The nature of Cubism implies an unseeable depth beneath the surface of a brushstroke. The canvas of these self-portraits are a flat surface, but they tell of infinite personhood beneath.
Melvin Day: In Private presents a series of the artist by his own hand, beginning at the age of twenty-two. The earliest subject is just emerging from wartime, where the fledgling artist was recruited as a topographer. In the context of sweeping regionalist landscapes, Day’s portraits are a quiet introspection into post-war New Zealand. His self-portraits hint at artistic revolution, albeit within a muted palette. Indeed, the eccentricities of European painting had a long wait for acceptance, particularly in the Rotorua of Day’s inhabitation.
The self-portraits through to 1950 maintain head-and-shoulders framing, the artist tending to face us at a three-quarter profile. Two portraits do however take a turn for the fractured in 1947 and 1948. Colours approach their primary gaudiness and the face is now a grid of intersecting planes. Rotorua flinches.
Moving through the series, we find ourselves in the 21st century. Day’s hair is white (though an Impressionist might tell you it is purple, blue and yellow). The 2009 self-portrait shows the artist at a canvas, tool in hand. This was painted after Day suffered a stroke. The shoulders are angled within the confines of the frame, rather that defying their borders in earlier work. Towards the lower torso, the spectrum of brushstrokes that make up his background fuse with the form of the body.
Returning to the pastels of the 1950’s, we are introduced to Day’s companion of 62 years, Oroya. As in earlier works, stylistic brushstrokes are grounded in the solidity of the subject. Oroya is first in a yellow dress, pearls, a small white belt, seated. She glances to the side. In the second she stands looking out and the background is a network of abstraction. Style takes an exploratory route within the agreed palette, and Day translates the enigma of abstraction into rural rhetoric.
Melvin Day’s works are a bridge between the rush of movement happening throughout the art world, and the languid take-up of novelty. His pieces are a calm expanse of self-exploration, a gift of the vanguard.
- Madeleine Morton, New Zealand Portrait Gallery Volunteer