T J McNamara on the arts
T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Romancing science

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Peter James Smith's new show proves variety is his spice of life

No. 12 Euclid Alone by Peter James Smith is on display at Orexart gallery in Auckland. Photo / Sarah Ivey
No. 12 Euclid Alone by Peter James Smith is on display at Orexart gallery in Auckland. Photo / Sarah Ivey

One key word in contemporary art is variety, not only variety across the whole spectrum of art but also within an individual artist's work. On the Nature of Things, an exhibition by Peter James Smith at Orexart, contains brilliant Romantic painting, still-life, meditations on poetry, science, mathematics and collections of found objects.

One work, The Wasteland, is the result of a trip to Antarctica and shows a vast bay of sea ice and co-ordinates indicating due south. The painting refers to T.S. Eliot's famous poem and the image is shown as on a book with a quotation lettered on it, "Who is the third that always walks beside you?" and the signature of Ernest Shackleton. Eliot's line is quoting a remark by the explorer about how in dangerous places a mysterious figure joined his explorers.

It also refers to the description in the Book of Luke of the two disciples who were walking to Emmaus and did not at first perceive that it was Jesus walking beside them. So a spiritual and mystical element is introduced too.

None of this would work at all if the ice, hills and sky were not so finely painted and if the book format did not suggest a historical aspect.

This layering of meaning is less obvious in Palimpsest where a sheet of parchment has had a scientific table erased from it and later equations in black added which have in turn been superseded by modern mathematics in white. The glorious sunset in On the Nature of Things, the title of a work by the Roman writer Lucretius, which gives its name to the show, encapsulates the thinking behind the exhibition.

Other works that incorporate found objects are less convincing. A black tomb of boxes surmounted by a cross made of rulers, which is measurement defining the spiritual, does not have the moving power of a nearby painting of the cross that is the Scott Memorial in Antarctica.

Nevertheless, Peter James Smith's combination of high Romanticism with science remains an outstanding personal style and achievement.

A greater variety of effects fill alienate/demonstrate/edit, a show curated by Arron Santry at Artspace.

The only painting in the show is by Joseph Nerney whose simplistic little images in the thing you do with your hand and the sun try to sum up the essence of painting by careful placing of coloured dots on canvas. The video images are much more interesting.

Yousuke Fuyama has an installation where data is processed into complex displays of line and fed back into it so the screen shows masses of horizontals, then verticals, then lines that converge and make a continually fluctuating image on the screen accompanied by abrasive sound.

It has a hypnotic power despite its extreme abstraction.

There is nothing very abstract about Oliver Laric's Versions which, unlike the high seriousness of the rest of the show, is actually very funny. The artist has taken found images from film and television, then collected playful modifications of the image.

Most entertaining of all is the footage of Zinedine Zidane head-butting an opponent in a soccer World Cup final. This famous sequence is shown in several dozen variations with animals playing the parts, heads flying off and general mayhem.

Equally amusing is a sequence from a porn movie where the crucial sexual action is repeated all the time with different heads on the bodies.

The main room is occupied by an elaborate tableau: video on the wall, curtains in front of the video, a colourful triangle on the floor and, hanging from the ceiling, a sculpture that drips silver on to the triangle. The artist, Vincent Riebeek, accompanies this work with dance performance.

In total contrast is a series of photographs taken by Sean Snyder that show how a variety of textures can be captured. The curator's choices cover a number of bases in contemporary art.

The three parts of the exhibition by Zac Langdon-Pole at the Michael Lett Gallery all present found objects as curiosities. The response to the first room is total scepticism, to the second a degree of delight and to the third, "Here we go again". In the first room are paintings the artist found in junk shops. The paintings are taken off the support, turned around, then re-stretched to show the grubby back of the canvas. Is the back of used canvas more interesting than the front, however dull? Not really.

In the second room the artist has chosen samples of floral fabric, laid one over the other and cut the top fabric to show parts of the one underneath. The results are spectacularly decorative with an element of wit in relating one fabric to another. This works, though the artist's intervention is minimal.

The third room recycles work by the pseudonymous L. Budd. The drawings are clumsy but the altered found texts have a sharp satirical point about art writing, but have nothing to do with Zac Langdon-Pole except to show what he finds curious.

At the galleries
On the Nature of Things by Peter James Smith

Where and when: Orexart, Khartoum Place, to June 16

TJ says: Romantic landscapes overlaid with mathematics and poetry, supplemented with found objects that support the ideas.

What: alienate/demonstrate/edit

Where and when: Artspace, 300 Karangahape Rd, to June 30

TJ says: The graduating cultural intern at Artspace brings together international artists and a New Zealander in a show that illustrates the interaction between the internet and art.

What: Nothing by Itself by Zac Langdon-Pole

Where and when: Michael Lett, 2/285 Great North Rd, to June 23

TJ says: Recent Elam graduate in his second show chooses the backs of old paintings, floral fabrics and the legacy of a fictive art persona to make a show with the minimum of personal making.

- NZ Herald

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