Andrew Blythe and his international career
5 June 2014
By Teresa Heinz Housel
Andrew Blythe’s paintings, which often feature intricate patterns of noughts and crosses, are cathartic expressions of his experiences of living with schizophrenia.
Growing up in Auckland in the 1970s, Andrew occasionally lived rough on Auckland’s streets and was in and out of hospital.
"I was sick for a while before I realised that something was really wrong,” says the Toi Ora Live Art Trust artist. “I was spending a lot of time with gang members. I didn't like my friends very much and I was drinking a lot. I went into town one night and got beaten up. The next thing I knew I was in a mental hospital."
Andrew was hospitalised that summer and diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 19.
Growing up in a creative family
A self-taught artist since childhood, Andrew drew, painted and wrote poetry to help process his experiences. He grew up in a creative family in which his father introduced him to painting and his mother encouraged his writing.
Andrew began working at Toi Ora Live Art Trust in 2000 and is one of its artists in residence. This creative space provides studio space and tuition in a range of artforms for people who have lived experience of mental illness.
In 2012, Andrew received a Highly Commended citation in Arts Access Aotearoa’s Big ‘A’ Artistic Achievement Award. Later that year, he went on to win the Attitude Artistic Achievement Award.
Erwin van Asbeck, Toi Ora’s Managing Director, says Andrew paints five days a week at Toi Ora. His wellness has blossomed to the point where he is now living independently.
For Andrew, art helps him feel centred and connected to others. “Art helps me not think about things so much. My thoughts can get overwhelming. I paint when I’m sick and I paint when I’m well. Toi Ora has helped me communicate with other people. I’m always surrounded by people to talk to and that helps me.”
Intricate, layered patterns
His work frequently includes intricate, layered patterns that require viewers to carefully observe them from multiple vantage points. For example, the art can often be read in a linear way as its patterns lead the viewer’s eye in a certain direction.
At the same time, Andrew’s paintings often invite a non-linear interpretation because of his layering technique. His paintings have been described by critics as having the visual effect of being sheets of chicken wire layered on top of each other.
Tim Melville, Director of Tim Melville Gallery, has been showing Andrew’s work since 2011 and says he was drawn to its formal qualities y, when he first saw one of his paintings in the Chartwell Collection at Auckland Art Gallery.
“The clarity of his marks reminded me of Aboriginal painting,” he recalls. “I loved the way the eye was pushed and pulled around its surface.”
However, it was only after meeting Andrew and hearing his story that he understood its human resonance.
"Andrew’s paintings are dense and very complex, yet they feel resolved and complete. He talks about 'striving for harmony' in his work, and for me they feel like stream of consciousness ... You can sense Andrew struggling to create order from the chaos – just like all of us really.”
Andrew’s work is gaining international attention in the contemporary art world. Auckland’s Satellite Gallery hosted his first solo show in 2008. A year later, Stuart Shepherd, a curator and an advocate of self-taught artists in New Zealand, included Andrew’s work at the New Zealand booth of the 2009 New York Outsider Art Fair. Stuart introduced Andrew to Phyllis Kind, an American Folk Art Museum trustee, gallerist and supporter of self-taught artists.
New York, Paris and Belgium
With Stuart’s support, his work featured again at the 2011 New York Outsider Art Fair and was also included in art shows in Paris and Belgium.
In addition, collectors from Miami’s Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry, the James Wallace Art Trust and the Chartwell Collection have purchased Andrew’s paintings.
Erwin says the recognition has further transformed Andrew. “The interest is happening at a pace he can manage, and he's become a lot more outgoing and confident about what he can do."
Andrew does not label or title his paintings because he prefers them to be open to interpretation. To this end, he views them as part of an ongoing dialogue of “free expression and abstract figurative composition, to be enjoyed. I am an empty vessel when I paint.”