Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

'Finding Words for the "Silent Text"'

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

'Finding Words for the "Silent Text"'

Article excerpt

'Finding words for the "silent text"' Review of The Critic's Part: Wystan Curnow Art Writings 1971 -2013, edited by Christina Barton and Robert Leonard with Thomasin Sleigh (Wellington and Brisbane: IMA, Adam Art Gallery, Victoria University Press, 2014).

Among the reviews and essays sampled in The Critic's Part, Wystan Curnow begins his 1995 review of Francis Pound's book The Space Between with a title-'Sewing up the Space Between'- that, for me in any case, valuing as I do Curnow's care and deliberation with what he writes, strikes an ominous note: are we to understand a suture, here, and therefore a wound? 'Sewing up' does, in any case, imply a closure of, rather than an opening up to, investigation, and does that with a hint of remedial violence. What is this wound, and why should its suture be characterised by Curnow in quasi-medical terms that almost hint at Foucault's concept of 'normalisation'? And what is the normalcy that is being enforced here, where Curnow implies that he'd rather confront a rip or a disparity-the 'space between' that seems promised in the title of Pound's book, that Curnow suggests in his title has been disciplined?

A similar note is struck in a later essay on Stephen Bambury (pp. 341-61) in which Curnow notes that Petar Vuletic's programme for the Petar/James Gallery in Auckland and for the Sunday discussion group it hosted involved an explicit and disciplined-or indeed enforced-normalising of its stable of artists as abstract painters who were thereby deemed to be 'international', even though, as Curnow points out, citing Thierry de Duve, the opening of this gallery in 1972 was itself symptomatic of a provincial 'belatedness'-the 'art-world proper' had already moved on from such 'established legitimacies'.

The Pound review's opening sentence, however, seems to disarm this ominous prequel: 'Among art writers in this country, there are few I value more than Francis Pound' (p. 291). But- and I don't imagine I'm the only reader to anticipate, here, a familiar rhetorical trope-there's often a 'but' waiting to start the real business of the review once the opening courtesies are complete. And so it is with this short text, which is among the pithiest and most critical (in the adversarial sense) in this book. Curnow does here what he commits to less often in his longer essays, which are often more hermeneutic than critical, more interested in close reading and epistemology or, on occasion, phenomenology, and in surveys of what, in the Pound review, he calls 'the cultural dimension', than in close-encounter, dialogic critical discourse. Curnow has his trenchantly and often vehemently stated critical 'positions', as we shall see; and we shall also see that these positions can be tracked along an historical trajectory through his book; but he seldom gets to such contesting critical grips as in the Pound review.

One way of reading the rhetoric of this convention-the warm handshake followed by the now-let's-get-down-to-business-is that it's disingenuous. Another, which I believe to be the case here, is that it's about genuine respect. Why would you waste your close critical attention on a text that isn't worth engaging with? On the other hand, why wouldn't you give your critical attention to a text written by someone you genuinely hold in high regard, with whom a contesting conversation will be a pleasure and a privilege, not a chore?

Curnow ends his review of Pound's book with a reprise of, or variation on, one of the key 'positions' or critical issues that modulate their way throughout this book. He suggests that Pound, in discussing Gordon Walters's use of the koru, backs himself into a corner of 'all-too-familiar provincialism'-he sews up, suggests Curnow, the opportunity open to New Zealand artists to take their place 'in a larger and more telling discourse'; he 'refuses them the opportunity to be measured by the significance of their achievement to that discourse'. What interests Curnow by this stage in his ongoing discussion of 'the provincial' is not the normalisation (or nationalising) of the space between province and metropole, between periphery and centre, but rather its opening-up as a source of complex critical energies, contradictions, paradoxes and opportunities. …

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