T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Frank look at delicate themes

By T.J. McNamara

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Sex and exploitation and the end of life are examined in two evocative shows

Greg Semu's Battle of the Noble Savage.
Greg Semu's Battle of the Noble Savage.

Sex and death are great themes, and both feature largely in exhibitions this week. In a daring show for the University of Auckland at the Gus Fisher Gallery, a number of artists are showing their response to pornography. This means walking a tightrope between exploitation and investigation. The results are generally witty, satiric and ironic, for the most part avoiding any moral outrage.

The entrance hall of the gallery is dominated by a huge work on vinyl by Hye Rim Lee, where her plastic, female creation she calls TOKI sits with a friend on a strawberry being menaced by a dragon in the midst of a forest of magic mushrooms and clouds of pearls. It is a piece of virtuoso drawing and technical skill but the message is piquant rather than profound. It hints at exploitation but avoids harsh realities.

In the same hall is an amusing video of a young man reversing the pose of the famous Rokeby Venus. In Velazquez's great painting, Venus contemplates herself in a mirror but here the nude figure contemplates pornography on a television.

Its creator, Amelia Hitchcock, has a second work that has two screens, one with a young man and another with a young woman. The videos show their reactions as they watch a porn movie. There is a soundtrack of heavy breathing and grunts and groans while they remain po-faced. Both of these works make a point but they make it only once.

A much more lasting impact is made by a suite of three stunningly audacious photographs by Rohan Wealleans. They show the painted and adorned thighs and groins of young women. The adornment is jewel-like versions of the layered paint that is Wealleans' unique trademark medium. In addition, there is an astonishing use of gold leaf and green paint to indicate the central treasure in all this opulent adornment.

A subtle photograph by Yvonne Todd plays on the Playboy Bunny ideal by the simple addition of false front teeth. The boldest and wittiest visuals are two large paintings by Richard McWhannell, which reference two paintings by French artist Balthus. His work features exploited young women and hover on the edge of pornography. McWhannell reverses the situation, substituting a well-endowed man for Balthus' teenage girl. The man is a self-portrait. In one work he comes complete with hat and little else and in the other he wears a mask and cowboy boots. They are two great jokes on a large scale and a painterly manner.

Of course, such an exhibition has to have a presiding goddess. Liz Maw provides a tall female figure against a dark background with a bosom lifted by moons of luminosity.

An elaborate catalogue gives the show the air of an academic enterprise.

The theme of death fills an exhibition at Two Rooms. The distinguished Australian artist Fiona Hall, who was the resident artist at the gallery, investigates death, time, bones, fire and fallen timber. She brings them together in paintings on Tongan bark cloth, a completely new medium for her. The surface of the cloth and the way it hangs, as well as the impressive use of earth pigments and plant dyes, exactly match the mood of the work. These are big paintings incorporating skulls, mostly human, but including other primate bones. These are surrounded by dense patterns that recall bark. The bark extends to stumps and fallen trees, which feature in most of the paintings. The exposed ends of the fallen timber show extensive patterns of growth rings that indicate the passing of time, and in some works the skulls are absorbed into them.

The other element included in these evocative hangings is fire, adding an element of the destruction of time and circumstance, suggesting ritual fire and dance.

In Cage, which stresses an evolutionary aspect of time, we see a mixture of monkey skulls and human remains. One skull has sabre teeth and may be some evolutionary blind alley.

The work incorporates a map of the world veined by dark branches of leafless trees. The whole gallery of a dozen or more paintings is visually compelling and in a forceful way suggests the fragility of the world.

Upstairs at Two Rooms is a brilliant group of photographs by Greg Semu showing the ambiguous effects of colonisation.

These elaborately posed tableaux show Maori pride in weapons and uniform. The flashy uniforms are from the Napoleonic era, close to the time of the early wars in New Zealand. The participants use taiaha with a great flourish but uncomfortably hold muskets upside down. The title work of the show has colour, balletic drama and romantic touches of Napoleon and von Temsky.


At the galleries

What: A Different View: Artists Address Pornography
Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to Oct 12
TJ says: An unlikely and, at times, very frank exhibition for a university gallery, with clever comment and memorable images but very little moral indignation.

What: Veneer by Fiona Hall; The Battle of the Noble Savage by Greg Semu
Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to Sep 28
TJ says: Australian artist Fiona Hall uses the texture and colours of Polynesian tapa cloth in works that speak of time and the human condition. Greg Semu stages vivid tableaux that comment on attitudes to colonialism.

- NZ Herald

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