In his first ma­jor in­ter­view since he took his for­mer gal­lerist and friend to the High Court, Stephen Bam­bury tells Kim Knight that art is a ques­tion of life and death


In his first ma­jor in­ter­view since he took his for­mer gal­lerist and friend to the High Court, Stephen Bam­bury tells Kim Knight that art is a ques­tion of life and death

I’m over it. I’m through it. Dante said, ‘In the mid­dle of my life, I came across a dark for­est.’ Well, I did come across a dark for­est ... and I walked through the other side of that — and I’m fly­ing. Stephen Bam­bury

Stephen Bam­bury sits ex­ams in his sleep.

“Two nights ago,” says the artist, “I spent the whole night — well, it felt like a whole night, it felt like an eter­nity — dream­ing that I’d come to art school for the first day and I’d been al­lo­cated a space but some­one else had oc­cu­pied it and all the other spa­ces had been taken, so I was wan­der­ing the en­tire night, try­ing to find some­where to work.”

Bam­bury has been anx­ious and sui­ci­dal and de­pressed. He has been sin­gle-minded and ob­ses­sive. He will tell you all of this — and far more — for as long as you will lis­ten.

“It is ac­tu­ally, your job at times, to be both­ered,” he says, in­vok­ing the generic “you”. “I’m both­ered by things at all sorts of lev­els. Ac­tu­ally, I think a lot of artists are. They’re not nor­mally your easy-go-lucky, ‘life’s just a bowl of cher­ries’, kind of peo­ple.”

In 2010, Bam­bury ini­ti­ated le­gal pro­ceed­ings against his gal­lerist and long-time friend, An­drew Jensen. In a case that was even­tu­ally heard in 2015 at the High Court in Auck­land, Bam­bury claimed he had not been paid for $700,000 worth of work. The 10-day trial dragged in ev­i­dence from art world heavy­weights; Jus­tice John Fog­a­rty’s 145-page de­ci­sion found Bam­bury was owed money on seven works, but dis­missed claims on 26 oth­ers. Jensen was or­dered to pay Bam­bury $139,200 plus in­ter­est; Bam­bury had to pay Jensen a debt of $14,250. Both men claimed vic­tory. There was an ap­peal and a cross-ap­peal. Even­tu­ally, there was a con­fi­den­tial out-of-court set­tle­ment.

In his de­ci­sion, Jus­tice Fog­a­rty said the two men were strong per­son­al­i­ties. “By that I mean they had strong views and saw them­selves, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, as lead­ing fig­ures in the art world. To­gether they broke bound­aries, ex­hibit­ing in Europe. Their re­la­tion­ship was very suc­cess­ful fi­nan­cially, for both of them.”

Jensen con­tin­ues to run gal­leries in Grey Lynn and Syd­ney; Bam­bury paints and paints and paints.

He was, he tells Can­vas, pre­pared to bank­rupt his for­mer friend. “Oh, in a heart­beat.” What does that say about his char­ac­ter? “I be­lieve the truth has to be heard and that hon­esty is some­thing which is in­te­grally nec­es­sary for me as a per­son. I learnt that, more than any­thing else.”

Friends cau­tioned Bam­bury against court ac­tion, fear­ing its all-con­sum­ing na­ture. Bam­bury spent two-and-a-half days on the stand. He says some artists haven’t spo­ken to him since; but he thinks oth­ers may be grate­ful, one day, for the case law that was es­tab­lished.

“I said, ‘If I don’t do it, I’ll get cancer.’ Does that an­swer your ques­tion? I knew I would never get over it. I’m over it. I’m through it. Dante said, ‘In the mid­dle of my life, I came across a dark for­est.’ Well, I did come across a dark for­est ... and I walked through the other side of that — and I’m fly­ing.”


