T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Flights of the imagination

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Creativity comes in many forms, from exceptional draughtsmanship to high-tech experimentation.

Fable 5 The Kiwi and the Goose (If Men Had All They Wished They Would Be Ruined) by Raymond Ching, showing at Artis Gallery, Parnell.  Photo / Natalie Slade
Fable 5 The Kiwi and the Goose (If Men Had All They Wished They Would Be Ruined) by Raymond Ching, showing at Artis Gallery, Parnell. Photo / Natalie Slade

Raymond Ching's work is fascinating. He is in the tradition of illustrators such as Gustave Dore who did a number of large books and was also a substantial painter. Ching's work almost invariably features birds. What he shares with the brilliant illustrators of the past is remarkable draughtsmanship.

His exhibition at Artis Gallery shows the original paintings for his latest book, Aesop's Kiwi Fables. Fables where animals are given human qualities to act out stories with a heavy moral go right back to Ancient Greece and, as Richard Wolfe points out in his excellent introduction to the book, have been modified in many cultures and settings - so why not New Zealand? In the originals, the New Zealand settings are painted in extraordinary detail, with vegetation and landscape mostly in innumerable shades of green over black. A notable example is Fable 29, set on the Rangitikei River. Weatherboard buildings and even a railway siding are also exactly drawn in paint.

The skill is not confined to landscape, with details of still-life with bowls and a jar revealed in candle light in the curious Fable 40. They even out-do the dead kea on the same table and reproduce very well in the book.

Yet it is the birds that are the great achievement of this show. Colour, feathers, beak and character are all fixed with great exactitude. The humanising element comes from the eyes, where all the gaze of a group is focused on the subject under discussion.

Excellent examples are an assembly of large native birds resenting the intrusion of a small sparrow from overseas, or when the stare of owls is focused on a bright green, pompous frog.

A curious feature of the paintings is the cut-off corner with the handwritten moral of each fable and the occasional speech balloons when the creatures speak their opinion. These emphasise the constructed nature of each work. This is not naturalist painting of record but carefully constructed images of ideas.

This is further defined by the works that show humans. Truth in the personification of an ageing but handsome woman is exiled to the Desert Road from a world of lies. In Fable 26, The Barrel of Good Things is a variation of the Pandora myth with Hope as a woman who is flying. She is surrounded by birds and a panoply of gods and goddesses who have been mythologised into constellations. It makes an extraordinary painting that is more than an illustration.

It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast between Ching's work and that of the two artists exhibited in the University of Auckland's Gus Fisher Gallery.

Sarah Munro, in her pieces called Surface Detail, has no detail at all in the usual sense. Her two big wall works have detail only in the careful shading of red and grey. They are both faceted, abstract sculptural pieces in fibreglass that project out into the room's space.

The larger is a luscious red that curves forcibly into the room. Its surface is absolutely immaculate as it gradually tones from light to dark. The reflective brilliance of this colour is attained by using automotive lacquer and the result is spectacular. It evokes every racing car you have ever seen. The second more subdued work, in shades of grey with a white accent, is site-specific and fits into an angled corner.

Modern technology is integral to the work of Eddie Clemens although it is grounded in the commonplace, based on scrubbing brushes and brooms. Miniature electronic mechanisms bring these to bright life.

In the foyer a broom leans against the wall, standing on its handle, face upward. Its bristles have been replaced with fibre-optic rods and colour pulses across the face of the broom. If you wait for a while you can see a quick note about when the broom was used to sweep a floor - once in Christchurch and once again in the Gus Fisher itself. Day, time and sweeper are all recorded.

In the larger room two scrubbing brushes sit on the floor. One has colour going back and forth in a scrubbing motion with documentary notes of when this took place. The other brush suggests changes to the floor colour, with a big screen that shows the foyer with the addition of a pentagram of eight brooms whose bristles change colour irregularly. The work is a high-tech conceptual commentary on cleaning rituals but is quietly amusing rather than saying anything really radical.

Another show that uses modern technology but with end results close to conventional abstract paintings is Hot Wallpapers by Andre Hemer at the Antoinette Godkin Gallery.

Previous shows were looping, splashing abstract impressionist paintings in bright candy colours. These works are for the most part downloaded from electronic sources printed on shiny paper. They are framed in conventional ways and, surprisingly, are more subtle in colour and atmosphere than his painted work.

It all amounts to attractive, experimental work by a talented artist still finding his way to his individual manner.


At the galleries

What: Aesop's Kiwi Fables (Part 2) by Raymond Ching
Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, to December 22
TJ says: The original paintings for the illustrations in the most recent Ching book show the excellence of his draughtsmanship.

What: Total Internal Reflection by Eddie Clemens; Surface Detail by Sarah Munro
Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to December 15
TJ says: Munro uses automotive lacquer to give intense colour to her wall sculpture; Clements uses micro-circuitry and fibreglass to give colour and messages on brushes and brooms.

What: Hot Wallpapers by Andre Hemer
Where and when: Antoinette Godkin Gallery, 28 Lorne St, to December 10
TJ says: By capturing, translating and transforming the transient patterns of electronic screen-savers, Hemer makes glowingly colourful prints and paintings.

- NZ Herald

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