T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Small worlds with a wealth of detail

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Polen Trauert (Poland Grieves), by Linden Simmons.  Photo / Steven McNicholl
Polen Trauert (Poland Grieves), by Linden Simmons. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Amid all the excitement of the Art Fair and its array of talent on show, there is plenty of lively work around the city. In keeping with the nature of contemporary art it comes in a great variety of styles and invokes a variety of responses from delight to wide-eyed shock.

The arrival of a miniaturist on the scene is unusual. Linden Simmons has had several small exhibitions that demonstrated his talent but his show at the Tim Meville Gallery, Over Your Cities Grass, is a really convincing body of work.

He paints in watercolour and, for the most part, on an exceptionally small scale, sometimes not much larger than a postage stamp. His work is filled with remarkable detail and deals mostly with cataclysmic events. A typical work is a small image of a bright flame-like red shape that flares against the sky. This vivid little image could be a flower or an atomic explosion.

A larger untitled work in shades of blue which suggest sea and ice features an unambiguous explosion but is less effective than the multiple suggestion.

When dealing with disaster in a natural landscape the young artist is at his best. He sums up the essence of the happening. In Wednesday, 14 April 2010 the tiny image (35mm x 55mm) shows a broken airliner, fallen and limp in a forest. The forest itself has a completely convincing density. In Poland Mourns a flame adds to the effect and a device that is used effectively in other works - a square of white - suggests utter blankness of mind that will not accept the tragedy.

The detail is especially touching when it is linked to bomb damage or earthquake. The interior of a house where a wall has fallen away has genuine pathos with books on the shelves and linen on the bed.

Without the fanfare of large size and expressionist dash this announces the arrival on the scene of a considerable talent.

The austere monumentality of the sculpture of Chris Charteris at FHE Galleries is a very different order of things. Even when the work is not large, it has that characteristic of good sculpture that you can easily imagine it magnified to colossal size.

His well-known necklaces of graduated stones threaded on high-tensile steel wire are smaller than usual.

One called Tumanako Necklace, made of granite stones, has a central pendant ornament that makes it less austere than the plain loops.

The quality of minimalist intervention with natural beauty is notable in a cross of stones where the arms are slightly tapered by the size of the stones. Along the arms, each stone is marked by fine lines that pull the whole work together. Yet each stone retains its individuality.

Technology is not disdained. The narrow cuts that let light through the slab of andesite and the cross that reveals the glittering interior of the stone need modern tools to achieve the necessary exactness.

On the other hand the work of Gregory Bennett at Two Rooms could only be achieved with a considerable amount of computer power and huge expertise. One of his digital animation loops has legions of marching figures wandering in the maze of a metaphorical world, upstairs, downstairs, in and out of obstacles, endlessly marching. It is fascinating but horrible with its suggestions of regimentation, yet technologically amazing.

What is new in this show is prints of stills related to the animated loop, which are images of great complexity. There has been a gain too in the more extensive use of red, green and blue among the black and white. Yet the stills don't evoke the same amazement as the loop. Suddenly we are aware of certain illogicalities, such as little pairs of staircases leading nowhere and the fact of it being still destroys some of its capacity to act as metaphor.

Downstairs at Two Rooms is O'Connor's The Tangler. With its combination of stone-cutting and painting we come together with the "rag and bone shop" of making art.

Tangler is an Irish word for an agent at a horse fair. The centre of the exhibition is a horse float that acts as a studio. It is lined with slate and the walls are decorated with such things as an owl critic and everyday tools like brooms. The artist is a go-between the public and the product like an agent selling a horse.

Outside of the horsebox the slates are inscribed with simple images. No one else but O'Connor could make a meaningful coloured carving of a round wine biscuit.

Another kind of commentary is apparent in Anna Crichton's Satirical Illustrations at Laughable Prices at the Letham Gallery. More than 80 satirical drawings take the mickey out of events, people and pretention. The best of these drawn and coloured caricatures are linked with an appropriate atmosphere. America's Next Top Vegetable is a woman with a cabbage for a head but dreaming of a man who goes riding by in the dark background. The sharp comment is matched by a sharpness of line and the whole is tremendously entertaining. The same vigour is apparent in a collection of the artist's decorated ceramic plates, which for wit and dexterity of drawing, are truly great value.

Then the real shock: Origins, an unpublishable set of photographs of close-ups of female genitalia by Rohan Wealleans at Ivan Anthony Gallery. Every heterosexual male expressionist artist, at some time in his career, feels the need to pay tribute to the sex goddess. The artist's previous work was always about paint and hectic colour. His special thing was to use layer after layer of paint, then excavate it to produce craters that had fascinating strata of colour. The pieces excavated were used to decorate objects.

This time they decorate women's legs, groins, bellies and vaginas. The natural reality of the whole area is made into devotional object by the use of red, blue and gold paint. The total effect is of the sudden revelation of a taboo but venerated central fetish of some cult.

Another taboo broken is of naked pregnancy. Pregnant belly or the intricate folds of labia are both converted into objects for worship by the vivid colour and decorative skill of the artist. Yet there still remains a strident quality that makes this exhibition startlingly confrontational.

At the galleries

What: Over Your Cities Grass by Linden Simmons

Where and when: Tim Melville, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to September 3

TJ says: Catastrophe and charm combined and boiled down to an essence in tiny watercolours.

What: Tumanako by Chris Charteris

Where and when: FHE Galleries, 2 Kitchener St, to August 22

TJ says: Constructions and sculpture that make the concept "truth to the stone" exciting again.

What: The Tangler by Denis O'Connor; Utopia by Gregory Bennett

Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to September 3

TJ says: Includes O'Connor's prize-winning work in a horsefloat and explores with wit the relationship between art, people, place and memory. Bennett shows one of his extraordinary animation loops and related static images.

What: Satirical Illustrations at Laughable Prices by Anna Crichton

Where and when: Letham Gallery, 35 Jervois Rd, to August 14

TJ says: Our times and manners wittily observed and sharply dissected in line and colour by a copious talent with a wicked eye.

What: Origins by Rohan Wealleans

Where and when: Ivan Anthony, 312 Karangahape Rd, to August 27

TJ says: The artist takes his highly unusual way of using paint and capacity for elaborate decoration, applying them to women's bodies then photographing them as objects of strange worship.

Check out your local galleries here.

- NZ Herald

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