Must-see exhibition in Gore: Edward Bullmore 1933–1978

By David Luoni

Gore’s Eastern Southland Gallery is hosting a compelling retrospective ofEdward (Ted) Bullmore’s art entitled‘A Surrealist Odyssey’Ted Bullmorewas a southern lad who grew up on the family’s farm at Balfour but his talent lent itself to acquiring cultural rather than rural capital. Gore has now caught up with Bullmore’s genius and is proudly celebrating it. If only we’d had the foresight to do this 40 years ago when Bullmore needed it, having returned home from a productive nine year stint in Europe only to find himself working in relative obscurity in Rotorua. Sadly, Ted Bullmore died young, aged only 45, after having a heart attack in 1978.

Apparently Bullmore wasn’t an art politician and he focused on his work rather than self-promotion. This and the unique nature of his experimental three-dimensional canvasses meant that he wasn’t fully patroned after returning to New Zealand. This exhibition seeks to right this wrong and is curated by Penelope Jackson from the Tauranga Art Gallery. In early 2006 Ted’s widow Jacqui gifted 297 of her husband’s works to the Tauranga Art Gallery on the condition that it tell Ted’s story. This exhibition and Penelope Jackson’s book ‘Edward Bullmore: A Surrealist Odyssey’ honours that pledge.

The exhibition is in two parts; the first celebrates Bullmore’s skill as a painter and tracks his development from draftsman to poignant portraitist and social commentator. The portraits are arresting and, either honour the sitter or challenge the viewer. The final painting ‘Cuba Crisis No. 1’ has considerable stopping power and works as an alarm and as a piece of theatre. The backdrop suggests both stage and figurative curtains. Penelope Jackson suggests bandages. In this work, I think Bullmore is both painting and asking for careful hands.

The second part of exhibition surveys Bullmore’s three dimensional canvases which meld and abstract landscape, myth and the human form. The shift to full abstraction attempts to distil these themes. This distillation is really the odyssey of the exhibition’s title.

Shortly after Ted Bullmore’s death, Stephen Ellis published his assessment of these contorted canvases in Art New Zealand, but as a tribute the essay is incomplete. This exhibition and Penelope Jackson’s book provide the fuller picture and give the kudos Bullmore’s work has long deserved. For a review of this exhibition see Linda Tyler’s response, which is published in Art New Zealand 128, Spring 2008.

I first heard of Ted Bullmore via a friend, Bert Winders who flatted with Ted in Tauranga when they both played rugby for the Bay of Plenty in 1957/1958. During that period Ted painted Bert relaxing listening to Mozart. Bert treasured his portrait and when he died in 2003 it become a family taonga in good part because it captures both Bert’s likeness and his spirit. Like Bullmore, Bert was a burly man but with an intensely spiritual side. For me, the delight of this exhibition is that it shows cases Bullmore’s ability to divine the spirit of things.

The exhibition, Edward Bullmore: A Surrealist Odyssey, ends its stint at the Eastern Southland Gallery in Gore on 26 October 2009.

Ellis, Stephen, “Ted Bullmore 1933-1978”. – Art New Zealand No.12, Winter 1979: 15. Web

Tyler, Linda R. “Strange Fruit: Edward Bullmore A Surrealist Odyssey”. Art New Zealand No.128, Spring 2008: 58-61.

Image: Cuba Crisis No.1. Image courtesy of Tauranga Art Gallery, from a private collection.