Sculptures from rock

The work of Doug Neil speaks of ‘truth to materials’, a reconciliation of artistic pursuit and the intrinsic quality of the rock he carves. The New Zealand landscape offers materials in the form of marble, granite and volcanic basalt, all produced millennia ago. The stone itself reveals fiery origins; compressed, warped and then eroded by wind and water. You do not need to be a geologist to admire nature’s beauty. Familiar patterns appear in the landscape whether it is rivers, creeks, lakes, cliffs, mountains or coastlines.

In Jungian theory, an archetype is a primitive mental image inherited from our early human ancestors which is now present in our collective unconscious. These are shapes and patterns we, as human beings, can all recognise. As Doug Neil works, the “endless shaping, cutting, grinding and breaking” reveals these forms within the rocks, creating strong images which still show the hand of their maker. As a result of this truth, his sculptures sit with ease in their surroundings, whether it is rural or urban, empathising rather than competing with their landscape.

When Doug Neil arrived in New Zealand from America in 1990 he said, “I saw everything in a new light.” He could start all over again, inspired by this new environment. As a land of immigrants and travellers, we are all aware of this feeling. Each land has its own form, colour and light, and experiencing it not only excites our senses but also gives us a new appreciation of where we are from. For Neil, he felt he had found a new primal landscape, one where he could “release new forms from those lying dormant in the earth for millions of years”.

Neil says he sometimes feels like the Greek character Sisyphus – doomed to the “eternal push of the boulder uphill”. Unlike Sisyphus, however, Neil has learnt his lesson and is aware that he can only work with what nature has given him – not conquer it. He says he finds refuge in Janet Frame’s take on life: “Living in New Zealand, would be for me, like living in an age of mythmakers; with a freedom of the imagination among all artists because it is possible to begin at the beginning and to know the unformed places and to help to form them.” Janet Frame worked that magic with words, while Doug Neil performs the same creative ritual with rock.

It is difficult to write about Doug Neil as his own words seem so much more apt. He says, “A little theft from the gods, stolen with caution. You can’t create anything finer than the miracle nature has already conceived.” I think we are lucky to have an artist who demonstrates such a love, sensitivity and respect for his home.

Doug Neil has shown at many New Zealand sculpture shows and galleries. His work will be part of Art in a Garden, held at Flaxmere, near Hawarden in late October. I am sure his work will look magnificent against the backdrop of the Southern Alps.