Aaron Lister launches Theo Schoon biography


Aaron Lister’s speech at the launch of Theo Schoon: A Biography, by Damian Skinner


Theo Schoon sets a tough precedent when it comes to giving opening speeches. At the opening of his exhibition at New Vision Gallery on 25 March 1965 — described in the book we are launching tonight as a ‘kind of artistic manifesto’ — Schoon decided on the spot that he would give the opening address because he disliked ‘the fulsome praise invariably heard on such occasions’. He continued, ‘I know I am breaking the rules that say an artist should keep his mouth shut and not speak about my own work … but it is my work and I know more about it than anyone else.’

It’s classic acerbic Schoon, and a good opening gambit — for him, and for me — especially in terms of my job this evening of celebrating the dual achievements of Schoon and Damian Skinner as crystalised in this book. Obvious spoiler alert — Schoon definitely has a contender to that title he claimed for himself all those years ago.

Until now, Schoon the man has being a very loosely sketched out — and, let’s face it, equally sketchy — figure in our cultural landscape. His work has been embedded in art historical and cultural debates without ever having that full attention in terms of a major book or exhibition dedicated to him (both of those things are in the process of being rectified). This is largely because he’s also been a cultural problem, an agitating force, someone easier not to touch.

But there has been a noticeable shift in recent times. Signs of renewed attention can be found in his surprise star turn in Michael Parekowhai’s Detour installation at Te Papa, or in the ongoing presence he has in the work of Dutch-Australian painter Matthys Gerber. We can also look to art history, auction houses and the like. It’s not that there has been a softening towards Schoon, because in all of these cases it’s the very problems his work continues to pose for culture that remain the point of interest. Schoon is definitely back, in newly complex forms and guises, with new questions being asked of him and his work.

I was going to say enter Damian Skinner — but that of course is not quite the case. Damian has been sparring with Schoon for almost 25 years. This, by the way, is about the same length as Schoon’s relationship with Gordon Walters, which has taken on an almost mythic quality in our art history — framed as our Braque and Picasso story. This is one of many relationships that this book fully fleshes out and makes much more understandable, more human — to the benefit of both artists.

The Schoon–Skinner relationship started when Damian semi-reluctantly made Schoon the subject of his master’s thesis in 1995. He really wanted but was unable to do it on carver Tuti Tukaokao, so he developed a topic that came at the territory from another direction — through Schoon’s interaction with Māori art. This was a tricky topic to take on in the heightened tensions around cultural appropriation in the mid-1990s. And it was one that facilitated Damian’s desire to work with Māori art and artists.

This resulted in a PhD and associated book The Carver and the Artist, and many other well-known publications: Ihenga: The Evolution of Māori Art in the Twentieth Century, The Passing World, The Passage of Life: John Hovell and the Art of Kowhaiwhai, and The Māori Meeting House: Introducing the Whare Whakairo. These are not Schoon books, but I think we can see them at least partially as Damian’s continued grappling with Schoon and his often problematic interaction with Māori art — especially his self-appointed role as an authority on these matters.

If these books may be interpreted as Damian talking back to or at Schoon, there are other cases of talking with or alongside him. This book takes great pleasure in charting Schoon’s lifelong project to demolish the boundaries between high art and craft. Damian, too, has taken to this task, evident in another impressive range of craft-orientated titles to match those I just listed.

The arguments made in this book about the art world’s ignorant blindness to craft could really have come from the mouth of either man. Perhaps this is another form of reckoning with Schoon. It’s also worth noting that contemporary art’s recent rush to embrace craft is one of the reasons why Schoon’s work is feeling so pressing right now.

Damian has also continued to work directly on Schoon: various texts, the exhibitions Mudpool Modernism and Madness and Modernism: Schoon, Hattaway, Walters. The latter was especially important for surfacing the work and story of Rolfe Hattaway, patient at Avondale Hospital who was both empowered and exploited by Schoon. The exhibition threw out a very Schoon-like challenge to culture by asking how can we respectfully understand and deal with the legacy of Hattaway?

This still hasn’t really been addressed — until, I would argue, this book, which presents the fullest picture we have of Hattaway, the man, the artist and of this encounter with Schoon. Here the book offers another kind of reckoning: with Schoon, with Damian’s own earlier work on Schoon, and with the culture which both would likely argue often fails to do its work properly.

So, I guess I’m really saying enter Damian Skinner, biographer. Biography was a dirty word in those mid-90s art history days. I can’t imagine Damian at that time ever foreseeing himself writing a biography of Schoon. But, as he has put it, he came to the understanding that there was unfinished business. The bigger surprise was that this ultimate reckoning was going to take the form of a biography.

It’s fair to say that writing the biography had taken Damian out of his comfort zone as a writer, and equally takes the reader down some fascinating paths that have previously been little more than footnotes. The sections especially on Schoon’s two periods living in Java — firstly as a child, and secondly as a 20-year-old running a studio in Bandung, where he was under the sway of the artist Walter Spies and had the freedom to be an artist and a gay man as never before — and, he would probably argue ever since — are game changers in terms of understanding Schoon and the position he would come occupy here.

The book is full of new revelations and details that let us see Schoon afresh. This is a far richer, more nuanced, more complex Schoon than we have seen before — and for this, we have to acknowledge both subject (for an extraordinary life lived) and writer (an extraordinary life told). In a book that is in many ways about relationships: between families, between artists, between cultures, I think it’s only right that we acknowledge this one tonight.

Another of my favourite quotes from the book is Schoon’s description of himself as being like ‘a cat sniffing out all corners of a strange warehouse’. That for me is close to a perfect explanation of the type of artist we need — now more than ever. I don’t want to insult Damian by calling him an alley cat, but it is fair to say that his work is led by similar drives to investigate, to seek out and go places others don’t dare to tread.

It was this approach which first led him to Schoon, to much else and eventually to this book. If the rumour is true, this book may be Damian’s farewell letter not only to Theo Schoon but also to art writing. If this is the case, we are all privileged to be here this evening to celebrate the launch of this book and that long, tricky, and incredibly productive relationship between Theo Schoon and Damian Skinner that has brought it to life.