Jon Tootill

Wa Whero / Turn red, Autumn, 2022, acrylic on canvas, 1400mm x 1200mm x 35mm


Building on previous botanical inspired series Jon Tootill has now expanded his attention. His 2022 exhibition Whakamoe Tau, features a pou species. Perhaps however the exhibition is less about that tree, than it is about the observed effects of that rakau through time. Tootill appears to be more engrossed by the light, the colours and the tree’s inherent seasonal vibrations. 

Previous exhibitions have showcased the brilliant colours of blossoming Karo (Pittosporum crassifolium) and the cycles of growth and harvest of Harakeke (Phormium Tenax). Tootill’s series are meditations on growth, aging, reproduction, transitions in state.  These series together are metaphors or maps of the seasons as much as they are illustrations or colour indexes of a particular species. 

This exhibition has expanded the scope and range of Tootill’s practice by building knowledge over a much longer timeframe than just one exhibition. The title might point to the development cycle of an exhibition, it can easily take a year to bring a show together. But it also points to the repeated cycle of seasons, not just one year but a lifecycle. It points to the interconnectedness of weather systems and many complementary species, both pollen producers and pollinators. It points to a more ancient wisdom. 

The four larger paintings in this show are based on the seasonal colour progression of the trees called Liquid Ambers (Liquidambar styraciflua). The works chromatically denote the change of seasons, light diffracted by leaves in states of growth, decay and renewal. A deciduous tree that drops its leaves in a spectacular show of colour, these trees made popular in specimen plantings.

It is not the first time that Tootill has featured exotics, his earlier painting, Ngā Rakau Ingarihi I Matariki | The English trees at Matariki dates to 2017. It also features the tones of the Liquid Amber. That work points to the aging of the colonial project in Aotearoa. It poetically reclaims local landscapes by activating a Māori world view.

Using a sublime and ancient matauranga or knowledge system, Tootill anchors himself in maramataka, a lunar calendar. He invokes this epic timescale and applies indigenous knowledge to an exotic species, scrutinising the presence of Liquid Ambers with a curious gaze, studious care and grace. 

Tootill’s sequence starts at the Māori new year, Matariki. The rising of that star cluster is signalled by the new moon. The rotations and elliptical orbits of Te Ao Marama are one of the great cues to connect with Te Taiao, the environment.  Wā Wheuri | Be dark, winter is followed by Wā Matomato (summer season lush green), Te Raumati ki te Ngahuru (summer to autumn) then Wā Whero (turn red, autumn). 

For the five smaller artworks, the colours are sampled from Tootill’s immediate rural surroundings. He records te taiao, the environment around him, throughout the year. Those smaller-scale works demonstrate subtle changes in foliage, or the appearance of small fruits, mushroom like growths that sprout year-round or the subtle tones of lichens.  Tootill’s ancient vocabulary of the natural world is however freighted with innovation. He records his world with his mobile device, using Adobe Capture software as a vector converter which turns “photos into colour themes, patterns.” Like a DJ sampling sounds, Tootill’s nature-notes research become a reference base for his water colour paintings and the five smaller colour palette works. 

With a forensic approach Tootill innovates across western and indigenous knowledge systems and visual cultures. The grid pattern that underscores these works has developed over time. It echoes tukutuku motif and an artistic lineage that might include Toi Te Rito Maihi and the late John Bevan Ford as well as op and minimalist art histories from Bridget Riley to Agnes Martin. The grid imposes a discipline that Tootill has used before. Observant followers of his work will recognise it. Seen through an arc of Tootill’s career output the character of these works takes on an epic scale, one that telescopes time across seasons or even generations. 

Essay by curator Hanna Scott



BORN: 1951, Hamilton

LIVES: Auckland (Tamaki Makaurau)

EDUCATION: Diploma of Graphic Art, AIT

COLLECTIONS: Auckland City Council, New Zealand Government

AWARDS: Nga Kopi o Toi, commission for Otara Town Centre (2015); New Zealand Painting and Printmaking Award - Finalist (2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2004), Merit (2008); Anthony Harper Art Award - Finalist (2010), Merit (2009); Adam Portraiture Award - Finalist (2008); Trust Waikato Contemporary Art Award - Merit (2007); Wallace Art Awards - Finalist (2004); Ida Eise Painting Award (1988)

PUBLIC EXHIBITIONS: Katharthis, Calder and Lawson Gallery, University of Waikato, Hamilton (2016); Sydney Contemporary, Carriage Works, Sydney (2015); Constant Practice, Franklin Art Centre, Auckland (2014); Momo Kauae, Hastings City Gallery (2014); Survey Show, Franklin Gallery, Auckland (2014); Pure Forms and Cultural Narratives, The Centre of Contemporary Art, Christchurch (2010); Tiki Tour, Whangerei Art Musem (2006); Fragile Islands, ASA, Auckland (2000)

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: ‘Seasoned Paintings: Recent Work by Jon Tootill’ by Michael Dunn, Art New Zealand, Issue 148, Summer 2022-23, p.70-73; ‘Jon Tootill, Survey 2001 - 2013’ by Matt Blomeley and James Pinker; Koru Lounge: Pure forms and Cultural Narratives, by Andrew Paul Wood, 2009; ‘Canvas of Quarter-Acre Paradise’ by Victoria Moss, B-Guided, 2006/2007; ‘Art-iculate’ by John Daly-Peoples, National Business Review, May 2003; ‘Fragile Islands,’ by Tim Watkin, New Zealand Herald, May 2001; Craccum, Issue 9, 2001, Cath O’Brien

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