The galleries: Fertile ground on the fringe

By T.J. McNamara, T. J. McNamara

Auckland's festival and the Triennial have produced many exhibitions around their fringes, with at least 20 on the last count. A lot are not fringe shows at all but important in their own right.

Some of them challenge where our allegiance lies. Do we admire the homegrown or bow down to sophistication from overseas?

Nothing could be more wholeheartedly New Zealand than the exhibition of sculpture and drawing by Bing Dawe at the McPherson Gallery until the end of the month.

Dawe is devoted to our fauna and over a long career has studied it intensely and used it in his art.

He does not make illustrations of our river life, birds and eels, although he reproduces them accurately. He makes tabernacles, combinations of sculpture and painting that are icons, not of worship but of profound caring for his subject.

The show is called Downstream Under and the sculptured works are lacquered cabinets that suggest the depths of a river.

In a work such as Spoonbill over Aramoana the sinuous line of an eel works its way through the dark recesses of the cabinet.

On top of this and other cabinets he places a splendidly carved bird. The bird is on its back with its feet upward which suggests it is dead as an individual and threatened as a species. Yet there is enough tension in the body to suggest the possibility of re-birth and revival.

There are three such sculptures in the show, supported by drawings.

They show an unexpected flair for colour and incorporate a rhythmic, dancing line which adds vitality and a sense of the turbulence of the river in a typical drawing, such as Black Shag and Eel.

There is nothing novel in technique or subject in this exhibition but there is a great deal of close-to-home honesty that transcends its occasional clumsiness.

At the opposite pole is the thoroughly fashionable, sophisticated and technically novel work from France by Emile Morel called No Trouble in Paradise, at SOCA Gallery in France St until April 5.

The gallery shows considerable courage in importing these large works from Paris.

These big images are done as digital prints on Plexiglas, which gives them a smooth surface, an extremely high-toned candy colour, a surprising amount of depth, and a huge amount of detail.

The process allows figures to vary in scale from the tiny to the immense. These works are as crowded with figures as any nightmare work by Hieronymus Bosch, but where Bosch painted dark demons, these works have masses of fairytale people surrounded by cascades of glittering bubbles and dripping Dali-esque wax.

This fairytale Surrealist style is high fashion overseas, particularly in Japan, typically in the work of the celebrated Chiho Aoshima.

Among the masses of tiny figures hidden in trees or dissolving into the melting earth, big mythological beasts loom large. Slavering dogs with tattooed skin, sacrificial women and intent men play major parts.

The human figures have animal bodies like centaurs, but their hooves and feet are human hands with polished nails, or they sport a multiplicity of breasts. The overall impression is a world superficially sweet but full of sexual aggression, manipulation and menace.

Close by, at Roger Williams Contemporary until March 31, is the work of Australian artist Fiona Lowry, who uses conventional acrylic on canvas but, unconventionally, uses a commercial air-brush to apply the paint.

This results in soft-edged, misty forms which she accumulates in dream-like bush landscapes.

These landscapes, sometimes inhabited by pale ghost-like figures, are unmistakably Australian because of the patterns of gum-tree trunks. They are never a picture of a particular place but work symbolically.

Each of these soft, out-of-focus paintings reflects a state of mind.

Sometimes avenues open up among the trees to make a prospect of a future. Sometimes they close to create warmth, as in stop this day and night with me.

Time changes everything has a faded, pale pathway. I stop somewhere waiting for you is blue and melancholy.

This matching of soft form and mood makes an appealing impressionistic show.

There is nothing appealing about the work of another Australian, Hany Armanious at the Michael Lett Gallery until April 7. It stinks. A pungent odour fills the gallery and it comes from a messy slop of clay on the floor.

The clay is trampled on the ground, spread on the walls and moulded into little pots. It is also assembled in series like cores from drilling.

It could be addressing transformations between the shapeless and the moulded - after all, in the front of the gallery there are lots of shoes and crochet bags transformed by moulding into useless muck.

A theme like this does not give a sense of purpose to a show that is truly repellent.

It is a relief to go a bit further along Karangahape Rd to Starkwhite, where Brisbane video artist Grant Stevens has screens showing marvellous witty games with lettering and the all-too-true language of cliche.

There is entertaining dislocation between what is on the screen and the voice-over in Two Ships and a wry groan-producing predictability in The Switch where the lettering outlines the plot of plots for a soap-opera.

Humour is a rarity in art and this mix of the language we see and the language we hear is not only funny but makes shrewd points about popular culture.

It runs until April 10.

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