Sometimes you just need an artist who celebrates summer.
Born in Australia, Tanya Blong was raised on the shores of Taranaki and is just the sort of painter you’re looking for.
These days, she is based in Auckland - an evocative painting practice that really resonates with summer and the whole experience of being a New Zealander, elevated it to something timeless and potent.
“I grew up in a fairly standard kiwi family,” Blong says, “leaving when I was 18 to explore the world. Years of travel enriching and informing my practice - returning to study Art in the bush at Hungry Creek Art and Craft School in Puhoi north of Auckland, majoring in painting and sculpture.”
For someone who is such a fluent figurative painter, Blong came to her practice from a sculptural background.
Tanya Blong, Submerge. Photo: Supplied.
Perhaps that explains the strength of the human form in her work, and the bold decorative geometries of her Breeze Blocks paintings. There is a distinctly sculptural quality to way she stylises human bodies lolling around swimming pools or on the beach.
“Sculpture was the basis of my work for several years,” she says, “working predominantly in wood, the figurative forms related to navigation and ocean faring cultures. I also spent several years as studio technician to renown New Zealand sculptor Terry Stringer.”
The paintings are quite relaxing to engage with, lush with tropical colour and light. There are elements of Matisse in the south of France, Hockney’s Californian swimming pools, and the carnal physicality and colourism of Marlene Dumas.
Tanya Blong, Filho. Photo: Supplied.
“These days, figurative painting forms the direction of my work,” Blong details, “I am interested in society at leisure and the act of being idle.
“It's not only the sensory aspect of this state of being - but looking at leisure and how it has changed through history, what is looks like for people today, the luxury of time being a major theme, with questions posed of access, privilege and inclusion.”
That perhaps explains why a lot of the people in Blong’s paintings seem like hieratic odalisques – they’re not really required to do anything. They’re not objectified, they’re just being.
Leisure is such a charged concept in contemporary life – technology means that theoretically we have so much more time for it than ever before, and yet work ever expands to fill the available time.
Medieval peasants worked a lot harder than we do in terms of physical labour, but they had a lot more holidays, literally holy days.
Blong is also an artist clearly in love with colour - from the intense sunlight of Aotearoa, to taking it to a striking Toulouse-Lautrec-esque artificiality, like retinal afterimage.
Tanya Blong, Ghost Bathers. Photo: Supplied.
It takes on a life of its own, making the image familiar, but unheimlich and otherworldly. Of this, Blong says:
“Colour plays a large role in my work, using nonlocal colour. I am always looking to push colour further, set a scene, cast characters and create narrative within an atmosphere.”
Art making sits in a curious relationship with the idea of leisure. Most professional artists would argue that it is work, while many on the periphery of the art world regard it as something very like a hobby.
Creativity and creation are essential parts of Blong’s life, as it is in the lives of many artists and creators. She has some very wise observations on why she paints:
“I think the compulsion to paint comes firstly from a non-verbal need to process the world,” she says.
“Secondly the search to express in some way what it means to be human. I love how the brush teaches so many lessons about life - on and off the canvas.”
Tanya Blong, The Late Breeze. Photo: Supplied.