By Bob Harvey
Exisle, AU$55 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

ACCORDING to the press release which accompanied my copy of Wild Beast, Dean Buchanan is ďone of New Zealandís best-known artistsĒ. Prior to a recent Nightline article, his was not a name I was familiar with. I could suggest somewhat tongue-in-cheek that they meant Ďone of Aucklandís best-known artistsí. More likely though itís because, as a quick flick through the book reveals, Buchananís painting holds no real interest for me personally.

Buchanan has found/developed a style very much his own: definitely modernist, bold colours, aspects of impressionism and cubism, hints of traditional Japanese painting, and recurring geometries. It has been described as overwhelming, and for me it is Ė overwhelmingly busy, and dominated by his style leaving the content to fight its way free.

While I would never suggest that Buchanan isnít a talented painter (based on the reproductions in the book), I was hoping to find something of more interest in Bob Harveyís text. But much of it is the hyperbole of someone wanting to present a very strong image of a close friend. The picture he paints is one of an arrogant, driven artist. Itís clear that Harvey has a lot of respect for Buchanan as an artist and a person, and he wants us to share his respect. I think this is the main problem Ė the author and the subject are too close, so there is no sense of any objectivity.

We also get constant references to the ďinstant popularityĒ of Buchananís works, are regularly told how quickly his shows sell out, and how much the buyers admire the work and the artist. These comments appear to be directed towards the critics of the work who are referred to on numerous occasions, though the extent of their criticism is never really revealed.

For a survey book the biographical text is patchy from the mid 1980ís onwards, and Harveyís overview of Buchananís career finishes oddly, simply pointing out that he has shown and, of course, sold work in numerous overseas galleries. There is no discussion of the present or the future. Instead the text briefly discusses the ĎAlice in Wonderlandí series and then gives us a frankly pointless history of Buchananís mountaineering exploits. While illustrations of his paintings are throughout the book, only one includes the date with its title; odd given it is apparently a survey of the artistís career. Further more, there seems to be little correlation between works mentioned in the text and works printed in the book.

Regardless of how you view Buchananís work, a decent book on art/an artist should be more than a brief biography and a bunch of pictures. It should offer the reader genuine insight into why the artist does what they do, what drives them to produce, what determines their subject matter and medium, and what the work is about. And it should contextualise the work in some way, be it in terms of society, art history, local or international movements etc.

Wild Beast does very little of this. Instead we get a simplistic picture of a man driven to paint and rebel against the ĎArtí system. And for me thatís the biggest disappointment of the book; the fact that I feel I havenít been intellectually stimulated or challenged. And when Iím not a fan of the art I hope that hearing about it will make me reassess my approach to it. Sadly, not in this case.

The audience for this book appears to be only Buchananís present audience. It is a poor overview of the artistís career (due mainly to the layout and lack of dates on the illustrations). There is a lack of critical writing about the work, but when the author is not a noted art writer thatís to be expected. If Harveyís flattering once-over-lightly text had been accompanied by an essay by, say, Justin Paton or Greg OíBrien, then this book would have been all that much better for it.

Buchananís work can be viewed on his website, deanbuchanan.co.nz, and if you like what you see there, then by all means track down the book. If not, then Bill Hammond, one of New Zealandís best-known artists, has a survey book out, and that may well be a better purchase.