T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: A collection of sensations

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A range of media explore sensations and open our eyes to the variety of our world.

'Fireman's Boots 6' by Steve Carr, showing at Michael Lett Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade
'Fireman's Boots 6' by Steve Carr, showing at Michael Lett Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade

Many modern artists are like conjurors, performing clever tricks in a variety of ways. Steve Carr, whose exhibition X is at Michael Lett, is the very model of a modern concept artist. To begin with, he has a series of four beautifully presented photographs that show a hand on a white ground. In each one, fingers take on the shape of an animal, a bit like the old game of throwing shadows on the wall.

He spreads his fingers to make a crop and this is Cock. He uses four fingers and a thumb to make Elephant, a thumb and one finger to make Giraffe and a full hand to make a zebra of sorts. They are clever and amusing.

The next work is a symmetrical yellow mountain made of 100kg of popcorn. Another series of seven photographs are bright with yellow and green, each showing firemen's big boots with the trousers ready. The boots are all one style but fractionally different in each case.

Another group of seven portrays television screens, each with an image of an apple on a string gradually evolving from a dark background.

Across the wall are doughnuts, 12 of them in different colours. The medium is glazed porcelain.

One of the biggest displays is an assemblage of the bottoms of 49 different pizza boxes with the slightly greasy impression of the pizza on each. Given the nature of food, each greasy imprint is different. Together they provide an abstract array of variations in brown, not painted but real. The exhibition is complete with a video of the artist playing air guitar and a bunch of cherries in blown glass.

This is a collection of sensations. It is not about the artist's passions or personal opinions or how well he can draw. It is an assembly of small, different visual effects. It may open our eyes to the variety of the world in a small way but it never adds up to any concept larger than the sum of its minor effects.

At Starkwhite, Martin Basher, a New Zealand artist based in New York, is showing more substantial works. Although they are also puritanical in their entire reliance on abstract visual effects, they use more conventional mediums.

On the walls are six refinements, larger than usual, of his abstract paintings of vertical stripes. These have remarkable shifts of tone. The stripes are dark black and purple against a light background. By means of subtle changes of tone the paintings become darker towards one side or corner. The luminous glow that emerges through the dark stripes changes shape when viewed from different angles. From the side, in some works, these tonal shifts produce diagonals across the verticals. The effect is of great subtlety and much more gracefully harmonious than the usual bold trumpetings of abstract art with optical effects.

The sculptural work that occupies the floor of the gallery also deals in vertical stripes of light and dark. In this work the luminous verticals are fluorescent tubes arranged in pairs. The pairs, all 50 of them, are set up as a series with gradually widening intervals between them.

The work is assertive and forceful, strong but also seductive in the way the effect changes as you pass along the length of the work. Look back at it from an angle and the close verticals become pure white light, but the black in-between becomes more assertive as the tubes progress through the wider intervals.

Even from the back, this work has a special quality because the array of tubes in their aluminium frames have a considerable forward thrust.

Many artists have used fluorescent tubes in their work, notably New Zealander Bill Culbert, who will represent us at the Venice Biennale, but this striking display has the extra bonus of being linked to the artist's painting though it works in a different medium.

Black and white photography using big negatives and silver bromide prints is now a historical technique, but still available in its unique way for expression in the hands of an artist. Such are the medium for Archives, by Mark Adams at Two Rooms.

He makes a series of beautifully printed images that catch the remoteness and melancholy of places in New Zealand with an interaction of land and water. Many of the places are of historic significance for both Maori and Pakeha. The views, from the Hokianga to Foveaux Strait, document and capture the poetic essence of the uninhabited sites with traces of former events as far back as Cook's landings. One exceptional image is of newsprint used for wallpaper many years ago bearing historic photographs of Parihaka.


At the galleries

What: X by Steve Carr
Where and when: Michael Lett, 2/285 Great North Rd, to March 2
TJ says: A selection of apparently unrelated work in a variety of mediums from popcorn through television to bronze offers a range of visual sensations.

What: New Work by Martin Basher
Where and when: Starkwhite, 510 K Rd, to March 2
TJ says: Basher takes the colour and illumination of modern display and refines them in abstract painting and sculpture with both grace and power.

What: Archives by Mark Adams
Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to March 2
TJ says: Atmospheric black and white photographs that use old-school techniques to record sites of historic significance where the sea meets the land with a soft poetic force.

- NZ Herald

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