TJ McNamara: These works of freedom

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Julian Dashper's Subaru Factory at Tip Top Corner. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Julian Dashper's Subaru Factory at Tip Top Corner. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Artist Jim Allen looks to Bob Marley for inspiration in his latest exhibition.

Bob Marley's Redemption Song has become a rallying cry for indigenous peoples around the world. Some key lyrics in the song were derived from a speech in 1936 by the activist/orator Marcus Garvey in which he urged his listeners to "free the mind". The song suggests aspects of the work by Jim Allen in his exhibition at Michael Lett Gallery.

Jim Allen is one of our oldest, most respected artists. His long career in Australia saw him as an admired teacher in the area of installation and performance art, which left him little time for his own exhibitions. His sculptural work is in the collections of Te Papa and he has a work in the Chartwell Trust display in the Auckland Art Gallery.

The surprising thing about this show is that it is largely painting but, unsurprisingly, it is very powerful. There are only two sculptures in the show. One, in the first room, is an arena surrounded by barbed wire that confines children's clothing at the centre. It is surely symbolic of the constraints on freeing the mind.

On the wall of the same room is a painting of three mighty trees whose roots reach deep in the earth. Beyond them is the sea and a blaze of sky troubled by dark clouds.

The second sculpture is another open piece with an acrobatic figure of an artist mounted on a retort stand reaching toward golden garments with the ears and eyes of the world around him.

There are paintings in the second room too, some of them done on top of inkjet prints. The tree motif reappears and some of the images are versions of stills from Allen's performance videos. They are vivid and colourful and hint obscurely of the social and political causes that have always been at the back of his work.

The most powerful and revelatory paintings in the small back room are called Redemption Songs. This title was given by Judith Binney to her monumental study of Te Kooti and it is the direct inspiration for the work. They show deep respect for the man and his message.

These straightforward paintings have the force of simplicity. Out of darkness, falls of light frame middle sections like the flow of a river. More directly symbolic is the volcano in one of the works that suggests the elemental energy in Te Kooti's message. Lettering and images taken from Te Kooti's 52ft-long flag, Te Wepu, feature with areas of vigorously worked rich earthy colour, shot with red and blue, that evoke fertile fields.

The paintings have remote stylistic references to McCahon and Hotere - strong and full of emotional commitment. They are a remarkable revelation of a hitherto-hidden talent in an artist in his 90th year.

Another reminder of development growing out of the past is the small group of paintings by John Reynolds and the late Julian Dashper at Gow Langsford in Kitchener St. The show recalls a combined exhibition the artists had in Wellington in 1984.

What strikes one now about these large paintings is the raw aggressiveness, confidence and attack of the work. Significantly, one Reynolds work is called Handrail of Language and foreshadows his development into incorporating lettering, words and language games into his repertoire of design and meaning.

Dashper's Subaru Factory at Tip Top Corner defies the viewer to find meaning. It demands only response. It is possible to discern some of the colour of the factory or corner but what you have is a direct experience of these colours in squares tied together by lines and splashes. Such abstraction foreshadows Dashper's development into refining his painting into ironic minimalism, and further into conceptual art.

Reynolds' Liberty During Construction moves from dark to light in big hacking expressionist gestures with little pieces of paper struck and stapled in places on the surface. The sense of groping for style is fully apparent even as we participate in what are sudden painterly decisions.

Another exhibition that speaks of the past is Jacqueline Fahey's autobiographical colourful figure painting at Bath Street Gallery. A haunted nostalgia fills Remembering and there is the painter's special sense of the drama of everyday life in the violent and moody Sunset on Williamson Avenue. This works much better than the memories of time overseas in the lurid Dos Gringos In Mexico.

At the same gallery is a display of abstraction by Leon van den Eijkel. Whether it is an immense sculpture of rectangular blocks in the open air of the Gibbs Sculpture Farm or in these deft abstractions on paper, he sticks to a resolute simplicity. In the works on paper in this show he is prepared to use white on white with only texture to mark the structure. Each work is built up from a small group of even strokes of paint around a central square. This careful composition gives just enough movement to energise it.

- NZ Herald

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