T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Broom strokes worthy of marvel

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Niels Shoe Meulman combines calligraphy and street art in his work. Photo / Adele Renault
Niels Shoe Meulman combines calligraphy and street art in his work. Photo / Adele Renault

When discussing painting technique, brushwork gets mentioned frequently but broomwork is something new.

We have seen our own Max Gimblett use a mop to paint with and lots of painters, notably Francis Bacon, have been in the habit of throwing paint at the canvas - but to swish the paint on with an ordinary long-handled broom is something different.

At the opening of his show at the new Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery, Dutch designer Niels Shoe Meulman donned a hooded overall, tipped black ink-like pigment into a plastic trough, dipped a broom into the trough and improvised a dark splattered arc on a long wall. He poured water into the trough to make the pigment more liquid, then made a series of shapes like the letter L in calligraphy. The shapes had a strong beginning where the broom hit; they swept downward like a waterfall and curved out to the right in an elegant calligraphic exit.

He repeated this nine times across the space in a sequence. Then he went Expressionist again and made a big curved space on the right, went the three or four metres to the left and made another enclosing curve of splatters like a bracket.

He stood back, looked, dipped the broom in the pigment and slammed it once on the right and once on the left. It was over in 5 minutes but the results were spectacular.

The artist calls his art Calligraffiti - a mixture of calligraphy and street art.

The 19 paintings that make up the exhibition add a slightly more controlled quality to the dash and splash of the demonstration. This is because a calligraphic shape is brushed on in patterns ranked vertically and horizontally. The effect is like leaves on a tree - they look the same but are slightly different.

These ranks of gestures, sometimes with delightful twirls at the finish, are mostly called Justified Scripture where "justified" is the printer's term for arranging things with a margin and straight edges. The result is a careful pattern sometimes enhanced by touches of white or red allied to the utmost spontaneity of brushstroke. A graffiti artist has to work fast or he will get pinched by the police, while a calligrapher must pay attention to order and grouping. In these works, mostly in Indian ink, you get a clever combination of order and spontaneity.

A speaker at the opening described it as "weird and crazy but exciting". His first two adjectives were wrong; imaginative and skilful design would be better but it certainly is exciting.

Elliot Collins, who has a show at Tim Melville Gallery, has just completed two residencies in Europe. His reputation here was made by large works with intense colour in tightly packed expressive brushstrokes with colour and form relating to wording in classical lettering across the middle. Words and painting were locked in one mood.

His stay in Europe has bought no big transformations. One work with no lettering is an abstract of patches of colour called Every Colour in Marnay-sur-Seine, but for most of the rest they follow his accustomed manner.

Hit by nostalgia in Amsterdam, he felt he needed to go back to the text-based paintings. He hung a rope in his studio and made a swing that recalled his childhood and used the swing to make slashing gestures of paint on fields of colour. The colour fields are linked to the lettering so that EIGHT MINUTES TO EARTH is a blaze of yellow like the sun and the dark irregular gestures of paint suggest a fall like Icarus. Similarly, BE BRAVE is a dark painting with assertive slashes of white.

All this is colourful and lively, but the swing-induced gestures are much the same for every painting. Surely a work called I WILL LET YOU WIN AT WRESTLING SOMETIMES should have interlocking gestures which sometimes fall apart and a few horizontals. It makes an attractive exhibition but shows no development beyond previous style and direction.

Selina Foote has her first major exhibition called Tuileries at Sue Crockford's. She already has a painting at Te Papa.

Her works are examples of tidy, academic abstractions. They consist mainly of triangles and rectangles rhythmically arranged in elaborate compositions where every part leads to another and every shape supports another shape. Within these complex arrangements the colour is subdued.

Although the title suggests tile-making, as well as the famous gardens in Paris and Manet's painting of them crowded with people, none of this seems relevant.

What we have are systems of careful balance and support. In Champfleury, groups of strong verticals lift groups of smaller forms. Balleroy is all triangles. Some titles refer to writers and composers but it is hard to make the connection except in Fantin, which has a pale centre surrounded by darker colour and may refer to the celebrated French painter of flowers, Fantin-Latour.

The only exceptional thing about this tidy and monochromatic exhibition is that some of the paintings are done in oils on silk, which allows the stretcher on which they are mounted to be visible behind them which adds to the sense of the painting as a surface.

Veteran artist John Blackburn paints on paper in his suite of works at Artis Gallery. His work is abstract expressionism and spontaneous in the making. His shapes are worked energetically on the paper, letting the drips fall where they may.

His basic trope is a circular element whose spinning energy produces groups of smaller circles, often confined within a line or a collaged element on the paper. Such elements include the hemming of a linen napkin and elsewhere the centre of the napkin itself.

There is a sameness in these works but they are done with a feeling of authority.

At the galleries

What: Calligraffiti, by Niels Shoe Meulman

Where and when: Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery, Level 3, 123 The Strand, Parnell, to March 23

TJ says: Clever pieces of rhythmic design done in calligraphic forms drawn with both spontaneity and control.

What: By the River, by Elliot Collins

Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to March 10

TJ says: Paintings made by the artist in Europe but in his established style combining lettering and associated emotional colour.

What: Tuileries, by Selina Foote

Where and when: Sue Crockford gallery, 2 Queen St, to March 3

TJ says: Quiet, carefully composed abstract paintings that repay study of their support and balance structures.

What: Mt Maunganui Paper Suite, by John Blackburn

Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, to February 27

TJ says: Veteran artist presents a suite of works on paper showing formal abstraction energised by directness and dash.

- NZ Herald

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