Sensual assault in Sulphur City
Rotorua deserves its reputation as Mecca of Maori woodcarving. Strolling lakeside and through parks, my bro and I were astounded by the dazzling profusion of different types of carvings that dot the city, and represent multiple eras in (Maori art) history. In Rotorua, since the establishment of the Arts & Craft Centre, all major decorative styles (Northern fish scale motifs, West Coast bird-like figures, Eastern thatchwork, Sth Island fish-hooks & the Volcanic Region's distinctive zig-zags) flow like tributaries into a giant river of carving.
The craft itself, is undergoing remarkable syncretic development, adopting influences from myriad sources. The traditional smooth, sinewy curves of woodcarving are now supplemented with linear, geometric shapes of wall panelling, plus stitching & layering patterns from flax work and cloak weaving. The great Western art traditions are likewise absorbed. Traditional figures (protuding bellies, elongated limbs & heads) become more 'anatomically correct'; the sharp defined musculature of Greek sculpture is now especially prevalent. Poses are more naturalistic, squatting or hyper-animated gestures are now more relaxed & unself-conscious. Hairstyles too, are liberated from top-knots and cascade freely, blow windswept, or billow cloud-like.
Carving techniques always advance alongside improvements in wood & metalwork technologies. Today's sophisticated craftmanship almost defies belief: intricate, razor-thin lattice work; brilliant varnishes, incandescent golds and yellows; incredible chiaroscuro effects, day-glo rainbow colours merge seamlesly into earth tones. And textures! Near perfect billiard-ball smoothness, or exaggerated pits & indentations - like thumbprints in putty.
Contemporary carving not only enshrines an 'Art for art's sake' sensibility (imo), it's fundamental focus has shifted. More than ever, carvings are primarily objects of display, devoid of any personal, familial or ancestral references. They strive to be, above all, beautiful & eye-catching, demanding visual delectation from the viewer. 'Pretty' modern works heavily emphasise this purely physical appeal. No prior knowledge or interest in Maori culture is assumed. Historical, political or religious matters recede into insignificance. The carvings must now speak for themselves, and must enchant and engross on their own aesthetic merits.
Maori carvings used to terrify me as a kid: ugly & malevolent looking! Later on, they just looked grotesque, like fierce reptilian aliens with revolting scaly skin. I'd never appreciated the tremendous effort and skill required to produce such complex ornamentation. Now, like the filigree threads in a fine Persian rug, and because woodcarving has so tarted itself up, I can only marvel at both the exquisite details plus the ingenious, overall effects.