T J McNamara on the arts

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'In the Name of DemoKarasi' by Irami Buli at Orexart, Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson.
'In the Name of DemoKarasi' by Irami Buli at Orexart, Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson.

Four Pacific artists create works that speak of their culture

The show Pacific Voices at Orex Gallery is a valuable complement to the big exhibition of art by Pacific Island artists, Home AKL, at Auckland Art Gallery. That comprehensive show focuses on artists who live in Auckland. The work is in a variety of techniques including photography, video, sculpture and found objects. Orex is showing four artists who work as painters: two from Fiji, one Tongan/Irish and one Maori. All have a sense of message and commitment to their culture.

Irami Buli is one of Fiji's most prominent artists. He has exhibited widely in the Pacific region as well as the United States, Australia and India. His most important painting here is In the Name of DemoKARASI, done in oil on linen. At its centre is a large heraldic beast with two heads. One head is expounding or teaching while the other stands tall and proud though rather bewildered. One foot of the beast gropes beneath the earth. It has a dollar sign in its eyes.

This strange beast has burst through the barrier of a fence that is black against the vivid red of the background. Other forms like spirits or minor gods float in the space around. This is a big, confident painting done with quick brushstrokes and tar-like windings of black that define the structure and impart a strong energy to the work. The general effect is of confrontation and challenge.

Much more explicit in imagery is the work of Josua Toganivalu whose work is closer to the grid systems of traditional tapa and uses the earth colours - sienna, burnt umber and black. His painting is crowded with images along roads that run through the centre and symbolise journeys in life. There is room for the kava bowl as well as the school bus. It is a painting to be read point by point as the motifs are a mixture of Christian imagery and Pacific pattern, myth and legend as well as everyday life. It is an eloquent plea for love of all things under the sun.

The work of Glen Wolfgramm is much more familiar. He has, after nine solo shows, developed an intensely personal style. The most prominent features of his paintings are rivers of black lines or shapes driving across the canvas against a background of colour, and weaving together and parting. Polynesian in mood, they suggest journeys, meetings, sometimes conflict and tension. Math is a little different in the way it suggests peaks and valleys of achievement.

The personal style of Emily Karaka is also instantly recognisable in her works in the smaller room at Orex. She has filled her paintings with a mass of vibrant brushstrokes, with the predominant colour red. The striking dozen or so paintings are similar in style to hasty, passionate improvisation. All draw on Maori figures and history.

In most of the paintings an outlined figure is standing out from the background. This proud figure sets the tone for the lettered messages worked into the fabric of paint and colour. The figures give special force to the group of paintings titled Deliberations.

There is less aggressive polemic in these works than in the past. They give a sense of passion and their density and energy makes them something special in New Zealand art.

The show by Liam Gerrard at the Sanderson Gallery in Parnell is a display of virtuoso draughtsmanship done entirely in charcoal on paper. The artist's skill ranges from conveying the fall of light to the fine detail of masses of hair and the hard bony surface of teeth and horns on heads. The detail is supported by textures obtained by a tightly controlled spatter technique.

All this is used in the service of a dozen strange images. The most direct is a straightforward portrait of the cricketer Scott Styris. More typical of the show as a whole is Sabbath Assembly, the hairy head of the great god Pan, horned and with one bright eye looking out from a mass of hair that is a lair for a snake and a bird.

Drawings of close-ups of gums, tongues and teeth are confrontational as are two images of the head of a pig. One takes on a human quality with a sneering smile like the famous animal head in Worship of the Calf by the great surrealist, Francis Picabia.

The dream world of surrealism is a territory the artist might explore further to shift his work away from simple illustration.

In the meantime his portrait of Frida Kahlo, surrounded by an immense collar of lace with convincing intricate detail, is an astonishing work.

Across the road at Artis Gallery is work by veteran sculptor Peter Nicholls, best known for his large sculptures in wood. Wood features in some small works that delightfully contrast polished swamp kauri with the natural surface of a branch.

Another departure is the use of mild steel as a hood form with the outline of a native bird cut into it. The result casts a shadow on the wall. Hand cutting of the steel plate gives life to both the image of the bird and the light cast on the wall.

At the galleries
What:
Pacific Voices: Irami Buli, Josua Toganivalu, Glenn Wolfgram; New Works by Emily Karaka

Where and when: Orexart, Khartoum Place, to July 21

TJ says: Two Fijian artists sum up their philosophy in large, complex paintings while Auckland-based Glen Wolfgramm shows the agitated drive of modern life. Meanwhile, Emily Karaka's densely worked paintings are filled with strong Maori energy.

What: New Work by Liam Gerrard

Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary Art, 251 Parnell Rd, to July 15

TJ says: Virtuoso drawings in charcoal range from striking portraits to surreal images of ugly animals and strange gods.

What: As it is on Earth by Peter Nicholls

Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, to July 28

TJ says: Works that maintain the artist's reputation for fine work with wood and a new departure with birds cut in steel and accented with a play of light.

- NZ Herald

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