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Wonderwall

I first met Guy Ngan in 1991 while searching out works for the Auckland Art Gallery’s 1950s Show. This was the gallery’s first exhibition of New Zealand design in decades and there was some leeway as to which artists might be included. Ngan was then best known for large public murals in both Auckland and Wellington undertaken in the 1950s. One of these, atop Bledisloe house, had caught the attention of artist Julian Dashper and Ngan was, unbeknownst to the artist, undergoing his first revival of interest among a younger generation. However to many establishment figures, Ngan, ex Director of the Academy of Fine Arts, was more a curiosity than an artist to be taken seriously. At that time there were a number of senior New Zealand artists who had worked as graphic or interior designers through the 1950s. Later, having established themselves as professional artists they were keen to leave the whole idea of design behind them. To them my research was a vague threat, as it risked exposing elements of their long forgotten past, that they felt detrimental to their art careers. It’s an observation that reflects the low regard we then had for local design as much as it does the attitudes of a generation of artists. Knowing all this I half expected a frosty response but arriving at the Ngan house in Stokes Valley, not only did I get a warm welcome but I knew immediately that here was an artist who thought differently. The ideal of fifties modernism was to live in a fully realised and integrated environment in which all objects were aligned with the vision of the house. In turn, that house and its landscape should be bound together, as were the occupants in their communities. The Ngan house expressed this perfectly but what most impressed me was one wall of his studio, made in plywood with simple horizontal battens. Here changing displays of his work in painting, printmaking, graphic design and sculpture (represented in photographs) jostled for attention. The key to understanding how a collector might approach Ngan, is to know he loved murals, printmaking, painting and sculpture, as he loved architecture and gardening but unlike many of his contemporaries he never came to impose hierarchies on those pursuits. A Ngan work is a Ngan work, it’s as simple as that, they all received the same meticulous attention. In recent years Ngan has come to be seen as an important modernist artist, symbolic of a more diverse New Zealand modernism than initially supposed. Recent exhibitions Guy Ngan: Habitation (2019) at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt and Either Possible or Necessary (2019) at Artspace Aotearoa in Auckland, have bought Ngan widespread and much deserved attention. As to my own project, at the end, of a pleasant day, I selected two drawings. These were interiors done while Ngan was at Stephenson & Turner. Depicting commercial spaces and slightly incongruous in the context of the finished show, which had taken a more domestic slant, I doubt anyone paid them much attention. I know now, after almost thirty years of curation, it was Guy Ngan’s wall of art and design, I should have included. Douglas Lloyd Jenkins