Jon Tootill is a painter of Ngāi Tahu and British ancestry, and was born in Hamilton in 1951. He sold his first artwork – a painting of a cottage in a romantic landscape – as a young member of the Waikato Society of Arts. During these early years, he worked in the studio of a local advertising agency, exploring the fundamentals of illustration and typography, teaching himself to hand-letter Times Roman. In his 18-month tenure, he compiled a portfolio of works to be admitted to the Graphic Arts course at Auckland Institute of Technology.
Tootill’s visual vocabulary, most especially of those paintings of recent years, can be seen as being informed by graphic design and his background as a commercial artist. After graduating, Tootill went onto a distinguished career with Saatchi & Saatchi as a Creative Director. His very early works – landscapes in coloured pencil and still life studies in oil – were painted at the end of the day as a relief from the constraints of working on computer.
After retiring from the advertising industry in 1998, Tootill’s paintings engaged with worldly affairs head-on. Using the medium of paint as a vehicle for story-telling, Tootill’s artworks explored themes of identity, culture and politics. Basket Case (2000), for example, focused on the environmental effects of nuclear testing in the Pacific. The Dreamers of Fantastic Dreams series (2001-2002), taking its title from Prime Minister Fraser’s description of conscientious objectors, explored their roles during the time of World War II. In the Pepeha for Lily series (2006-2007), Tootill worked on paintings related to moko kauae observing the adaption of the traditional facial tattoo in the life of those living in urban spaces.
In its totality, the arc of Tootill’s paintings of the past four decades progresses from politically charged realism in thick oil impasto to a dazzling formalist abstraction in watercolour or acrylic. From Rau (2008-2009) and Kahui (2009-2013), Tootill withdraws from the overt socio-political commentary of his earlier artworks to a kind of quietude, a meditative repetition of a single graphic form, studying the form in different instances as if unendingly shifting the faces of a Rubik’s cube.
A precedent for this method of iterative examination of a single visual form can also be found in earlier series, such as the paintings of Beazley homes of mid-20th century New Zealand. Aside from a little variation of their exteriors, such as the occasional coloured panels, stone slabs or signature design features, there was, in the end, a constancy and formulaic repetitiousness to these houses. Tootill plays out the aspect of sameness and difference by focusing on the underlying egalitarian nature of these modernist homes, depicting them in brilliant hues.
In recent paintings, the grid system becomes Tootill’s discipline. For an artist trained in graphic design, working with a grid is perhaps second-nature, a honed reflex. It is a designer’s constraining affordance, the principle by which to organise image and type on a page. In the Haekaro series (2015), for example, or the more recent Nga rakau Ingarihi i Matariki (2017), a single form shimmers across this underlying and invisible structure. But it would be a mistake to think this patterning proper only to modern graphic design. For Tootill, patterning and repetition emanate from within the practices of Māori visual culture. After all, although Tootill’s recent abstractions are liberated from overt socio-political commentary, non-representation in abstract art does not equal a lack of content.
For Tootill, a personal narrative is implied in the particularities of his chosen forms, derived as they are from Māori visual culture. From the vertical patterning of the Rau series (2008-2009) to the crowd of koru in the Kahui series (2009-2013), Tootill can be seen as an innovator in the lineage of Māori artists. He has an ability to examine, then re-examine form in such a way that his paintings read graphically, appealing to any modernist’s taste, but they are also thoroughly traditional, expressing the indigeneity of the artist – Jon Tootill of Ngāi Tahu from Aotearoa New Zealand, living on a farm in Tāmaki Makaurau and continuing to paint full-time in this his fifth decade as an artist.
Essay by Balamohan Shingade
BORN: 1951, Hamilton
LIVES: Auckland (Tamaki Makaurau)
EDUCATION: Diploma of Graphic Art, AIT
COLLECTIONS: Auckland City Council, New Zealand Government
AWARDS/DISTINCTIONS: 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: ‘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