T J McNamara on the arts
T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Into the depths

By T.J. McNamara

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Intense colour contrasts grab the eye in galleries this week. Yet it's the attitudes behind the intensity that corral the mind's attention

Revolution III by Paul Hartigan at Pierre Peeters Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade
Revolution III by Paul Hartigan at Pierre Peeters Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade

The biggest game in town is Michael Parekowhai et al at Michael Lett. It combines the talents of an artist and a collective. Both have represented New Zealand at the Venice Biennale. It is an installation that fills the whole of the big warehouse space of the gallery.

As always with installations by et al and her collaborators, it is enigmatic, grey, spaced out and difficult to decipher. A tiny diagram on a side wall helps to explain. The installation is based on the floor plans of four identical houses provided for Aboriginal people in Australia. The houses are described as Lots 1-4 Reserve Type House.

The plan of these houses is marked out on the floor and shows they each have one room with a small divider. At the corners of the plans are right-angle signs that mark the height of the ceilings. Each house is furnished with two wooden doorscrapers and a dark, plain mat. There are also overturned folding tables and some very basic chairs. Each house, inside and out, is studded with dollops of dog shit.

Inside the outline of one house are seven details chosen by Michael Parekowhai to be cast in bronze. With heavy irony, all these decrepit details are listed under the rubric, A Genuine Lazy Boy Chair. One cast is of a school chair. References to childhood are a feature of Parekowhai's work but generally are less savage than this. The rest of the objects are detritus: an empty cigarette packet, a cup with a lighter in it, a cardboard takeaway coffee cup and lids for the same. In the middle of all this is a bucket equipped with a speaker emitting the noise of toilets flushing.

There is much more to this large installation. In one space an old-fashioned 8mm film projector points at a folding black screen. Furthermore, some things are specifically attributed to et al. These are large, faded pages from a publication by The Society for Friendship and Cultural (sic). Their earnest nature has been overwritten and is partly masked by tape. The drawings are visions of prisons and a palisaded village. One has a vortex with a drainpipe that goes nowhere.

There is also a carpet with balls on it and an upright piano with sheet music composed by another collaborator, Anya Henis. This music, scribbled on with crayon, is available as a separate publication.

The whole complex makes, as usual with et al, a dismal picture, which is obviously a comment on the living conditions of Aboriginal people, and extends this point to a vision of the misery of the world in general. It is not a howl of indignation like something by Keinholz but rather a vast, groaning investigation of nastiness with bronze souvenirs to take away, at a price, for a reminder.

The exhibition of landscapes by Barbara Tuck at Anna Miles Gallery seems mild by comparison. Nevertheless, she examines a landscape and with a good deal of painterly skill records aspects of it. These different views are assembled seamlessly around a panorama, generally at the top or middle. The whole is held together by the careful management of tones and is a characterisation of a whole region rather than a particular place.

The regions chosen for this show are three harbours: the Kaipara, Hokianga and Kawhia. The Hokianga is characterised by rough sea at the heads and by the interpenetration of land and water, especially in Liquid Fields.

The paintings of Kawhia are paler, while the Kaipara includes rock faces along with an abundance of other detail. The concentration is on nature rather than on human activity.

The paintings break no new stylistic ground for Tuck but maintain the richness of her special kind of painted assemblage.

The vivid works of Paul Hartigan at the Pierre Peeters Gallery are mostly tributes to artists whose colour schemes he has adapted for his neon sculptures.

Hartigan has worked with neon for nearly 40 years (see the glowing work outside the University of Auckland's Engineering Department on Symonds St) and these sculptures, spiralling curves against a backing circle, are the product of great expertise.

The lowered light of the gallery means the backing causes a halo that adds to the effect. Neon is now a historic medium. The great glowing displays that lit up Queen St and Newmarket, to say nothing of Times Square and Piccadilly Circus, are gone. Those spectacular works were mostly in one dimension. Hartigan's work spirals toward the viewer in 3D.

The work inspired by the painting of Pat Hanly, Revolution XIX, contains orange, red, green, purple, yellow and turquoise glass while the more austere Revolution III, which references Mondrian, has only white, red, yellow and blue. The one exception to the circular form, My Cardinal Sins, done in vintage ruby red soda glass, is freestanding in a glass case. To track its folds of intertwining curves is to make a fascinating visual journey.

At the galleries

What: Michael Parekowhai et al in collaboration with Anya Henis and Samuel Holloway
Where and when: Michael Lett Gallery, 2/285 Great North Rd, to May 25
TJ says: An extensively detailed installation that fills the whole large gallery. The ostensible subject is the living conditions of Aboriginal people yet the whole has a wider, even more dismal vision.

What: Ka Ecologies by Barbara Tuck
Where and when: Anna Miles Gallery, 47 High St, Suite 4J, to May 18
TJ says: Deftly painted evocations of three harbours of the north made from a number of views seamlessly linked together.

What: Light Up by Paul Hartigan
Where and when: Pierre Peeters Gallery, 251 Parnell Rd, to May 23
TJ says: These intense abstract sculptures in neon are based on the colour schemes of artists as diverse as Mondrian and Pat Hanly, with one work in vivid red that makes a separate statement.

For more gallery listings, see nzherald.co.nz/arts.

- NZ Herald

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