Bam­bury opened Lines of De­sire at Auck­land’s Tr­ish Clark Gallery. It is his first solo show of new work since 2014 and this is his first ma­jor in­ter­view since that High Court case. The artist had pro­cras­ti­nated all morn­ing. He had driven off-site for cof­fee, con­ducted a com­pre­hen­sive stu­dio tour, talked eas­ily and openly about process and paint and phi­los­o­phy. Fi­nally, the photographer had fin­ished and there was nowhere left for Bam­bury to go than the

in­evitable. He climbed the stairs of his stu­dio in an in­dus­trial cul-de-sac in West Auck­land and said, “The hard ques­tions?”

STEPHEN RON­ALD Bam­bury’s mother was an ama­teur painter, his fa­ther an Angli­can min­is­ter.

A self-por­trait of his mother leans against his stu­dio wall; he’s re­cently started us­ing her artist’s brushes.

“I can still smell her oil paints. I can still be out in the field while she’s paint­ing the gum trees and I can see this thing be­ing cre­ated and it left a re­ally big im­pres­sion on me that art was some­how im­por­tant.”

At Mt Al­bert Gram­mar, Bam­bury ex­celled at “English com­pre­hen­sion, Shake­speare, all of that” but he was — and is — dyslexic. “I couldn’t do maths, I couldn’t spell. In many ways, I con­sid­ered my­self to be dumb.”

He would even­tu­ally study at the Univer­sity of Auck­land’s Elam School of Fine Arts but the deep-rooted sense of fail­ure he had ar­rived with had not abated by grad­u­a­tion.

“At art school, they taught you crit­i­cal the­ory and it crip­pled me. I was scared to go into the stu­dio for most prob­a­bly half of my ca­reer. I was ter­ri­fied, but I man­aged to get enough ther­apy.”

He was taught, he says, to ab­sorb the no­tion of un­cer­tainty and see within it op­por­tu­nity.

“You’ve got to know when to stop. You’ve got to know when to let it go. You’ve got to get rid of the idea that it has to en­com­pass all of those things you want to load into it, be­cause that’s the stum­bling block. You can’t see what you’ve done, be­cause you’re al­ready pro­ject­ing so much con­scious­ness on to it.” How im­por­tant is art? “I’m ut­terly driven. You see, I think art is a ques­tion of life and death.”

If Bam­bury learned about paint from his mother, from his fa­ther he un­der­stood, “There are two ways you can be in the world. You can have a job and you can take that road. Or you might be called to have a vo­ca­tion and for me, be­ing an artist is about hav­ing a vo­ca­tion, not a job.”

Welling­ton City Gallery and the Auck­land Art Gallery have shown ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tives of the artist’s work. He has ex­hib­ited ex­ten­sively over­seas. In 1989, he re­ceived the in­au­gu­ral New Zealand Moet & Chan­don Fel­low­ship to Cham­pagne and went on to live in Paris for two-and-a-half years. He trav­els fre­quently and ex­pects, at age 67, to be­gin spend­ing more time in France where has a sec­ond stu­dio.

His new gal­lerist (and old friend) Tr­ish Clark de­scribes his work as a fus­ing of in­tel­lect and emo­tion. In 1982, arts writer Leonard Bell re­ferred to Bam­bury’s “un­clut­tered di­rect­ness” de­void of dec­o­ra­tive, meta­phoric or au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ref­er­ence. Come 2001, and cu­ra­tor Alan Smith says his “clar­ity of geo­met­ric im­age and con­struc­tional sign­post­ing is vis­ceral”. The pop­ulist press will say, more sim­ply, that Bam­bury paints crosses. This is true — but not, in­sists Bam­bury, the whole truth.

“I’ve done books with po­ets, in­stal­la­tions in rooms and you won’t find a cross any­where near them. The is­sue is, the voice you get given is not nec­es­sar­ily the voice you have. I don’t work with

At art school, they taught you crit­i­cal the­ory and it crip­pled me. I was scared to go into the stu­dio for most prob­a­bly half of my ca­reer ... but I man­aged to get enough ther­apy.

one form, I work with a huge num­ber of forms, but the cross has al­ways fas­ci­nated me.

