John Puhiatau Pule

John Pule
John Pule, a New Zealander born on the island of Niue, poet, writer, novelist and painter, has experienced several personal metamorphoses in the course of his eventful life. From being an introverted, marginalised, unintegrated and stereotypical islander in a foreign urban surrounding, he emerged as a global visionary. He can be numbered among the few artists from the Pacific Rim who are more than the sum total of its social conventions, who expound more than just narrative, aesthetic or symbolised contexts and who have statements to make which are not merely reflective.

Pule's phenomenal development has something Nietzschean and independent which is particularly fascinating. His antagonistic attitude of mind, sparked off by the institutions - ghetto, school, reformatory and factory, the street - is a part of his character which allowed him to argue his way through several crises but also, as a survivor, to leave a poignant testimony of the past and look to the future. This autodidact, born in 1962, began his painting career in the middle of the 1980s producing allegories in splendid colours. His attempts at oils revealed a brush skipping over the canvas, somewhat reminiscent of the expressionists. He used three themes in the process, which came about during his voluntary employment with Greenpeace: romantic love, the legacy of Christianity and the nuclear neo-colonialism in the South Pacific. He unrestrainedly imitated European artists who had been inspired by the Polynesian culture, its ideas and world of images, such as Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and the northern, simple expressionism of Edvard Munch. These figurative works were followed by a transitional phase in which Pule began to transfer his own poetry in the Polynesian language to the canvas and to envelop it with simple blocks of colour. The paintings had a minimalist effect and fulfilled a didactic purpose in the first instance. Finally, Pule found a way out of this impasse in 1991, when he returned to his home village, Liku, for the first time in almost thirty years and discovered the possibilities of traditional design: weaving and hiapo patterns on tapa cloth. Pule's innovative work consisted of making a trade into an art form by replacing the bark cloth with canvas in order to lend a radical symbolism to the field of vision. What before had a mute beauty was now largely articulated and could survive any art biennale. Pule's work after 1991 almost sparkled with visual dynamics. He had found a global language to express his personal feelings and to develop a coherent world image. His pictograms are a kind of communications protocol which impart something en passant without the need to be understood completely. The animistic and shamanistic oil paintings on un-stretched canvases have that hybrid authenticity of fluid inner meaning which connects them with totem systems such as Buddhist mandalas, geometric sand patterns made by the Hopi Indians, ochre-coloured earth drawings by Australian aborigines and prehistoric petroglyphs from Venezuela. His demonic powers are universal ones. Like Freud before him he realised that they never disappeared but simply changed their name.

The brush-stroke figures are eye-catching but one should then call to mind the manically repetitive graphology of a Keith Haring or the compulsive stylisation of a Jean-Michel Basquiat in order to understand Pule's works as a cleverly devised system which treads a fine line between mechanical repetition and visual cacophony and anarchy. Pule constantly uses different graphical means. Like an anthropologist, he collects objects of all kinds: his pictures resemble miniature ethnological museums. Here and there one feels the pure joy of the artist's improvisation. Creases and etchings can be seen alongside rubbed, smeared and deleted patches, but everything takes place in a delicate and subtle manner - and with ironical control.
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