Ben Reid: paradise lost
For any artist wishing to convey a ‘message’, be it social, political, or environmental, there is an ongoing challenge to find the balance between the specific and the general. Skewed too far towards the specific, the topical becomes the ephemeral; its meaning lost once the moment has passed. On the other hand, if the work leans towards the general, it too easily alienates viewers with a preaching tone and a sense that it rails against things too big for an individual to change. In ‘paradise lost’ printmaker Ben Reid has successfully confronted this challenge; his delicate and beautiful prints combine specific references to local environmental histories with a wider appreciation for the conservation movement.
In line with the conservationist ‘think global, act local’ mantra, Reid presents us with New Zealand’s past mistakes, encouraging the viewer to reflect on what we have lost and what we have to lose, all in the hope that we might be urged to act more responsibly in the present. The works, however, eschew the didactic; Reid describes them as ‘small stories for those prepared to listen’. In each instance, that ‘small story’ is then made all the more palatable through the decorative patterning, soft tones and delicate intaglio lines that characterise Reid’s work. Indeed, Reid displays a natural affinity for the printmaking medium, combining multiple techniques (usually drypoint, etching and woodblock) into one print. This ability is testament to Reid’s early training and he has clearly profited from learning woodblock printing from Sandra Thomson, intaglio printmaking from Denise Copland and then following this with three years working for Marian Maguire at PaperGraphica in Christchurch.
In many ways, ‘paradise lost’ is an extension of Reid’s previous works. With spread your tiny wings (2011), Reid returns to the imagery that characterised his exhibition ‘a bird in the hand’, held at COCA Gallery in Christchurch in 2009. Works such as hihi [white] (2009), combined delicate drypoint and etching studies of the Hihi with an attractive wallpaper pattern that on closer inspection reveals an array of predatory animals: rats, mustelids and cats. In spread you tiny wings the wallpaper functions in the same way, although the pattern is more subtle and focuses on the rats responsible for the decimation of the tiny, almost flightless, Stead’s bush wren. The specific reference is to Big South Cape Island and the accidental introduction of rats in 1964 that led to the species’ extinction just a few years later. The general message is one of needless loss, a cautionary tale of carelessness destroying our fragile environment.
In one of the two large-scale prints, the angler’s el dorado (2011),Reid again uses the attractive ‘wallpaper’ background, elegantly evoking soft green reeds. For Reid, the wallpaper is more than just an attractive stylistic device as it allows him to give his prints a historical specificity; their intricate patterns are characteristic of the Victorian era, the very period in which New Zealand’s environment was irrevocably altered by human intervention. The brown trout pictured was introduced into New Zealand in the late 1860s and has since been implicated in the decline of native freshwater fish populations through predation, displacement from native breeding grounds and competition for food sources. However, the equation isn’t simple; this predatory fish is itself prized by anglers as it is harder to catch than rainbow trout and is itself now threatened by the effects of intensive farming on the Canterbury plains.
The relationship between conservationists and hunters is also the subject of the other large-scale print, the eileen greenwood memorial trophy (2010). As Reid has noted, while many hunters claim that they are part of the conservation movement by keeping deer numbers down, they are, nonetheless, ‘strange bedfellows’. For Reid, even weighing their value in terms of sporting, recreational and commercial benefits, it would be preferable to have no mammal browsers as ‘the damage to the vulnerable New Zealand environment is too large’. This damage is specifically referenced through Reid’s title and through his integration of the Mt Cook lily into the woodblock patterning. Chosen at random from an old book, the Eileen Greenwood Memorial trophy references the tradition exported from the ‘old country’ of showing and judging flowers, lilies included. The specific concern centres on the endemic Mt Cook lily, a well-known plant, frequently reproduced in New Zealand culture. The general comment applies to many of our threatened alpine species, of which the Mt Cook lily is the most well-known example. Despite this familiarity, the species has been decimated through selective browsing by deer, chamois and tahr. Through conservation efforts like those in the Mt Cook National Park the lily can recover, and so the print serves as a timely call not to let the lily go the way of the Kaka beak and other species now lost in their native habitats.
