Love for rocks in perfect forms

Chris Charteris sees his ponamu light boxes on show at Milford Galleries as focal points. Photo:...
Chris Charteris sees his ponamu light boxes on show at Milford Galleries as focal points. Photo: Linda Robertson
A life-long love of rocks has inspired artist Chris Charteris' latest exhibition "Truth, Simplicity and Love". He tells Rebecca Fox about making things simpler. 

Chris Charteris can spend hours moving rocks from one fish bin to another.

At least that is what it looks like. But it has a purpose. He is grading the rocks into sizes.

These are rocks he has sourced himself from beaches around the South Island and from where he lives in the Coromandel.

His work enables him to indulge his love for rocks, one he has had since he was a little boy.

"I've had a fascination."

His latest exhibition is an expression of his love for the material.

"I love rocks, working with rocks. Hopefully I have communicated that love affair with them."

He made a particular effort in these works not to "overstep" and put too much of his influence on the materials.

"It's a collaboration with nature. It's got elements of its natural form left in it."

A special feature of the exhibition is the light boxes featuring rounds of pounamu from South Westland.

Ceremonial Object, by Chris Charteris. Photo: Supplied
Ceremonial Object, by Chris Charteris. Photo: Supplied
"Pounamu comes to life when you see light through it.

"You can really look into the heart of the stone when it's illuminated like that, see its structure."

Technology has also played a part in the creation of the pieces as it enabled him to cut thin slices of pounamu from a big block.

"It's all precision. I've purposely kept these designs very simple and clean. To get something simple right is actually more difficult than doing something complicated.

"I didn't want to detract too much from the stone."

He sees the series as focal points - "bringing the focus into the centre of the work".

"They could be used as a mediative tool, to slow your thought process down."

He used a similar idea in the past but technical issues had always been a problem. Now the lights and technology had got better.

"Its sharper and you can't see individual bulb marks."

In the exhibition are a group of large "necklaces" of rocks.

"The miraculous natural forces of nature shaping rock to regular shapes and patterns which has taken thousands of years.

"Nature creates the perfect form. I'm working with what is already perfect."

The grading into sizes requires a bit of mathematics, he says.

Once in sizes he can thread the "necklaces" with the stone from large to small.

"It's a little bit like what you see at the coast. Often there are small rocks down by low-tide mark and bigger rocks at the top so it does reference how nature does sort things out mathematically.

Tideline, by Chris Charteris. Photo: Supplied
Tideline, by Chris Charteris. Photo: Supplied
"It is how I find these rocks already deposited, graded. Nature has already done it which is quite a miracle."

Over time he has developed a process whereby he takes rocks from beaches, respecting the environment and being mindful of what he is taking.

"I leave gifts in areas where I take from."

Charteris has also combined the more natural with some "highly worked" polished stone pieces in the exhibition.

"If I want to do something a particular shape I will find stone already that similar shape. Those lozenge-shaped ones were already formed like that so it's utilising natural forms, I guess."

With the more worked pieces it is about bringing out the "beauty and character of the rock without overdoing it", he says.

"So you can look into it and see its structure and grain."

The pieces which combine the polished and natural are a reflection of his interest in museum artefacts.

"How you see the hammer marks on them. The adze-type works over there are very much informed by artefacts. I've spent a lot of time in museums doing research, looking at objects."

His stone work has developed over the years, becoming simpler mostly due to developments in technology.

"There are more effective, efficient diamond tools. It's dusty and noisy but technology has made it much more doable; it's more possible to do more things now."

He works on multiple pieces at a time so never really adds up the hours it takes to make a piece.

Charteris' work with stone began when he lived in Dunedin in the 1990s. He was bone and wood carving prior to that, so the transition was "easy", he says.

He made the transition because of his love of rocks.

"There are so many varieties and colours."

Charteris still carves bone and has whale bone carvings in the exhibition.

"It's more immediate in terms of being able to shape because it's softer - it's equally satisfying though."

It has been a busy year for the artist who has also been working on a special cultural Kiribati group project for the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Queensland.

It gives Charteris, who is of Kiribati and Fijian heritage, a chance to work with other people.

"It's completely different work altogether."

He has just completed 20 "swords" to go with a central work, a huge fish trap made out of shells - about 8000 shells drilled and stitched. They are also making a suit of armour from coconut fibre.

"There is a huge group of us doing it."

The "swords" are based on traditional shark's teeth but only one is made of actual shark's teeth. The rest are modelled on it.

"I'm not really into shark hunting but they look like a lot of artefacts I've seen in museum collections."

The work had been different to his "usual" work but he had enjoyed the change.

"It's been fun."

To see

"Truth, Simplicity and Love", Chris Charteris, Milford Galleries Dunedin, until July 11.


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