Two drily spoken sixty-somethings set people back at Semi-Permanent Wellington this week with a show-and-tell of what amounted to their respective oeuvres and raw aesthetics.
A whistlestop presentation from New Zealand born Australian legend Reg Mombassa, 63, opened the doors to his glittered gallery of colourfully surreal antipodean motifs – sourced from a lifelong devotion to the pursuit of painting.
For globe-traveling Czech-born photojournalist Antonin Kratochvil, 67, things were more real, more black and white, yet also with a painterly quality to his work of an equally eclectic and signature style.
For Mombassa, aka Chris O’Doherty, identification with his work was more or less immediate, a tribute to the well-worn fame of his designs for vernacular commercial brand Mambo – from t-shirts to posters and everything beyond.
Who else has combined the realms of public art and public music so extensively for so long?
Commenting that “it’s very good for a landscape painter to be in a band” (his being Mental As Anything to 2000 and currently Dog Trumpet) Reg has traveled on highways so much he calls himself a “connoisseur of roads”.
What he’s formed around our tenuous toehold on the land is a humongous body of work: from homages to houses and studied landscapes, to his more raucous carnival-like concoction of anthropomorphic renegades.
A man of few asides – “I have the technical skills of a five year old … this one was inspired by Brueghel … anything you can whack an image on is good” – Reg always has the lingo he’s invented within the wonderfully wrought captions he embeds with much of his work. A favourite from Semi-Permanent: the Australian Jesus sitting side-saddle on a motorbike to protect his trousers from engine oil.
The lexicon of images presented by Antonin Kratochvil also spoke largely for themselves and of a life lived on the extremities of road, facing both inhumanity and humanity.
The rapid-fire stories told by his lens at Semi-Permanent constituted a veritable A to Z of the last 40 years’ of global flashpoints and meltdowns up to the present.
A founder of the VII photo agency, Antonin’s bio describes his career as one in which he “has sunk his teeth into his fair share of upheaval and human catastrophes whilst going about his documentation of the time in which he lives”, set apart by a “consistency and struggle to carry on”.’
As tweeted by audience member Amy Potter the impact of viewing his photographs was by turns “captivating and harrowing”, while making another, Jo Bailey, “feel like I’ve been holding my breath”.
When Antonin did speak he offered either darkly sombre asides or whimsical reflections. Of a photo of the Rwanda genocide he noted an observation that “blood is a powerful narcotic”. On assignment taking photos around Chernobyl he jokingly contrasted offerings of radioactive apples and radioactive marijuana.
Antonin designated one photo as his version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and throughout exhibited to fellow photographers the power of retaining shots that may be out of focus or blurred by motion or emotion. His takeaway message for photojournalists: “Understand your subject and have empathy”.
Reg Mombassa and Antonin Kratochvil: take a bow.