T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Down memory lane

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From the Argo to Audubon by Michael Hight. Photo / Natalie Slade
From the Argo to Audubon by Michael Hight. Photo / Natalie Slade

Artist Michael Hight draws inspiration from childhood in an exhibition of recollections and dreams.

Good art is often not easy to understand immediately. The four finalist works in the Walters Prize at Auckland Art Gallery are enigmatic, to say the least, and their format makes them difficult to approach. At Gow Langsford, the paintings of Michael Hight are strange but more conventional since they are done with a skilled representational technique and they are pictures that can be hung on walls.

The difficulty lies in interpreting the symbolism of the recognisable things so well depicted. The title of the show gives us a clue, Dreams of Children. These are things remembered from childhood and, like dreams, they are sharp and clear but the objects, landscapes and people are oddly circumstanced and juxtaposed.

The artist became prominent with abstract painting that later morphed into images of beehives. He set these citadels of activity in evocative rural landscapes.

The beehives return here in the first painting, Scenes of the Beekeepers' Passion where the hives are attended by heavily masked figures. Alongside is a curious apparatus for flying. It has no wings, only lumps of wax where they might have been. This suggests Icarus who flew too near the sun and was betrayed by the melting of the wax that held his wings together.

There is an extension of this in Auld Lang Syne where the reference to childhood is explicit. The artist may have seen a reproduction of a drawing done by Breughel the Elder in the 16th century that shows three beekeepers dressed in long gowns wearing protective hoods with a round wickerwork face to keep the bees out. They look truly strange and the painting includes a child looking like Max in Where the Wild Things Are. The child is timid, though the figures are tamed a little by their bright stockings and the musical instruments they hold which may link them to remembered songs.

The memories of pictures by Breughel are an integral part of the largest work, a triptych called From the Argo to Audubon. The centre panel is a huge arcaded tower largely taken from Breughel's painting of the unfinished Tower of Babel, though here the tower is made of wood rather than stone. It sits in a lake and is, unlike the original, covered in dense foliage. The setting is very New Zealand with its sudden hill and water. The left wing of the work shows a boat, possibly Jason's Argo, but stacked in pieces like a broken memory. It is flanked by two pukekos. The right wing is full of ornamental ceramic birds.

The whole is very striking, evoking admiration for the way it is painted but it is also open to all sorts of interpretation.

The painter's skills extend to still-life. A weather gauge, a piano mechanism and a telescope are given a surreal treatment, often in conjunction with the natural shapes of trees. Furthermore, there is a big tour-de-force based on the memory of a rural store. It is of a fitting with more than 50 compartments, each with a beautifully painted but disparate object in it.

It all makes a show that may be difficult to decipher but is made convincing and appealing by a high level of skill as well as unusual reworking of memories.

Quite different sensations are offered by the sculpture exhibition Metal by Alexander Bartleet at the Warwick Henderson Gallery. These relief sculptures are made by accumulating a mass of discarded hardware (from a shuttlecock to computer parts) and fixing them on a board at about the same height, then spraying them with a single colour to unify the whole.

In the past Bartleet's colours have been light-absorbing and dull. In the examples here, where a rust colour is used, the effect is still subdued. Much more effective are the works sprayed with bright metallic paint - brass or copper. This gives them greater intensity because the play of reflected light gives the pieces real animation, energy and variety and much less sense of a mass production uniformity.

Skill, strangeness and delight are also found in the work of the three well-known artists with work in the Melanie Roger Gallery. Gavin Hurley's collages in this show go further than his usual characterisations of historical figures toward interactions in situations where a boy is something of a victim. The tension is supported by the textures and colours on the brilliantly crafted collages that are his special field. His paintings and a big print reflect the same material but without quite the individual flair of the collages.

There is always something strange about the things Peter Peryer chooses to photograph. Here it is a vegetable that grows like a hand, a film prop carcass that looks more dead than a slaughtered sheep and concrete penguins looking astute.

The immediately obvious is banished on close observation.

Emily Wolfe's skilful paintings here are three of her delicate curtained interiors. Light on a wall from an unseen window in Stray Light becomes like a ghost. The window and curtain in Shadow III are painted with a soft delicacy that is truly beguiling.

- NZ Herald

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