Written by Joanne Barrett
Photography by Tom Teutenberg
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and I was on my way to meet with artist Evan Woodruffe. As I manoeuvred my way through the narrow back streets of Ponsonby, my thoughts sparked - imagine if cars were to leave colourful tyre tracks? I glanced at the villa houses each making their individual structural presence, yet collectively, forming community. I speculated that stuff of all shapes, sizes and colours would exist behind each façade creating an interesting visual platform.
A woman walked along the footpath and I wondered how many have taken this path over the past 100 years; if all footprints were permanent and colourful, what an intricate weave of historical social interaction that would leave.
In anticipation of my meeting it seemed my thoughts were already connected in some way to Woodruffe’s paintings. I did wonder though if I was on track with my interpretation of the links between space and time as they relate to social and urban community. Or did Woodruffe have a more sophisticated view on such relationships with our surroundings?
Woodruffe’s parents escaped the British class system for New Zealand in 1964, and he was born in Auckland a year later. They settled in the East Coast Bays which were quite bohemian in the 1970s, with many writers and artists living there. By 1984 the area had started to lose its culture so Woodruffe moved to the city.
“Making music and writing songs was my art until 1997, when I decided it no longer had the legs I needed,” says Woodruffe. “As my family have always been involved with visual arts, I decided to apply my drive for making music to my casual interest in paint and see what happened.”
In 1999 Woodruffe took a studio in Grey Lynn. He was into figurative artists like Eric Fischl, Marlene Dumas, and Nan Goldin. His first exhibition was at Kokomo Haircutters, who were fabulously wild in those days and are still on Ponsonby Road. Several years of showing in non-dealer spaces had begun.
Woodruffe was the recipient of the Becroft Premier Award in 2003 and had his first exhibition with Oedipus Rex Gallery (now OREXART) that same year. He continued his interest in figurative art, showing regularly with the gallery and entering awards, winning the Molly Morpeth Canaday Award in 2011.
By 2012, he felt he had reached a cul-de-sac with his practice – it just wasn’t moving forward; so he took his partner Jeanne Clayton’s advice and entered into post-graduate study, first with AUT and then Elam, graduating with MFA (1st Class) in 2014.
The discipline this study instilled is really paying dividends, alongside the strong partnership with PAULNACHE, his New Zealand representative. In the last two years, Woodruffe has shown in Melbourne, Sydney and Beijing, as well as nationwide, with shows booked across the region well into 2018.
“I think of my work as a baroque abstraction of our current urban environment.”
My paintings are assertively decorative, inferring complex relationships with our surroundings – a space that we now experience both offline locally and online globally almost simultaneously. “We observe with thought – both referencing our knowledge and using imagination and supposition – as well as directly with our eyes, and this understanding enabled me to develop the work I make now.
“I’m trying to make a space we can move across, into and through,” says Woodruffe. ‘Moving through a pictorial space is linked to our movements through real space, and more recently through virtual space also. I’m attempting to create a space where our awareness is kept open, so that we can have thoughts and make connections that are unexpected or new. A bit like the way we can go through the world with expectancy – of what, we’re not sure, but we’ll know it when we see it.”
Woodruffe is making three large paintings for his February exhibition at PAULNACHE, with friend Virginia Leonard, who makes beautifully grotesque ceramics. Two are single canvas works about 2m x 3m, and one is a multi-panel work made of four 1m x 1m canvases that can either exist together or apart.
“I’m really enjoying this one,” says Woodruffe, “I can shift the components around my studio and they still sing out to each other; or bring them back together to form the full image. They seem more liberated.”
Woodruffe’s studio practice takes four full days a week and is his main source of income, but can be irregular so he maintains three days a week at Studio Art Supplies in Grey Lynn, where he’s been since 1986. This store is a goldmine for artists’ materials, and over the decades he’s become very familiar with the material processes that go into making 2D art.
His practice has involved using acrylic, oil-colour, watercolour, gouache, inks, silverpoint, monochrome drawing, monoprints, collage and fabrics, thanks in large part to his work at Studio Art Supplies. He is also current Chair of the Artists Alliance, the organisation that provides professional practice assistance for artists, allowing him to support the health of the arts community. He does take the occasional Monday morning off.
“Ponsonby has always been about freedom to be who you are.”
“When I first started visiting in the early 1980s, it was where my gay friends, musos, and artists hung out. I could get ‘special coffees’ at the Open Late Café, and go to wild parties down Douglas Street. I moved to Grey Lynn over 20 years ago, and although it’s undergone vast changes, on the whole it remains cultured and committed to personal freedom. I don’t have a car so during the 45 minute walk to my Eden Terrace studio from St Marys Bay I bump into many friends, and enjoy any number of great eateries. My favourite place is walking down the Ponsonby strip.
“At its strongest, art can affect us irrationally, causing us to cry or be angry or excited. For me, paintings are locations where we can think in a non-linear fashion, drifting in and out of thought, travelling somewhere new. And it can be new every time, because art remains the same, but every time we come back to a painting we have changed."
“Memorable moments, I must say when someone takes my work home, I always feel humbled and excited that they have seen something in it that resonates or fascinates so much that they can’t be separated from it. But making mum and dad proud is of course the most memorable."
Follow Evan on Instagram #evanwoodruffe and see more of his work at www.evanwoodruffe.com