T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Good reasons to tackle the stairs

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Shane Cotton's Easy Forever, Forever Easy is the highlight of his exhibition. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Shane Cotton's Easy Forever, Forever Easy is the highlight of his exhibition. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The Michael Lett Gallery has shifted from Karangahape Rd to Great North Rd. The space is spacious and well-lit but the access is narrow and down a flight of steps. Nevertheless, the new show of work by Shane Cotton makes the trip to the gallery - at 2/285 Great North Rd - well worth the effort.

His exhibitions are comparatively rare and this one is not extensive. But it does contain at least two major paintings of a deliberation and weight almost unparalleled in recent art seen in Auckland.

One work, Easy Forever, Forever Easy, carries on themes seen in his previous exhibition. Life is a vast rock, superbly painted. Around the rock flutter nearly a dozen birds as individual spirits or ideas.

The background is black but modified by soft clouds. Outlined on the rock is a statue of Mary or a saint that suggests steady belief in something other than the physical world. Huge wings spread as this spirit or belief takes flight.

On either side, twin bird masks are curiously painted so they look almost human. Lilies are at the base, with red lines of interaction and mention of Jerusalem, the ultimate home. At the top are the words Easy Rider and, curiously lettered, LIFE. The whole is an extraordinary devotional painting of great power.

The other large painting makes much more use of specifically Maori motifs. Titled Star Eater, it is a work of great complexity. A bright shape leaps up in the centre as an assertion of an intricate unfolding. The work is made up of lines of white on a dark background; its patterns recall the carving of the treasured lid of a Maori feather box or bone chest. Similar patterns emerge from the darkness in a dimmer, more scattered way.

That these are the thoughts, feelings and experiences of one individual, or a communal situation, is indicated by curves at the top of the painting which suggest a different space beyond.

The force of these paintings lies in the multiplicity of suggestions they offer about life and experience. The other works in the show, often quite small, represent stages along the way to the big paintings or to reach beyond them.

Persona with its linear patterns is a precedent for Star Eater. A strange painting called Theory of Drifting with six horizons and the ghostly shape of a square-rigged ship beyond them, beside a spirit of the sea, may be a new direction for Cotton, who is one of our most visually profound explorers of the myths of Aotearoa.

Prints have always appeared as bridesmaids to the glowing bride of painting.

In the exhibition by Andrew McLeod at Ivan Anthony Gallery, they are equals, though the prints may be more original.

The prints all refer to the Silk Road and are metaphors for the mixing and interaction of cultures throughout history. They are complex images from Japan, China, Bactria, Greece and Rome with some modern abstract clouds and patterns of force. All are sprinkled with tiny daisies as a mild symbol of an ever-present life force.

Silk Road Digital is a fine example. Black and white, with touches of green, it combines images of lovers taken from Greek statues and Japanese prints. Among many things is an Egyptian goddess and Bactrian jewellery with prancing antelopes. A painting by Moreau of Oedipus and the Sphinx finds a place.

The multiplicity of images shows a range of emotions from joy to despair and all are made as complex as a tapestry with patterns of leaves and growth.

Yet this is the product of modern technology. The images are collected and processed by computer and the densely intricate, patterned result is a small edition of ink-jet prints.

The triptych Silk Room Museum is even more complex in its interweaving of various cultures - here, the colour is predominantly sepia. This and the two other Silk Road prints are almost matched by two big paintings. These are strongly decorative paintings that have the individual Andrew McLeod quality of playing abstract optical games as background, while posing realistic imagery in the foreground.

The effect is of assured, strong painting but they lack the feeling of teeming life that fills the prints. The optical effect comes from a background of koru forms tightened into geometrical stripes and arranged so they play spatial games - now in, now out.

Landscape with Stripes is dominated by a tree in autumnal brown, with two contemplative women and the chairs of which the artist is obsessively fond.

In Interior with Stripes, the women are more dramatic. Everything from the painting of a wicker chair to the realistic flowers appears as a demonstration of a skill but the imagery locks into a surreal discontinuity that deepens its decorative qualities.

McLeod is an outstanding artist. His paintings have remained static while his prints have developed steadily in style and effect.

An artist who worked in an even greater variety of genres was the expatriate artist, the late Graham Percy. Those who knew him in his Auckland student days remember the grace of his personality and the happy elegance of his manner. Both are reflected in his art and design that in part began as an illustrator for the New Zealand School Journal.

A delightful show of his work, The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy, is at the Gus Fisher Gallery.

His career demonstrates how a great deal of art, once the prerogative of the noble and wealthy, was diverted into the democratic areas of design and book illustration.

The exhibition draws on the artist's collection of his own work as illustrator of children's and adult books as well as drawings created for family and friends. They are all characterised by great good humour, as well as invention, a shrewd sense of character and wide literary and musical interests.

The exhibition includes two series of photographs by his wife, Mari Mahr, called In Paris and In Edinburgh, memorials to the time they spent together in those cities.

There is still a week to see the splendid group of tikis created in various shades of pounamu by Te Kaha of the Tuhoe. The variety within the form is amazing as it covers the creation gods and their legendary attendants.

At the galleries

What: Supersymmetry by Shane Cotton

Where and when: Michael Lett, 2/285 Great North Rd, to June 11

TJ says: Austere paintings that use Maori motifs and myth powerfully to explore states of mind that are personal and general.

What: New work by Andrew McLeod

Where and when: Ivan Anthony, cnr East St-K'Rd to May 28

TJ says: Large prints and paintings of great complexity and some tiny abstract works show remarkable skills and imagination.

What: A Micronaut in the Wide World: Work by Graham Percy

Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to June 25

TJ says: The talents of Percy were evident before he moved to Britain where he developed into a designer of work filled with good humour and invention.

What: Mauri by Te Kaha

Where and when: John Leech Gallery, cnr Kitchener-Wellesley Sts, to May 28

TJ says: The tiki does not have just one form: the variety is abundantly clear in superb work in pounamu by Tuhoe carver Te Kaha.

Check out your local galleries here.

- NZ Herald

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