Daphne Mason (1928-2020)

We are happy to open 2024 with a series of work by late artist Daphne Mason (1928-2020) in an exhibition called 'Evolution I' 12 March - 23 March 2024.

Opening event Tuesday 12 March, 5pm-7pm. All welcome to the opening event to see the works first, enjoy great conversation, nibbles and drinks

An artist talk will be given by Daphne's daughter Janet Mason on Saturday 16 March at 12noon. Janet will discuss her mums work in detail, giving a brief background and answer any question. Please do come along and to hear more and to see the works in person.

Spanning over decades of working as a successful artist, many pieces have been compiled for the viewer to see in person the detail, colour and stylistic gestures of Daphne. Having exhibited many pieces with Scott Lawrie Gallery last year, this exhibition is a continuation of show casing pieces in two series with 'Evolution I' at Grey and following exhibition 'Evolution II' with fellow Railway Street Gallery 10-28 April 2024.

Best written by Tamar Torrance in essay Daphne Mason: On the Margins  

Daphne Mason (1928 - 2020) belonged to a generation of artists who recast this country's aesthetic landscape, spurring an era of art making that drew stylistic and formal inspiration from trends in European modernism; much to the ire of the New Zealand art world. At this time, the arts were largely dominated by a fixation with cultural nationalism, manifest - in the visual arts - in the prominence of regionalism from the nineteen-thirties onwards. Naturally such 'nationalist self-invention' - as New Zealand poet John Newton described - was irreconcilable with the 'angst-ridden turmoil of modernism' emanating from Europe.[1] And for the better part of the twentieth century, the avant-garde aesthetics of Abstraction, Cubism, Surrealism, Fauvism and German Expressionism were exceptionally unpopular within the New Zealand art world, often reaping acrimonious disapproval from critics who saw modernist principles as formally and ideologically destabilising. 

Nevertheless, the innovations and experimentations born from currents in modernism - with newfound emphasis on materiality and the introduction of new techniques and processes - drew the attention of a number of young artists, Daphne Mason among them. From the nineteen-sixties onwards, Daphne explored a tableau of thematic and formal possibilities in her work, drawing upon elements from a range of different artists past and contemporary dating as far as the renaissance and to the most current abstractionists. The result is a remarkably diverse oeuvre; a tapestry woven together by the artist's distinct visual language of colour, line, and form, and rooted in the vibrant immediacy of her own life. Unsurprisingly, Daphne's expressive [cajm1] style, abstracted compositions and loose, agitated brushwork - inherited from European modernists - attracted a measure of criticism during her lifetime: "running a stylistic gamut from the mannered fauvism".[2] Though such reproach simply reveals the controversy modernist work could generate in this country during the latter half of the twentieth century as well as the independent nature of Daphne's approach and resilience she no doubt required to practise as an artist.

During her lifetime, Daphne exhibited both at home and abroad, was selected for a number of leading contemporary art awards and had her work purchased by collections across Europe, USA, Asia, and Australasia. Alongside having attracted the attention of notable art collectors such as Luciano Benetton, Daphne found support from prominent figures within New Zealand's own art community, including respective directors of the Auckland City Art Gallery Peter Tomory and Richard Teller Hirsch, as well as renowned artist and curator Colin McCahon. From the 1970-80s, Daphne was represented by Auckland's New Vision Gallery, a contemporary dealer gallery "whose early advocacy of abstract art in New Zealand was unprecedented".[3] Established by Dutch Immigrants Kees and Tina Hos - whose own collection included the work of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky - New Vision Gallery were instrumental in supporting local artists who drew from European abstraction and the avant-garde. Notable names include Gordon Walters (1919 - 1995), Milan Mrkusich (1925 - 2018), Louise Henderson (1902 - 1994), Theo Scoon (1915 - 1985) and Philip Trusttum (1940-).  

However, despite having been among this artistic milieu and amassed an impressive legacy, little is mentioned of Daphne within the annals of New Zealand art. Her presence is notably scarce in historical and contemporary reviews, publications, public collections, art periodicals, and artists' biographies. Coupled with the overall poor perception of modernist painting, it is tempting to point to the social climate within which Daphne existed as an artist to explain this lack of recognition. Daphne, after all, grew up negotiating an environment of socio-political conservatism, wherein women were indentured to the home and domesticity. Marti Friedlander's photograph of artist Dene Illingworth in 1966 positioned solemnly beside a caged bird - a metaphor commonplace in art history for domestic confinement - feels fitting here; itself an apt portrayal of the state of play Daphne practised within as an artist.

In mid-twentieth century New Zealand, it was conventional for women artists to abandon their practice once married and reroute their attention to the nuclear home.[4] However, while raising children and supporting the ambitions of her husband took precedence for married women during this era, Daphne's family were unwavering in their encouragement of her art. Daphne's husband, Jim, was the one who encouraged her to rent a studio early in their marriage and throughout the years crafted bespoke frames and freight boxes for her work. Nevertheless, the 1960-80s art world at large - and social mores it echoed - found itself beholden to conservative attitudes which rendered women artists less able to attract the same level of respect and recognition as their male counterparts.[5]

That she was also an expatriate likely didn't help matters. Daphne first left New Zealand during the summer of 1951, travelling to London in time for the opening of the Festival of Britain. Over a span of months, she immersed herself in the British art scene, absorbing the vibrant cultural life that had spawned in the wake of World War II and incited a dramatic evolution in painting, sculpture, and photography. Experiencing first-hand the art of post-war modernism - marked by bold, gestural brushstrokes, impasto surfaces and evocative forms - Daphne described the trip as a "game changer" that bore strongly on her own practice. On her return home, Daphne flew through New York where she intended to spend three days, though would ultimately remain for five months, enthralled by the expressive fluency of Abstract Expressionism.   