“I might say to you, ‘You see a cross, I see a com­pass, I see the car­di­nal points.’ It’s like this prob­lem peo­ple have when you men­tion the word ‘spir­i­tu­al­ity’ or ‘Chris­tian­ity’ — you’ve never seen peo­ple get so frothy at the mouth and livid and in­tol­er­ant around is­sues that are ac­tu­ally wor­thy of look­ing at.”

He is in­ter­ested in Gnos­ti­cism (a re­li­gious move­ment that con­sid­ers the hu­man body con­tains a di­vine spark), “But I am not nec­es­sar­ily a Gnos­tic any more than I am nec­es­sar­ily a Bud­dhist or a Chris­tian or an athe­ist or an ag­nos­tic ... my whole thing is about an at­ten­u­ated no­tion of un­cer­tainty.”

And, once again, the in­ter­viewer finds her­self lost in the artist’s ar­tic­u­la­tions. What does it all mean?

“You’ve got to re­mem­ber that ev­ery night, I still sit School Cer­tifi­cate in my dreams.

“I’m think­ing about this the whole time. You say ‘when I’m mak­ing them’ [paint­ings] but there is no time when I’m not mak­ing them. Even if I haven’t got a brush in my hand, the mak­ing is con­stant.

“Ev­ery time I do them they’re made anew. As though I have to ask the ques­tion again: What is it? What is a paint­ing?”

There is a stain­less steel work­shop next door to his stu­dio. Out­side, you can hear the real world’s com­mer­cial ra­dio sta­tions, the beep­beep-beep of its trucks in re­verse, the bang and spark of some­thing metal be­ing made into metal other things. Bam­bury likes this buzz.

“When I’m paint­ing, I’m in­vis­i­ble to my­self. I go whole days or weeks in si­lence. The soli­tude is a real is­sue. I’m alone, but I’m sur­rounded by ac­tiv­ity and that makes me feel part of the stream of life.”

BAM­BURY IS that rarest of crea­tures. A liv­ing, fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful New Zealand artist. You can buy a small paint­ing for a few thou­sand dol­lars, but his largest works have $150,000 price tags. The new stu­dio is ex­tra­or­di­nary — a mez­za­nine floor, a room for mak­ing paint, equip­ment for cut­ting alu­minium, an of­fice, a li­brary and enor­mous white walls with old works, new works and works in progress.

Stacked geo­met­ric forms are pegged to­gether, “They’re in my pe­riph­eral vi­sion and, as I walk past, I just touch and I play and at a cer­tain point, they make them­selves.”

There is an­other stu­dio in France, and an ar­chi­tec­turally de­signed house in a gen­tri­fied in­ner sub­urb.

But he is un­com­fort­able talk­ing about all of this. Bam­bury was also, once, aged 19 with zero job prospects and mar­ried to Jan, who was ex­pect­ing their first child. They are still mar­ried. They have two chil­dren, and one grand­child.

“Af­ter I left school I had no ca­reer path. I looked like Frank Zappa or Fred­die Mer­cury. I was com­pletely un­em­ploy­able. I can show you pho­to­graphs. It was fright­en­ing. My first job was tail­ing out tim­ber in Morn­ing­side.”

He thought he would make a ca­reer in ad­ver­tis­ing; he al­most went to ar­chi­tec­ture school.

“You’re try­ing to find your way in the most dire of cir­cum­stances, re­ally. The thing that sent me to art school was that Jan bought me a brief­case. We were liv­ing on the North Shore, I was com­mut­ing into the city ev­ery day to work for Bond and Bond, de­sign­ing their graph­ics and su­per­mar­ket in­te­ri­ors.

“I re­ally ques­tioned the way peo­ple lived their lives. I didn’t want that kind of life. They said I was ei­ther in­cred­i­bly brave or in­cred­i­bly stupid. Well, I was both re­ally.” He’s been through the mill, he says. “I didn’t re­con­nect with my feel­ings un­til some­time in my mid-30s, re­ally. I’ve had two ma­jor break­downs, I’ve been sui­ci­dal ...”

