T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: History mined for inspiration

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This week's exhibitions feature pictorial tributes to spirituality and the struggles of our past

The Police Inspector's Report by Bob Kerr, showing at Whitespace in Ponsonby. Photo / Natalie Slade
The Police Inspector's Report by Bob Kerr, showing at Whitespace in Ponsonby. Photo / Natalie Slade

History painting, which has a long tradition, is often concerned with classical conflicts. Gold Strike by Bob Kerr at Whitespace is an example close to home, focusing on Waihi, its gold mines and the convulsions of the six-month miners' strike in 1912.

A painting of two menacing-looking police officers in the uniform of the time takes extra meaning from the name of the town on the walls and window of the station where they stand. Indomitable women who supported the miners also have their place on the same station.

Equally effective is the way the figure of Harry Holland, though seen from the back, is shown as a traveller by the suitcase in his hand. Again, the name Waihi and a train are prominent. Holland was an invited speaker from Australia but later became leader of the Labour Party in New Zealand.

Other figures like the young man with a direct stare, wing collar and tie, take on significance when we read the label that says this is Bob Semple, who was Minister of Works in the first Labour Government.

The works are done with thin paint and subdued colour that effectively conveys the nature of the mining process.

This technique is especially notable in such details as the road winding through the hills to The Pukewa Workings. In front of the dark hole of the mine entrance is a heap of tailings that conform to the rhythm of the hills around.

The largest painting of the mines is The Talisman Battery in which the grim buildings containing thundering batteries that crushed the quartz rock to powder to extract the gold are terraced down a steep hill, matched by the tall smoking chimney of the engines that drive them. Buildings and hills are caught up in a brown, rocky, uninviting unity. One can sense the dust that wrecked the workers' lungs.

The famous tincture Clark's Miners Cough Mixture, prepared by the local chemist, no doubt filled a real need.

The paintings lend themselves well to reproduction in the small book by Mark Derby that accompanies the show. It is a fine and informative work in itself. The exhibition is a complex and well-drawn pictorial tribute to one of the historical struggles of organised labour in this country. Only the mine manager as Canute is a conceit too far.

One of the most atmospheric and uneasy paintings is of the dark figure of a turncoat who helped the strikebreakers.

It would fit well into a couple of other exhibitions this week that are unusual because they are group shows based on a theme.

The show Unsettled at Antoinette Godkin combines paintings, prints and photographs. There is history in this show too because of a striking image of the rebuilding of the Auckland Art Gallery. It is a photograph taken by Jennifer French showing the research library with one wall gone. It is a haven of light amid the dark rubble of the demolished Edmiston wing. Its romanticism makes a strong contrast to the starkly clinical photograph of the new gastro ward at Middlemore Hospital by Caryline Boreham.

This explicitness finds its opposite in the pale suggestions of dim mysterious forms by Esther Leigh. Things are more joyous in Paul Hartigan's Garden of Eve where against a background of flowers we see Eve herself, with not one apple but two. There is also the humorous and curious, as in Andre Hemer's Biggy Does Faberge, where yolk colour spreads over a brightly decorated egg shape.

The most complex images are two paintings by newcomer Zhonghao Chen. His work combines dark spaces with areas of plain canvas and a number of bright forms full of forward and tumbling movement.

Both paintings suggest journeys but the unsettling part is that the destinations are dark though the rest of the colours make an attractive dance.

Another form of artistic endeavour is religious painting and Orexart has a group exhibition called The Religious Experience. It is contradictory and uncomfortable in a way that more than matches the "unsettling" show.

The most prominent work is by Richard McWhannell. His figure of Christ on the cross, solidly carved out of kauri, emphasises that Jesus was a man. McWhannell also has a painting, Death of a Clown, that shows mortality in the midst of dance. That all things pass is also given potent force by a fading bouquet of flowers by Peter Wichman.

The references become more oblique. Redemption from sins against nature is symbolised by the Ancient Mariner in Peter James Smith's work Albatross and an anti-clerical poster painted with deceptive virtuosity by Dean Tercel.


At the galleries

What: Gold Strike by Bob Kerr

Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, until July 20

TJ says: An unusual and powerful exhibition about the events and personalities connected with the Waihi miners' strike of 1912.

What: Unsettled by various artists

Where and when: Antoinette Godkin Gallery, 28 Lorne St, until July 27

TJ says: We have a reputation for unease in our art but these predominantly colourful paintings and photographs are more joyous than unsettling.

What: The Religious Experience by various artists

Where and when: Orexart, 1/15 Putiki St, Arch Hill, until July 20

TJ says: Little in this show has a direct connection to dogma but a number of works reach into spiritual states and the consciousness of mortality.

- NZ Herald

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