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May 28, 2007 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Personal Profile – Freeman White

“The thing is I’ll go down to the Bluenote and I’ll draw trannies and gang members and stuff and get on the piss and draw people. I’m fascinated by humanity, I’m really interested in people and I think that through the painting and drawing of them hopefully I’m managing to encapsulate something of the essence of contemporary society.” – Freeman White, 2006 Adam National Portrait Award winner

You may not have heard about Freeman White, he’s an emerging portraiture artist who has already begun to make his mark on the New Zealand art landscape. Struggling for years to communicate the relevancy of portraiture as a contemporary art form, he’s finally found critical success since he won the Adam National Portrait Award last year. Sponsored by Dennis Adam who is also the benefactor of the Adam Art Gallery award, he was judged internationally by James Holloway of the prestigious Scottish National Portraiture Gallery in Edinburgh.

Keen to help springboard White’s international art career, Holloway has also invited him to partake in a two-month residency at the Gallery. With his bags and intimate studio on Eva Street already packed I caught up with White to talk to him about his art and what this award means for him.

“I’m really excited about [it] because it’s the first time that a New Zealand painter has ever been offered anything like this. Because they’ve got such a long-standing tradition of portraiture in Scotland it gives me the opportunity to not only view a lot of the incredible work in their collections but to meet practicing artists over there.”

The first thing that strikes you about White is his approachability, confidence as a serious painter, and his ability to talk deeply about the philosophy of art without being pretentious or ego driven. It’s the art that really matters to him. Settling down on his couch, which has been the scene of many of his works, he outlined his passion for portraiture as a relevant medium for the contemporary arts scene.

“I’m sensing a resurgence back to where the craft elements and the technique are becoming more and more important within the art making process. I think we’ve seen a real division between what’s perceived as craft and what’s perceived as high art and I would predict that the craft is becoming more important again. The technique and the actualisation, where you’ve got an artist that has an idea and they can physically actualise it in an art work that conveys that idea.”

Sensing that he is already quite well versed (he’s inspired by such greats as Caravaggio, Georges de La Tour and Velazquez) and developed as an artist I asked him about the artistic journey he’s been on.

“Well I’ve been painting for 15 years now, I started quite young. I started drawing around the age of four or five… My Mum is a talented painter as well and she encouraged me to start experimenting with paint.”

This experimentation helped develop a love for capturing the human form, which stemmed from the usual childhood pasttime of playing with toys. “The first ever painting that I actually did in oils was of He Man! In a sense that was a figurative piece because he was a muscle bound dude and he was wearing practically nothing. It’s interesting still to this day working with the human figure and working with nudes. I think it started right back then with this He Man painting.”

I noticed straight away that nudes are a representation of the human form that White does well, above his couch is the painting of a nude woman reclined on the same couch we were sitting on! I asked him what nude portraiture is actually about: are there psychological issues you have to work through? What can the process teach you about the human body and the emotions we have?

”When you’re working with nudes you’re working with the human body, which is something we all have and we all share and it’s quite a common ground to work from. Yet in this society, modern society nudes are usually perceived in a sexual manner. Whereas I don’t really try to paint people from a sexual view point… Predominantly I’m fascinated by the nude because once you strip away the fashion and clothing you’re left with the human animal in a sense, and that can be quite interesting from a psychological perspective and understanding the human condition. I think working with a nude on those levels is quite interesting psychologically but on another level it’s very challenging from an artistic perspective with rendering all the facets of the body, the muscle structure.”

White was also keen to point out the realism and earthiness of portraiture as an art form. In an age that’s increasingly speeding up and becoming more abstract, he’s noticed that there’s a drive in people to get back to the basics of reality as being physical beings.

“I’m fascinated with that area between how people are living vicariously through technology and the idea of what it is to be a human being is developing along conceptual lines. Whereas the animalism, the human animalism and the contact with the earth and the physicality of humanity is being overlooked more and more. We can live through our minds.

“I think that it all puts the painting of the nude and the human figure back into context where it is contemporary now because a lot of people aren’t really concentrating on that side of humanity. I think art has the role often of drawing people’s attention back to specific elements of the human condition, and I see that painting a nude in this day and age as important if not more important than ever.”

This all comes back to how painting is viewed by the gallery going public in general, which has been influenced by the modernist and abstraction trends of the 20th Century. There are also issues to do with the accessibility of art. Is there now too much pretentiousness? Is it an elite and closed club made up of art history graduates, schools of art (e.g. Dada), wealthy collectors and the arts intelligentsia? White has strong views on the accessibility of art and the role of traditional art forms like the painting of portraits.

“I’m starting to see that the public are quite interested in work they can look at and they can understand at least on a level that we are all human beings, and it’s not a type of art work that you have to be educated in art history or that you have to read an essay about it to understand it at least on a basic level. I think that’s really important, even though conceptual art occupies quite a relevant place in contemporary art making. It’s kind of sometimes a bit like an insider’s club and you have to be part of that club to understand it.

“So it’s not art for the people, it’s art for artists or want to be artists. Which I think is fine, but it really only appeals to a specific demographic and I like the idea of art that you don’t have to be a scholar to relate to it on a human level.”

It’s tough in the arts scene to get over to places of opportunity like Scotland, but White has already shown an entrepreneurial and innovative side. To help finance the trip, he has been spending weekends drawing portraits at $100 each. I asked him about the fundraising venture and what it entailed. “Through that, doing drawings for a hundred dollars a piece from life, I’ve got to meet some really amazing people. I’ve got to see their incredible collections and I’ve actually got to draw them and have work in those collections now.”

Finally I asked Freeman White if he had any parting words before he was to head over to the cold, earthy and historic lands of Scotland. “Well, what I’d like to say is that winning the portrait awards has allowed me to be accepted as a painter with the type of work that I create. That’s been the definitive thing that happened last year to put me into a place where I don’t have to fight anymore to prove the relevance of what I’m doing. It’s ok that I’m painting figuratively and in a realistic way. For many years I felt a lot pressure from dealers, and from the art scene to say that this type of art making isn’t valid. So now I feel [that] that’s good, that’s ok now.”

Freeman White is represented in New Zealand by Fishers Galleries. If you want to view some of his work and keep tabs on what he is up to then go to

Of special note: Freeman White is also inspired by New Zealand painter John Walsh, who is currently exhibiting at Janne Land Gallery. “I found him a really interesting guy as well, and quite approachable. He actually came up here yesterday. I saw him in town and because we’d made quite a good contact with each other at his opening, he came up and had a look at the work and stuff. That’s great because people like John Walsh, Dick Frizzell and Billy Apple, they’ve paved the way as painters.”

Unfortunately we didn’t have room to review Walsh’s current exhibition, but I will say this: His work is multi layered and beautiful, with ambiguity, darkness and meaning in each work. It is the kind of art that speaks for itself and leaves it up to the viewer to get what they want from the paintings.

Check out John Walsh’s excellent exhibition at Janne Lande Gallery (unit 1, 13 Jessie Street)

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