Inhaling the delicious aromas of Chinese spices as you ascend the wooden stairs to Simon Kaan’s light-filled studio prepares you for a journey into memory and culture. Kaan’s paternal grandfather came to Otago as a market gardener from Guangzhou in 1896 and the old Kaan’s Fruit Supply premises in Port Chalmers, close to the artist’s birthplace of Sawyer’s Bay, was once his nostalgia-filled studio and gallery space. Lindsay Kaan’s warehouse for Chinese foodstuffs in Dunedin’s wharf precinct provides his relative Simon Kaan with a north-facing loft workspace. One wall is lined with the old wooden trays salvaged from the fruit shop, once used to display perfectly balanced mounds of fruit, but now seguing into becoming panel supports for paintings. Pigeons flutter about above windows which command a view of the steadfast mound of Mount Cargill, just as notational gulls punctuate the skies in Simon Kaan’s abstracted seascapes. His studio is geographically located in his Kai Tahu heartland, midway between two important nodes for his existence: the Dunedin School of Art adjacent to the old Gregg’s factory near Logan Park where he teaches, and the pounding surf of Otago’s east coast beaches.
An etching that Simon Kaan made at the end of art school features a bodily outline filled with crosses, a mnemonic for his art practice at that time which explored performance as well as printmaking. In many ways, his approach is unchanged; still embodied, hovering between abstraction and figuration, gesturing to spirituality, and reductionist, concerned with surfaces. He describes his painting technique as being like preparing an etching plate where paint is smeared across surfaces like ink over metal, a methodology which generates meaning out of material processes. Rather than cover the substrate – wooden panel or canvas – with a thick skin of colour, the paint is wiped off with a rag so that it becomes a permeable membrane, allowing the tooth of the linen or the grain of the wood to manifest through. His practice is repetitive and habitual, like meditation.
Just as the application of paint is thinly layered, so too are the compositions, appearing to be stacked vertically like so many horizon lines, landforms snaking out from the sides of each rectangle as slivers of inky darkness. Forever donning a wetsuit to go surfing, Kaan’s perspective is honed by being water-borne. Catching a wave, with its elemental beauty and performativity, means “connecting with a piece of moving nature.” Always his view of land is the long gaze in from out at sea. His Māori world view meshes with the pantheism of the Tao, the Chinese philosophical, ethical, and religious tradition which emphasises living in harmony with nature and behaving with compassion, moderation, and humility. Traditional Chinese scroll painters often paint the same subject for years, perfecting their rendition of one motif, tempering their experimentation in favour of repetition and consolidation.
This idea of reaching into history to connect with precedent finds its echo within Kaan’s practice where a few motifs – waka and wave – have become his signature marks, assuming the appearance of an artist’s seal or chop in his work. As well as symbolising perpetual voyaging and the arrivals and departures of migration, their recurrence gestures to modern indigeneity, both powerful and beautiful, contemporary and timeless.
Essay by Linda Tyler
Born: 1971, Dunedin
Education: Diploma of Fine Arts (Hons), Otago Polytechnic
Awards/Distinctions: Artist in Residence, Wanaka Arts Festival (2009); Creative NZ Asia Residency, Beijing, China (2004); Cleveland Art Awards – Winner (2000); Nohoaka Toi Kai Tahu, Kai Tahu Artist in Residence, Otago Polytechnic (2000)
Collections: Designed carvings for Te Waipounamu, Maori Select Committee Rooms, Parliament, Wellington; The James Wallace Arts Trust, Auckland; The University of Waikato, Hamilton
Public Exhibitions: Te hā o te whenua - The breath of the land, Corban Estate Arts Centre, Auckland (2013); Installation of Kaihaukai as part of the International Symposium on Electronic Arts, IAIA, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA (2012); Pouwhenua Project, The Festival of Colour, Wanaka (2011); The Asian, Blue Oyster Project Space, Dunedin (2010); The Maui Dynasty, The Suter Te Aratoi o Whakatu, Nelson (2008); Learning from The Knee, Burringa Gallery, Melbourne, Australia (2006); Instant Kiwi, Rear Window, Dunedin Public Art Gallery (2005); Ka Wakatipuraka, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu (2003); Maramataka: Light Understanding Space, Otago Polytechnic (2000); Te Karaka o Te Tai o Araitauru, curated for the National Educators Art Conference, Temple Gallery, Dunedin (2010)
Publications/Articles: ‘A subtle sense of identity’ by Terry McNamara, The New Zealand Herald, Jun 2015; Panoho, Rangihiroa, Maori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape & Theory, Auckland: David Bateman Ltd, 2015; Brown, Warwick, Seen this Century, North Shore City: Random House NZ, 2009; ‘Waka and Wave’by Virginia Were, Art News New Zealand, Winter 2004, pp 60-61; ‘Balanced Politics: the art of Simon Kaan’by Bridie Lonie, Art New Zealand, No. 136, Summer 2010, pp 40-43; Kete Aronui, Episode 5, Maori TV, 2006 (Documentary); Artsville, TVNZ, 2005 (Documentary); Highfield, Camilla and Peter Smith, Pushing the Boundaries: 11 Contemporary Artists in Aotearoa New Zealand, Wellington: Gilt Edge Publishing, 2004; ‘Tactful Flickers’ by Christopher Moore, Christchurch Press, Jun 2004; The Big Art Trip by Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Nick Ward, TVNZ, 2001 (Documentary)