Detail from Cat on Windowsill, Corstorphine (2013 – 2015) by Joe L'Estrange at the Hocken Gallery, Dunedin.

On the first major survey of a coveted artist

“Who is Joe L’Estrange?”, begins an Otago Daily Times clipping from 1987. “Well, it’s me,” says the artist slightly indignantly, with her long slow stare. More than three decades on, the answer to that question remains at once starkly obvious and beguilingly out of reach. I’ve never met L’Estrange. I know her only through her paintings and some newspaper reviews. So what do I know?

That article was written by Claire Hardie, a friend and collector, on the occasion of L’Estrange’s first solo exhibition, at Dunedin’s Moray Gallery. It is a mere two columns long, yet it brims with L’Estrange’s elliptical personality. “I learnt quite soon, that I could do that, that I could draw,” she tells Hardie. Yes, L’Estrange can draw. That’s an understatement. In the article, L’Estrange considers a self-portrait produced during her second year at art school her first ‘real’ painting. She is intrigued that people liked another early self-portrait in the exhibition that was just an ‘exercise’. She goes on to say, “I haven’t painted a picture yet of how I would like to paint, really.”

Boy With Stick (2020)

L’Estrange has always been a hard taskmaster, preoccupied with the craft of painting. In Self-Portrait at Caversham (2001–2), her long slow stare is glacial, her frazzled hair framed by the concrete motorway overpass that acts as a proscenium arch in the composition. Her narcissism is nil by mouth and yet, like that mole above her upper lip, everything we need to know is here, in Caversham. The skinny man in black walking his dog, the Burns Street sign, the pedestrians on the other side of the overpass, that road as it curves around the corner, and the huge toetoe, so redolent of the New Zealand motorway.

The painting has a plain wooden frame, as though ornament was the artist’s last thought. She herself is cloaked in brown plaid — like a modern-day monk or hermit. The pose of her right hand, fingers spread over her chest, is classical and declarative. I’m a realist, she seems to gesture, as an artist and a person. This is where I live. I see it. I paint it. I don’t add frills.

Self-portrait at Caversham (2001)

In 1992, on her thirty-second birthday, L’Estrange won the Adam Portraiture Award with the painting Georgiana, judged by artist Shona McFarlane. With the $10,000 prize money, she bought her first house, by the motorway in Caversham, a working-class Dunedin suburb. Back then, she described herself as a “purely-what-the-eye-sees person, and that’s terribly out of fashion”. But realism is never out of fashion, just out of the way, like Caversham. Representational art is timeless.

As an artist, L’Estrange has been described both as an enigma and as Dunedin’s worst-kept best-kept secret. I’m told she hates symbols and is allergic to ‘isms’. Her professional CV includes only a few wayfaring stops outside Dunedin: Balclutha and Whakatāne, Auckland and Wellington. But her work is coveted by collectors. From 2013 on, she’s had regular exhibitions at Brett McDowell Gallery. McDowell recalls a visit to her house in Caversham by the motorway: “It was extremely loud, a constant rush of four lanes of traffic passing by, trucks struggling to get up the great incline on one side and trucks using engine brakes going down on the other. I remember how much this din contrasted with her backyard. Joe had cultivated an enormously overgrown thicket of a cottage garden. It was like a little oasis and the cats were glimpsed only every now and again darting between shrubs.” On the occasion of Joe L’Estrange Painter, her first public-gallery survey exhibition, the cat is finally out of the bag.

Cats bring out the best in L’Estrange…Her painting Cat Licking its Bottom (2008) depicts exactly that

First the biography. L’Estrange was born in 1960 in Ōamaru, the birthplace of Janet Frame, but has lived in Dunedin since 1973. She graduated with a Diploma of Fine Arts from Dunedin School of Art in 1980. Her grandparents owned a house in Concord, and she has often painted her local neighbourhoods of Concord, Caversham, and now Corstorphine, where she currently lives high up on a hill. “Corstorphine is one of those classic state-house areas with almost no vegetation at all,” McDowell tells me. “Joe’s rambling jungle sticks out even more than it did in Caversham. These are the sorts of places that are very definitely not the traditional places to paint in Dunedin. Joe seems to be making a point here.” L’Estrange joked to McDowell that her survey exhibition could be titled Never Went Further than Caversham.

What is beauty? Where do we find it? L’Estrange locates it, like softness, in a cat in the garden at home. Black Cat Walking (2008) sets my heart purring. It’s a perfect painting. Oh, to produce something so beautiful. I, too, am a cat lover. The black cat’s fur is as intricate and delicately rendered as the dandelion’s head. The grey snaking sky matches the shape of the cat’s bouffy tail, and I marvel at the rifts of lighter golden-brown fur that come in waves throughout his coat. The brown-black pebbles in the foreground remind me of the pads beneath cats’ paws that are sometimes referred to as ‘toe beans’. The cat’s name is Frankie and his green-eyed gaze is cannily specific. He is so well captured that the whole painting is infused with his life force. When I look at it, I feel an acute sense of being in the moment, like a cat, alert only to the present.

Black Cat Walking (2008)

Cats bring out the best in L’Estrange. They showcase the range of her empathy and her ribald humour. A 2006 painting En Garde depicts the ace mouse-catcher turning to look back at us. Her black tail raised, she dares us to take a good long look at her bum, as though it’s the most important thing; meanwhile, a mouse flees across the green-patterned floor in the foreground. Cat Licking its Bottom (2008) depicts exactly that. The calico sits in an umber room, grooming itself on a fabric that looks like a curtain brocaded with leaves. A cat licking its bottom is a sight most of us will have seen before, accompanied by the rasping sound of its tongue. In these paintings, the unselfconsciousness of cats as they rest, play, and preen excites L’Estrange’s attention. I also hazard that Cat with Dead Tui Bird (2006) appealed to her predilection for subjects that are ‘terribly out of fashion’ but still true.

It has been noted that some of L’Estrange’s cat paintings allow her to become finely focused on her technique, particularly in the rendering of fur, and Old Cat Walking (2007) is a case in point. The cat’s arched back, like the mound of a hill, conveys its difficulty in getting upright these days. Its belly sags towards its hind legs. The detail in its multihued fur is masterful. It’s walking along the patterned trim of a maroon Axminister rug. Behind it, vines twist in the wallpaper, complementing the four pleats of the fawn curtain. Outside, we see the teal-blue wall of a neighbouring house. Skeletal trees rise behind it. In the grass, a ginger silhouette — another cat in the distance. The painting is filled with the warm hues of the interior and the coolness of night outside. Old Cat Walking is a heart-clencher.

Old Cat Walking (2007)

Taken with kind permission of the author from her catalogue essay for Joe L’Estrange Painter. The exhibition continues until February 18 at the Hocken Gallery, 90 Anzac Ave, in Ōtepoti Dunedin.

Megan Dunn is the author of Tinderbox, and Things I Learned in Art School. She works at the Wellington City Art Gallery.

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