Country Carnivore Carnival (n.d.)
One of the striking things about Country Carnivore Carnival is the incredible downward vortex of energy that Clairmont (1949-1984) channels through the lowered head; down through the seated figure’s arms; and finally through the hand which grips a pencil with vehement force like he would a wood-cutting blade. Also striking, is the bleached sheep’s skull – that stands in for the person’s face – which seems to be spitting white phlegm or snorting shards of bone across the lower half of the painting. In other works from about the same period, we are used to Clairmont showering his compositions with shards of harsh tungsten light – a reference to his habit of painting at night under a bare bulb. But here, the sprays of white paint lend this painting quite a different and explosive expressive energy.
Philip Clairmont was celebrated from the late 1970s as perhaps New Zealand’s leading figurative colourist and neo-expressionist. He was born in Nelson in 1949, studied at Ilam in Christchurch under Rudolf Gopas and lived and worked in Auckland alongside Tony Fomison and Allen Maddox during his short career, before committing suicide at the age of 34. He was inspired by the spatial intensities of interiors; obsessed by the theatrical drama of artificial light; and his paintings sought out, as he said, the essence of objects and their suggestive properties. Alongside such objects as chairs, staircases and fireplaces, and though Clairmont generally shunned the human figure, he returned again and again to the self-portrait.
Country Carnivore Carnival is best understood as one of his many self-portraits, but it is unique among them. While many of his portraits include a painted title and some symbolic reference to the sitter’s activity and state of being, these elements often sit outside the figure itself. Self Portrait - Listening to Music (1982) has musical notes floating through the air next to the figure; and in Self Portrait at 33 (1982) Clairmont is accompanied by a distant view, out the window, of Christ on the Cross at Gethsemane. But here, whatever state of mind or ‘bombardment of the senses’ the artist is grappling with, has been folded into the sitter’s head, hand and phlegm. What are we to make of the vehemence, the splattered surface, the tightly gripped pencil in his hand and the skull-head? At the very least, in this remarkable painting, it is a visual echo of the artist’s own claim that ‘painting should be a struggle all the time – an attempt at a break-through.’
Philip Clairmont, Country Carnivore Carnival (n.d.), oil on jute, 1440 x 940mm
Philip Clairmont, Self Portrait - Listening to Music (1982), 1550 x 750mm
Philip Clairmont, Self Portrait at 33 (1982)
Essay commissioned by International Art Centre, Parnell, Auckland, NZ; and published in IMPORTANT, EARLY & RARE 19th & 20th Century New Zealand Paintings and Contemporary Art; 29 October 2014 (October 2014).