Over the years, Daphne voyaged overseas a number of times, even purchasing a home and settling in London for some fifteen years. The New Zealand art world did not look favourably on this time away, however. Though expatriatism was central to developments in art in this country, leaving New Zealand during the mid-twentieth century was often viewed as a kind of treason, a rejection of one's birth right; and upon their return home expatriate artists found themselves excluded from standard histories and marginalised from the fine arts. Even decades later, once currents in cultural nationalism had eased, reintegrating into the New Zealand art world as an expatriate demanded Sisyphean efforts. Daphne's daughter, Janet, reflects on the challenge her mother faced practising transnationally: "If you disappear from the New Zealand art scene and go overseas and are not well connected to a dealer gallery, you come back, and it is cold. By the time she went away and came back, the art world had changed."[6]

 However, while Daphne's expatriatism and fascination with trends in European modernism may have curtailed her recognition within the New Zealand arts, it was at the axis of these influences that her singular practice came to be. In place of realism and naturalism, Daphne harnessed a compelling syntax of colour, line, and form to convey meaning - visualising qualities sui generis to her environment and subjects embedded therein with kaleidoscopic magnetism. 

While the work selected for this exhibition may constitute a mere sample of Daphne's oeuvre, they are perfectly placed to demonstrate both the aesthetic and conceptual resonance of her painting. Dating across the 1970s, 1990s and early 2000s, the canvases can be organised somewhat chronologically, beginning with those created during the seventies titled 'moduloids' and 'spatial'. Daphne's imagery throughout this period encompasses an idiosyncratic combination of the cosmic and biological. A series of cellular forms appear suspended amid inky vacuums of space, their mercurial bodies coalescing in an endless cycle of division and replication. Housing complex networks of filaments and structures, the organic spheres engage in an intricate, meiotic dance, pulsating with life and movement. In Untitled (moduloids) 1972, spindle fibres emanate from the cell, reaching out like delicate tendrils seeking purchase on nearby kinetochores. In other work a single nucleus aparrates at the centre of the composition, its chromatin-like threads condensing and coiling into distinct, vibrant materials that hold the secrets to existence. 

However, the line demarcating the biological from the ethereal is slippery, and as the eye passes over each canvas, the spherical forms and chasm surrounding them take on a cosmic visage. Caught amid its process of mitosis the cell mutates, transfiguring into something distinctly planetary in nature that occupies an illimitable void. As though spelling a moment of cosmic impact, the spheres retain their volatility, however. With a burst of energy, the forms appear on the brink of being torn apart, pitching inward before cleaving into multiples. Whether the viewer perceives a moment of cellular division or celestial collision, the motivity embedded within each composition is palpable, and speaks to a process of renewal and regeneration. Daphne captures the essence of this process, transforming a microscopic biological event into an awe-inspiring cosmic narrative.

This utilisation of the expressive potential of colour, form, and movement to evoke a realm of numinous possibilities remains constant throughout Daphne's practice and is especially evident in her paintings spanning the 1990s through to the early 2000s. Rendered with delicate yet powerful brushstrokes through which geometric forms emerge, compositions from this period recall the formal and stylistic manner of lyrical abstraction, comprised of seemingly disparate components that combine to form[cajm4]  vibrant configurations of shapes and symbols. Juxtaposing the ethereal with the arithmetical, the forms intertwine in a harmonious dance; the choreography of which is determined by the cadence and dynamism of Daphne's brushwork. Atomised and kinetic, each canvas reveals a unique pattern or rhythm that is felt - whether emotionally or sensorially - before the eye is able to discern the semiotic significance of symbols and forms embedded within. 

The visual elements are not merely decorative, however, but imbued with a sense of purpose. Through repetition of line and form each composition bears its own unique musical signature, composing a series of staccato rhythms interspersed with smooth legato passages that lend each work a sense of fluidity. With its ability to transcend language and convey complex emotions in the absence of representational forms, music remains at the epicentre of various modes of abstraction interested in evoking worlds beyond the confines of materiality. Translating aesthetic elements into a visual language of rhythm, melody, and tonality, Daphne harnesses the emotive power of music to engender qualities of experience that surpass perceptions of the real or natural. With each symphony, improvisation, and fugue, viewers are invited on a voyage beyond the boundaries of the physical world to a realm of metaphysical potential where glimpses of the sacred or mystical feel possible.

Daphne Mason's legacy is not only a testament to her commitment as an artist, but also her ability to surmount boundaries of convention and cultural expectations. Placing emphasis on the subjectivity of perception, her work defied traditional notions of perspective and form, embracing spontaneity and authenticity in place of the naturalistic aesthetic values that had dominated the New Zealand art world during the latter half of the twentieth century. While her recalcitrance was not without cost, it was the foundation on which her entire practice was carved out, creating a space within which her distinct approach was born. Though Daphne's presence in New Zealand's artistic cannon may be scarce, the impact of her oeuvre persists; over five decades worth of paintings read as an enduring contemplation of the human condition and its intersections with worlds both real and metaphysical - and the arts would do well to remember her. 

Tamar Torrance
April 2023

[1] John Newton, Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature 1908-1945 (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017), p. 29.

[2] Hamish Keith, 'Nostalgia in Traditional Retrospect,' Auckland Star, 26 September 1970, unpaginated.

[3] Warren Feeney, Daphne Mason: Five Decades of Painting at Home and Abroad, p. 2.  

[4] Dene Illingworth is a good example of one such artist; but perhaps most famous is Anne Hamblett, wife of the late Colin McCahon. 

[5] Though depictions of nude female bodies remain a fixture in modern art galleries, representation of women artists in these spaces continues to be sub-par and was especially so during the twentieth century.

[6] Janet Mathewson, Interview, 31 December 2016