Now: “I’m more fo­cused now than I have ever been about my mis­sion, about what I have to do, come thick or thin. I painted for all those years when I never sold any­thing. I’d paint to­mor­row again, if peo­ple didn’t buy or like what I’m do­ing. I would choose free­dom.” WHAT DOES the plain­tiff re­mem­ber most about Bam­bury v Jensen? “The pain.” Bam­bury took up boxing dur­ing the trial (“and it wasn’t shadow boxing!”) And he kept paint­ing.

“My work ... is like a mis­sile that’s shot from some­where and it’s a heat-seek­ing mis­sile and it’s look­ing for a tar­get and the tar­get is au­di­ence — and if you’re lucky, you find it.”

It’s ear­lier in the in­ter­view, when he was in full stride through the stu­dio, ex­plain­ing the paint wall with the la­belled alu­minium swatches that en­sure he can mix the same colour ev­ery time. He stops by a pile of black and gold cut-outs to show the “nec­es­sary cor­rec­tion” he is per­form­ing on a copy of a Colin McCa­hon paint­ing. He pulls out plan draw­ers to re­veal dozens of note­books con­tain­ing col­laged scraps of his world trav­els. He points to a paint­ing and then the space be­side the paint­ing: “It’s in our space, it’s shar­ing that with us.” To be hon­est, he says, he’d like to keep it all. “But, also, I don’t want to have the big­gest col­lec­tion of Bam­burys in the world. The more I let go, the more abun­dance I get. I don’t mean more sales, I may not get sales. The abun­dance I’m talk­ing about is that gold of alchemy, which was never gold — it was knowl­edge.

“I learnt through the last few years how im­por­tant, at a per­sonal level, the ther­a­peu­tic na­ture of art was to me. Once I un­der­stood that, I also un­der­stood it might ac­tu­ally have a func­tion like that in broader so­ci­ety, in the big­ger world.”

All those crosses, all that ge­om­e­try — it’s a por­tal.

“Do you know what I think is most un­der threat to­day? The con­tem­pla­tive. Our abil­ity to spend time in soli­tude. We have a gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple who have been brought up ad­dicted to their phones. They have so­cial me­dia where they think they’ve got 300,000 friends. They don’t have any friends!

“What I’m in­ter­ested in is the au­then­tic­ity of that con­tem­pla­tive place.”

It moves him deeply, he says, that his art might mean some­thing to some­one when they take it out of a gallery and put it in their home.

“We’ve cre­ated this cul­ture, for bet­ter or worse, where we put art works in these white cubes and we in­ter­ro­gate them un­der these lights as though it were a tor­ture cham­ber. Art is ac­tu­ally meant to be out in the world. The way it was in the cave, the way it was in the monas­ter­ies and in the Byzan­tine chapels. But I go into most mu­se­ums, and whilst I love the idea that I can see this work, it’s more like go­ing into a prison than a nice place, of­ten.”

If you live with a paint­ing, you can catch it off-guard.

“You don’t in­ter­ro­gate it like Guan­tanamo Bay. You catch it as a glimpse, or as you pass a win­dow. This is ter­ri­bly im­por­tant. I don’t think art is some­thing that you need to sit in front of and bow to for hours on end.”

Up those stairs and on one of the mid-cen­tury mod­ern chairs he favours, Bam­bury knows what he wants peo­ple to get from his new paint­ings.

“I want to give peo­ple joy. I want to give peo­ple beauty. I want to give them the chance of soli­tude within the work, the con­tem­pla­tive space of be­ing them­selves.” STEPHEN BAM­BURY’S LINES OF DE­SIRE SHOWS AT TR­ISH CLARK GALLERY, AUCK­LAND, UN­TIL MAY 27.

My work ... is like a mis­sile that’s shot from some­where and it’s a heat-seek­ing mis­sile and its look­ing for a tar­get and the tar­get is au­di­ence — and if you’re lucky, you find it.

Stephen Bam­bury in his West Auck­land stu­dio.

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