Another Stage: Beyond the black box

By TJ McNamara

Despite the rise of video art, painting and sculpture continue to flourish at many galleries.

Mona Lisa by Reuben Paterson, at Gow Langsford Gallery. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Mona Lisa by Reuben Paterson, at Gow Langsford Gallery. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The white cube is being replaced by the black box" has become a catchphrase for commentators on contemporary art. The white cube is the gallery space; the black box is the projector or the darkened room where video and DVD offer movement, sound and image. Certainly, three of the top six winners of the recent Wallace Art Awards were artists using projections and the international show at Te Tuhi is all video.

Yet such is the nature of art today that the exhibition of all of the finalists at the Pah Homestead as well as the Salon des Refuses in the long annexe contain many orthodox paintings that would grace any white cube.

Painting continues to flourish in the galleries around town too. Artis Gallery is hosting a show by Elisabeth Rees who has been off the scene here for a while. Her always popular work is high Romanticism, particularly in two of the paintings that show women. The paintings have the format of portraits yet are generalised images of characterisation, each with a subtle emotional difference and features shading off into a clouded obscurity. They all include lemons and the faces show something of the bitterness of life.

Strangely, the painting where the lemons are done most sketchily is called Still Life. They are shown on a stand drawn in white line. This is in contrast to the elegant richness of the woman's dress, decorated with lusciously painted roses, and heavy drapes behind her head. The woman is proud, but mysteriously fades into the background.

The contrast between fact and suggestion gives extra tension to the work that is not so strong in the studies of men. These are all shown frontally and at their work but in all of them there is a barrier - a bench or a desk between the character and the viewer. This makes them more remote despite the homeliness of attributes like a jar of pencils in The Secretary. There is a contrast between their outward life and their inner character.

Sometimes the vagueness that gives mystery to the faces is an inadequate fit with the hands of figures like The Lemon Squeezer or The Lemonade Vendor. The still-life matches the character and moodiness of the figures but does not have the forceful suggestion of a work like Pave Lemon where a necklace with a lemon and red heart contribute to the impact.

The creation of atmosphere and mood has always been a feature of Rees' work. In this show it moves between being sometimes rich and sometimes rather acid.

The work of Reuben Paterson at the Gow Langsford Gallery also suits the white cube although it includes sculpture as well as painting. The show is called Twice Upon a Time, which emphasises the fairy tale nature of the work.

This unreality is also emphasised by Paterson's characteristic use of glitter. Everything sparkles and is totally and ironically decorative.

The irony is stressed when a picture of a parrot on a stand surrounded by flowers is called The Winged Victory of Samothrace but the wings are the only thing it has in common with the classical statue. Two impressive sculptures, a huge bear and a languid panther, are also shifted into the realm of modern fantasy by their sparkle.

Undeniably, the glitter works to make the paintings and sculpture spectacular, even when applied to a large painting of kowhaiwhai patterns occupying almost a whole wall of the gallery. The only time it fails is when applied to an image of a deer dead of thirst at a dry well. It is titled The Pentecost yet it fails to provide any sense of spiritual gift.

The title Rags and Shreds hardly does justice to the quiet meditative quality of the sizeable landscapes of Stanley Palmer at the Melanie Roger Gallery in Herne Bay. It may be that the title refers more to memories than the technique of the work because the subjects have a familiar feel about them.

Palmer's work has matured to the point where he has complete control over the tones of his muted palette that convey the glow of the early sun on rocky islands off Waiheke or the lowering sky behind the hills of Piopiotahi in After the Storm.

One work, Crossing - Rangitikei River, is unusual in that the viewpoint means there is no horizon or sky but the work is held together by the looping road, river and details of isolated houses and a bridge.

The days when such competent, responsive and intelligent painting might win an award are probably long gone, but it strikes an iconic chord in keeping with the expressive quotation from Katherine Mansfield that accompanies the exhibition.

- NZ Herald

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