T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: More than a touch of strangeness

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Greasy Harpist by Yvonne Todd. Photo / Supplied.
Greasy Harpist by Yvonne Todd. Photo / Supplied.

A great deal of impressive art has a touch of strangeness in it. Achieving this often involves virtuoso technique, whether by photographer or painter. The photographs of Yvonne Todd at Ivan Anthony are, as usual, strange but penetrating, with an elusive beauty.

The most direct of the photographs is a remarkable image of a hedgehog against a plain background. The technique is immaculate. Every spike on the creature's back is sharp in every sense of the word. Its snout is moist, its eye is bright and its head is up. The long hair on its undercarriage and its claws are there too. Although this excellent photograph is obviously made with love for the little creature it is not typical Todd.

Much more characteristic and certainly more strange is the big colour photograph called Greasy Harpist. A bare-footed woman in something like a nightgown confronts the harp, not from the position it is played but from directly in front. The instrument is taller than her and in many ways more decorative, gilded and splendid.

The reality of the young woman is neither gilded nor splendid. Her face is covered with cold cream and the contrast is telling and ironic.

A quite different irony is set up by Gunter, a near naked man with long hair and grey beard in a bush setting. His body is covered with mud carefully plastered on; you can see the finger marks. He looks like the original "Wild Man of the Woods", yet is obviously playing the part. Once again there are contradictions, irony and an ambiguity that gives the image its force.

The effect of an Yvonne Todd photograph is a knife-edge. When the spin is understated the result can be ordinary. A case here is a photograph of a building, Mauve Structures, which is technically sound but the effect is banal.

Technique also plays a prominent part in the work of Siavash Momeny at Artis Gallery. He can paint a newspaper so it looks utterly convincing as text from a short distance and yet it is only touches of paint from close up. The only thing you can actually read are the headlines which are often linked to the meaning of the painting.

The show is called Deracination, which means tearing something up by the roots or displacing it from its usual environment. Shakespeare used the word in Henry V when he said that after war has sown its weeds, "the coulter rusts that should deracinate such savagery". It has not been used much since.

The displacement in this show is that the newspaper wraps and hides objects so that in a long rectangular painting called Terrible Times the paper wraps a prone body whose pose recalls Holbein's Dead Christ. The shrouding paper has the headline "America's Sad Start". The Benefits of Working is a splendid chair wrapped in paper that nullifies its function.

The political ironies of these works are less apparent in the big paintings of stacks of pallets. Here the technique of showing the play of light and shade is brilliant but the message of the stencilled lettering on the pallets and the pieces of blown paper and material are odd and the reference is obscure and too oblique.

Another aspect of strangeness is graphically illustrated by the sculpture of Toby Twiss in the Jonathan Grant Gallery next door. The strangeness lies in the extraordinary way the figures of a man and a woman can be manipulated into poses that form the letters of the alphabet. The naked figures are cleverly observed and delightfully linked in athletic poses that form the letters, at least from a frontal view.

The works are ceramic with a white glaze which obscures the detail somewhat but not the grace of the poses. Detail and more tactile surfaces are apparent in the larger bronze versions of some of the letters which are very fine indeed, retaining their grace as sculpture even when the letters are seen in reverse such as the balletic letter C.

Sanderson Contemporary Art is hosting an exhibition called Mellomania by Paul Martinson. He is fascinated by birds but makes strange associations between them and women. Typical of his work are a pair of images which are modern variations of the traditional Leda and the Swan. In Lucid Dream Black Mix a nearly naked woman is bowed down by the weight of a bird on her back - not a swan but a bird of paradise. Her body seems burnt by passion and her groin is gripped by the talons of the bird. In the companion piece Flicker of Mellomania the woman is bright and alert. She is supported under her arms by the bird and the patterns of her hair are repeated in the bird's tail. The background of this startling image is a warm pink.

The quality of painting in these images is remarkable in its variety of technique; densely worked backgrounds are matched by fine line and delicate shading. The drawing is excellent too, particularly in the cats that intrude on this world of women and birds. Only the figures of the women themselves are rather too conventionalised in their nudity. They have the unwrinkled, flawless quality of a generalised ideal that takes away their individuality and is a little bit distancing from their hopes and their plight.

The reputation of Johanna Pegler is based on her dry, meticulous landscape paintings which always have an element of strangeness. The oddities in her work are never immediately apparent but emerge under scrutiny. Dominating one wall of her show at the Anna Miles Gallery is a big intricate painting of an oak tree. Its lower branches are dead. Its higher branches are fresh and green. In the background across a valley an ascending set of steps oddly echoes the ascending growth of the tree.

Elsewhere in smaller watercolour paintings there is Norfolk, an island in a lake which looks like a head and two hands but is really a pine and two bushes. Remains is a fruit tree split by the wind and propped with a post beside an estuary where the tide ebbs and flows. Regeneration is the single remaining branch of a tree bowed down to earth almost in prayer but with strong vertical shoots rising from its back. This is highly accurate naturalist painting but always with a touch of surreal.

At the galleries

What: Iris Paste by Yvonne Todd

Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, 312 Karangahape Rd, to Oct 16

TJ says: Todd's well-known strange ironies are mixed with accomplished direct images.

What: Deracination by Siavash Momeny; Sculptures by Toby Twiss

Where and when: Artis/Jonathan Grant Galleries, 280 Parnell Rd, to Oct 7

TJ says: Painting and drawing skills make objects wrapped in newspaper take on symbolism, while men and women gracefully form themselves into letters of the alphabet in the other show.

What: Mellomania by Paul Martinson

Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary Art, 251 Parnell Rd, to Oct 7

TJ says: Meticulously detailed paintings that bring women, birds and cats together in elegantly painted surreal situations.

What: Awhitu by Joanna Pegler

Where and when: Anna Miles Gallery, 47 High St, Suite 4J, to Oct 23

TJ says: An artist residency at Awhitu Regional Park has produced a series of detailed landscapes, all with more than a hint of strangeness.

Click here to see the latest gallery listings

- NZ Herald

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