asks a question dear to the ‘swinging sixties’: one associated with Eastern philosophy, meditation, transcendental states and the psychedelic experience. Hanly’s preoccupations in printmaking and painting also nodded to the philosophical enquiries of post-impressionist Paul Gauguin in his famous painting: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897).

A decade earlier, during the Cold War, Hanly had been living in an unexpectedly grim London with Gil Hanly and their baby, Ben. Amidst his fears of nuclear destruction and for the future of humanity, he wrote: “… if only I could get a clear idea about the birth and growth of things, sweetness and abundance and general unity…” These were hopes, values and aesthetic goals he nurtured and, in the late 1960s, was to explore with confidence and self-belief, finding an especially luminous moment in Who Am I of 1969.


By Kyla Mackenzie