T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: A blend of old and new

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'Diptych with Figure' Photo / Andrew McLeod
'Diptych with Figure' Photo / Andrew McLeod

Exploring the relationship between past movements and the here and now.

Many talented artists diverge; they do not confine themselves to one style or subject. This tendency is exemplified in the exhibition called Images by Andrew McLeod at Ivan Anthony. The works are often very large or very small, historic in style or modern, realistic or abstract. They are painted, photographed, printed and even constructed from wood.

Most splendid of all is the spectacularly big Large Green Interior that resembles a 19th century academic painting and stretches from wall to wall. The composition is braced by classical marble columns and several of the figures pose in classical attitudes.

Nevertheless, this is a modern painting, with the sharpness and oddity of a dream. The space is furnished with chairs, vases, plants and pictures but above the door demons lurk. There are a number of figures. A man with a bare torso throws himself into a pose of Romantic despair in front of another who, clad in a purple toga, strikes an attitude while he waves weapons in the air.

Further on, a figure in a cloak confronts someone who has a sinister quality and another with a gun.

Then there is a statuesque Greek hero complete with short sword. A twisted tree grows up between the groups.

One of the demons is taken from a painting by Lord Leighton, President of the Royal Academy in the 19th century. Underlying its complexity of images in this ambitious work is the feeling of a clash of cultures. The work by Mcleod refers to how we saw and, in some ways continue to see, the culture we inherited from Europe, and how we adopt artefacts of culture when they are transplanted from the other side of the world. This painting is an impressive echo of grandeur.

The combination of cultural inheritances is continued in another fine work, Diptych with Figure. The bottom of the heavy frame provides a base for a delicate Pre-Raphaelite figure of a maiden with a flower. The diptych is two elegantly geometrical abstractions, with the inference that these extremes are gathered in present-day psyche.

Other works are completely abstract, small and deftly made. One neat work with a lot of wooden surfaces called Large Cedar Relief is only 26cm high.

McLeod's reputation was established with elaborate inkjet prints of complicated imagery. Here the outstanding work in this genre is Landscape with Gold, where a rocky landscape like a huge New Zealand riverbed is salted with bright geometric designs and a hoard of golden treasure.

Then there is a fascinating suite of collaged photographic images filled with a whole world of references from Jane Burden, the face that launched a thousand Pre-Raphaelite paintings, to Bramante's little Tempietto in Rome that set the pattern for much Renaissance architecture. Every piece is packed with allusion to passage and perception of art over time.

This command over so many means of creative expression makes it clear that McLeod has matured into one of our most outstanding artists.

Nigel Brown, in his recent paintings at Whitespace Gallery, deliberately creates New Zealand legend but he too adapts material from European art. His black-singleted, tiny-headed figure is his version of a New Zealand Everyman and the latest persona of this figure is Joe Taihape, a guitar player wandering through place and time. The image of the guitar player is, in outline, based on Picasso's famous work from his symbolist Blue Period, The Old Guitarist.

Picasso's guitarist is old and bony whereas Brown's is muscular. Joe's small head emphasises the unintellectual nature of the figure. The painting is strong and simple, with five variants, largely changes in colour.

One version, Being Here Music, adds more figures and is done in a startling orange with luminosity unusual in the artist's work. Another incorporates a tin-roofed, weatherboard shack that is much more typical of his style and imagery.

The figure and the details have the strength of simplicity but some things, notably the bare feet of the musician, are casual, even crude, within the conventions of such symbolic work.

Two new galleries are showing a considerable body of work. Black Asterisk has had a number of one-person shows and their new exhibition is Musings by Victoria Cassells. The work is softly atmospheric with a strong vein of sentiment. It is at its best when her control of paint is tightened by a touch of assertiveness as in Gretel Was Coping Just Fine, with a young girl alone in the woods, no Hansel needed. One excellent study, The Butcher's Wife, is stronger than anything else in the show.

At the new Railway Studios in Newmarket, husband and wife Jasmine Kamante and Jesper Sundwall show the value of their training in European academies by painting thoroughly traditional figure studies and still life with finely honed skills exactly rendering everything from naked flesh to spilled walnuts.

- NZ Herald

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