T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Animal instincts, Salon Des Animaux

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Spellbound by Julie Ross, at Whitespace gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade
Spellbound by Julie Ross, at Whitespace gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade

Post-modern artists have a habit of often working images from art history into a contemporary context. The intriguing show Salon des Animaux by Julie Ross at Whitespace is both painting and sculpture. The paintings all build on images from the past. By a painstaking process she has transferred a reproduction of works by such venerable artists as Cranach the Elder and Dosso Dossi to small panels of wood, painted her own detail on them and put them in varied elaborate frames.

The details are for the most part animal heads grafted on to the figures, although sometimes whole animals are added. Typically, a small painting by Cranach of Venus and Cupid, now in the National Gallery in London, is modified by giving Venus the head of a fox and Cupid the head of a giraffe, borrowed from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Cupid holds a big red heart and the work is titled Give Heart. The original painting was about love and sex. Venus is like Eve and the winged Cupid is holding a honeycomb and protesting about being stung by bees. Love is sweetness and pain.

The artist tells us in a little booklet that the giraffe's head is a metaphor for faith and the ability of grace to prevail. Other images are used from Giorgione, Velasquez and Manet, with details from Bosch everywhere.

Almost all of the figures have animal heads. The Sleeping Venus of Giorgione has the head and wide blue eyes of a cat and is titled Sleeping Puss. She wears boots too. The animal heads all make the images symbols of instinctive drives.

Eroticism underlies the whole show and makes it Freudian in its atmosphere. In 1918 Freud published a casebook, From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (The Wolf Man) where the subject's adult neurosis was traced to childhood dreams of wolves. There are no wolves but lots of foxes and other animals to suggest a variety of passion in humans.

The paintings act as an introduction to the sculpture, which is a dozen very striking statuettes cast in bronze. All of these deftly modelled figures have a stance that suggests attitudes: pride, arrogance, desire, aggression, daring. The figures ripple with surface tension and expressive details, particularly in fingers of outstretched hands.

A notable example is Spellbound which matches an accompanying painting of the classical witch Circe. Hands casting a spell reach out from a lithe body with the head of a hare. Hares are used often in the show because of their long ears which stand tall and convey energy. Another example is Harestand, an acrobatic image of balance, grace and natural exuberance.

The influence of Degas' bronzes of young dancers is evident in the female statues. The male figures are more tense, sometimes dog-headed, but when given the giraffe head taken from Bosch look awkward and shift from the realm of dream to something that is just curious.

It is an exhibition that has drama, passion, and invention made real with skill, imagination and a strong element of wit.

Fantasy forms part of the attractive paintings of Myah Flynn at Orexart, a fantasy that has evolved as the paintings were created - a fantasy of paint itself. These sizeable paintings are masses of clouds of pastel colour brushed in such a way that everything is in movement. The result is like an immense background for a Baroque opera, notably in One Night Bridge where the bridge is a link from one faery imaginary isle to another.

The interesting part of these swirling masses is that we expect to find figures sitting like gods in the clouds and sometimes we do. Moreover, they do not seem calculated but born out of the nature of the paint. In this way, from the forest green and brown of The Hidden Channel we can faintly perceive a nymph.

Yet these occasional figures are not essential to the impact of the paintings; that comes from their muted symphonies of colour. The Scented Darkness works because of its rich tones of blue, not because of Mary and the Christ child tucked away as a reminder that the Virgin's mantle is generally blue.

As a young painter, Flynn won several awards. This, her third show, continues the style of her early promise and continues to develop it.

Basic realities of architecture are made art by Charles Ninow in his debut exhibition in a new gallery, Ozlyn in Karangahape Rd.

His castings of structural steel called Distant Parallels are each two rods in bronze to reference the steel skeleton of concrete structures. You might expect them to be vertical or horizontal but they angle as if to indicate a distant vanishing point.

They are matched in their minimalism by some neatly square paintings done with considerable skill to look like cladding tiles. They are not tiles so they must be a metaphor for outer surfaces in architecture and the curiously mixed titles support this. The thinking that has gone into these works shows they have potential to be developed much more explicitly. The present show certainly needs the elaborate academic explication that accompanies it.

- NZ Herald

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