Milan Mrkusich at Te Papa, 1997. Photo by Michael Hall. Te Papa
Milan Mrkusich ONZM
Milan Mrkusich is considered a pioneer of abstract painting in New Zealand and one of New Zealand’s most important artists.
Born in Dargaville in 1925 and was one of New Zealand's oldest living artist before he died in 2018 at the age of 93.
Mrkusich was considered alongside Don Peebles, Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere, as one of New Zealand's great modern artists.
Mrkusich's contribution to New Zealand art was acknowledged when he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1997.
Chante St Clair Inglis
Milan Mrkusich Works 1992-97, ArtSelect Gallery
Chante St Clair Inglis, August 2021
I have always loved art, particularly painting. In 1998, my first year at Auckland University, I was resolute, I was going to major in Art History, specialising in the study of Renaissance painting. At that time, all Art History students had to complete a series of first-year core modules including modernist and post-modernist art. I remember sighing as I walked into the first lecture of 20th Century Art, thinking, OK fine, I’ll just need to get through this one.
But then, sitting in the cool dark lecture hall, the lecturer, Alan Wright, flashed up a slide of a Mrkusich painting. The painting was Four Elements: Yellow and Dark, 1968, now in the collection of Auckland Art Gallery. Alan was using the painting to speak about the importance of psychology and philosophy in abstract painting – theories of the collective unconscious and primordial state, the idea that a painting could draw on universal forms and symbols to move the viewer to sense a wholeness, to provide a salve at a time when society was fraught with chaotic and confusing events. For me, this was the start of a new way of looking at painting and over the course of my degree I became hooked on abstract painting and on the works of Milan Mrkusich.
By 2005, I was specialising in Art History with a master’s thesis dedicated to the works of Mrkusich. I was fortunate to meet Milan and his son Lewis who were both incredibly helpful sharing details of Milan’s practice and history. Listening to Milan speak, what really struck me was not only his interest in metaphysical philosophies and practices, but his dedication to the actual stuff that is paint and the relationships of colour, physical form, surface, and design. I think the series of paintings on display here at ArtSelect are a remarkable demonstration of this truly wonderful dichotomy in Mrkusich’s works – the physical and the metaphysical.
We see this in Chromatic Primary Suite, 1992. Three big, beautiful panels of red, yellow, and blue. Primary colours drawing on ideas of colour as elemental principles of the universe while at the same time, providing an unavoidable physical presence. When interviewing Milan for my thesis, he said “I have always used colour without difficulty…the full presentation of colour as material fact.” Constructed from synthetic resin and Belgian canvas, the in-the-room presence of this painting, its colours, edges, surfaces, cannot be ignored.
Throughout the paintings on display here, we see too Mrkusich’s exploration of different kinds of materials – resin, acrylic, linen, enamel, burnished aluminium. Construction I, the relief collage from 1992, employs several mediums with gridded graph paper – the grid as a tool is employed by Mrkusich throughout his life, informing the relationships between his painted forms, providing a logic that enables him to eschew standard symmetries and explore arrangements which create spacial tensions and harmonies like those we see in Construction I.
Mrkusich’s edges have always fascinated me – some of his paintings seem boundless to me, magnificent painted surfaces that exist forever edged only for the purposes of exhibition. That engagement with surrounding space is evident in all the works on display in this exhibition. Achromatic Blue with Yellow, 1997, literally uses the space between its panels – the wall intervenes in the painting reinforcing the physicality of the work. And yet the colours, the forms align with ideas of the metaphysical – an expert summoning together of physical materials that take the viewer beyond the here and now. As Mrkusich said “Matter in its physicality is presented as an offer to view its intrinsic nature. As the eye of the discoverer takes possession of it, what is inert becomes alive.”