For over sixty years British-born Alan Pearson has been one of the outstanding proponents of pure painting in New Zealand art. His work, densely complex, restlessly explorative, remains true to the ethos of Neo-Expressionism, alive with gesture, emotion and insight, rarely rivalled for technical mastery. A Liverpudlian outsider in an artistic climate still clinging to nationalism-as-landscape, the beginning of Pearson’s training at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts coincided with the arrival of the Lithuanian artist and educator Rudi Gopas there in 1959, placing Pearson in context with the likes of Philip Clairmont, Tony Fomison, and Allen Maddox, a veritable blossoming of Neo-Expressionists he has outlived, though in truth his highly idiosyncratic vision and individualism, further honed at London’s Royal Academy Schools in 1965-6 and a lifetime of development, makes him impossible to categorise with ease. Convenient labels refuse to stick as he ranges from abstraction to portraiture without any flagging of energy or confidence; everything is tackled with the same barely-restrained vigour and precision despite the constraints of the heart condition the artist has lived with for the last fifteen years or so.
There is a profound theatricality in Pearson’s art, not merely in the gestural bravura of his brushwork, but in the direct reference (the marvellous, immediate and intimate sketches of his beloved opera, reminiscent in spirit of similar sketches by Walter Sickert or Degas) and allusion (the framing proscenium arch that makes a stage of Pearson’s well-known 1986 self-portrait Exit from a Cold Theatre in the collection of Christchurch Art Gallery). If Pearson was an opera singer his Fach would be the Wagnerian Heldentenor; a powerful, rich, dark voice of tremendous stamina and theatrical persuasiveness, though capable of the lyric tenor requirements of Gounod’s Faust (author and musician Denys Trussell has described his work as “restless, questing, Faustian”). Pearson is passionate about opera and his painting captures that epic scale, expression, colour and tempo, though since moving to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast in 2000, dare one suggest a lighter, less sombre touch has entered his paintings? The angst and keen awareness of mortality associated with his New Zealand works are no longer quite so insistent.
Pearson’s portraiture is equally as compelling. The artist wields insight like a scalpel, fluently paring his sitters down to their essence. His technical virtuosity and generous ferocity invest the subject with a heightened reality rich in emotion, personality and metaphysical suggestion. The individuality and personality is communicated over the top of mere physical resemblance, or as Pearson once told an interviewer, “The aim, and the art, of the portraitist is not merely to produce a likeness but to reveal the mind and the being behind the human face ... I look for the moment below the public mask ... that conceals their innermost selves from view.” The inner life is brought to the surface; the inscape becomes landscape. This is no less true of the many self-portraits, which, like Rembrandt’s own project of introspective record, eschews vanity and defies the world with a defiant, Nietzschean statement of life: ego sum – I am! Ecce homo – behold the man! Trussell calls it “nature conscious of itself”. It is a legacy impossible to match that puts him in a direct succession with art’s great long conversation in a way not often seen now.
He is, without a doubt, an Old Master of the future.
Essay by Andrew Paul Wood
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