The memorial trophy referenced in the title however, also refers to the notion of the trophy head prominently displayed in this print, an idea echoed by the trophy fish in the angler’s el dorado. The visual reference is not entirely new to Reid’s work and found earlier expression in his print brown teal (pateke) from 2009, with its birds flying across patterned wallpaper in a gently humorous nod to the three ducks beloved of kiwiana. Both the deer head and the mounted trout combine Reid’s use of wallpaper as an ‘all-over’ patterning with a move towards the isolated, glorified trophy image. Reid’s suggestion that hunters and conservationists are ‘strange bedfellows’ becomes clear; the print conveys the contradiction in celebrating and glorifying an animal whose species causes so much damage.
It is this same sense of the isolated specimen that characterises the remaining five prints included in ‘paradise lost’. Just as hunters remove their prize catch from its habitat and present it within the domesticated confines of their living room wall, these remaining works focus on the ways in which our native species have been collected and documented. It is a process that isolates and makes familiar, but also renders them powerless. In natural curiosities (2010), Reid presents the viewer with what might be any one of a number of small native forest birds. As well as providing an opportunity for pleasing contrast of plate tone and white tape, the tape emphasises the bird’s vulnerability in the face of man. Reid has expressed an interest in the history of collecting in New Zealand and in figures like Sir Walter Buller. Again though, it is the contradictory impulses that are brought to the fore, the idea that appreciating New Zealand’s native birds often meant that they were simultaneously hunted and their numbers further depleted. The blame is not entirely confined to European settlers however, as is made clear in tumu (2010), with the title’s reference to a Maori trap.
In Anarchynchus frontalis right leaning (2010), Reid presents the endemic wrybill. Here the dead bird is also presented as a specimen and there is a sense that it is a kind of natural curiosity, celebrated for its novelty value (it is the only bird in the world with its bill turned laterally). Yet despite this rarity, like many native species, it too is in danger from the irresponsible introduction of European species. Because it nests on the isolated islands of braided riverbeds, low river levels mean it is increasingly threatened by predators. The spread of exotic weed species that provide cover for these predators has also had an adverse effect. The print then becomes a cautionary tale in its reference to our delicate ecosystem, but it also represents a beautiful use of the printmaking medium. The softer lines that result from drypoints’ burr are exploited and used in combination with the comparatively sharp etched lines to evoke the featheriness of the bird itself.
Finally, amongst these cautionary tales, Reid’s prints partners in evolution (2011) and kahukura ongaonga (2010) stand as celebratory images of the delicate relationships that characterise our native ecosystems. Partners in evolution references the puriri tree’s role as host to the puriri moth; a fragile relationship at the mercy of forestry and changing land use. Kahukura ongaonga concerns New Zealand’s red admiral butterfly and celebrates its relationship with the endemic tree nettle. In a fascinating example of ecological dependence, the tree nettle is the main food source of the larvae of the red admiral butterfly, which folds and fastens the spiky leaves to form a protective shell. The butterfly is dependent on the nettle and although both are abundant, their numbers are in decline; the butterfly under attack from parasitic wasps, while nettles are removed as a perceived nuisance (the stinging hairs release a toxic substance that causes pain when touched). Reid’s prints are gentle reminders of the fragile nature of our environment and of how easily these delicate ecosystems are destroyed by human intervention. There is, however, also a sense of pleasure in the nettle’s capacity to resist many mammal browsers; it is, says Reid ‘one native plant that fights back’.
It is this sense of a challenge and the need to fight back that characterises the works in ‘paradise lost’. While Reid’s ideal would have been to visit New Zealand before human intervention, through these works the viewer is led to realise that through our actions, our environment has changed, that this paradise has indeed been lost. Through these delicate and elegant prints, Reid successfully generates works of light protest, at once visually arresting and poignant in their environmental message.
Dr Melinda Johnston