T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Impolite' style captures troubador's verse

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Worry Wort by Jack Hadley. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Worry Wort by Jack Hadley. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Dick Frizzell has a copious exhibition at the Gow Langsford Gallery which spills over into the John Leech Gallery around the corner.

He is surely our best-known, most prolific artist. One of his finest achievements are the illustrations for Magpies, the Denis Glover poem in every anthology of New Zealand verse for children, even though it deals with disappointment, death and madness.

The book shows Tom and Elizabeth and their failing Depression-era farm, where the magpies are eternally present.

The illustrations, painted in broad, painterly strokes, exactly capture the porched houses and the steep country of the backblocks. Painting the pictures freed the artist from what he calls "politeness" in his handling of landscape.

His impolite, vernacular way of painting landscape is apparent at Gow Langsford. These recent landscapes are bold, remarkably tight constructions.

They are pictures of places, usually in Hawkes Bay where he lives, caught in quick, deft touches that assemble into hills, roads, letterboxes and pine trees. They are filled with the light and dryness of a New Zealand rural summer. Two Bridges shows the arches of a railway bridge which lead to a vista of sea and an offshore island. In Limestone Driveway, the white of limestone is matched by white light on the trees that border it. Every painting is held together in some way, if only by the lean of a letterbox reflecting the lean of a tree trunk. The only real jumble is deliberate in the huge virtuoso painting Pile of Stumps.

The second part of the show is paintings linked to poetry, this time by lettering in the free manner made familiar by Colin McCahon. Poetry and painting have always been close in New Zealand art. McCahon used poems by John Castleberg; Ralph Hotere adapted verse by Cilla McQueen and Hone Tuwhare. Frizzell is responding to poems by legendary troubadour Sam Hunt.

They begin with an epigrammatic short poem called Death Notices, with verses at the top of veils of black. More varied and more successful is What Does the Old Man Think, where the words are reinforced by a variety of colours arranged in four panels beginning in light, darkening with thought, quickening in the third panel and descending into the ultimate dark in the fourth.

The most powerful of these painted poems is a large work called Wave Song, given a setting by being a series of signs pinned on a boatshed wall. The lettering on the notices is much less like McCahon and closer to the roadside notices the artist has used before. The effect of the varied styles of lettering and the gaps between some of the words catches the pauses and emphasis of Hunt's aural delivery. The painting is quite touching, too, in the way it reflects the ebb and flow of waves and the unsentimental but passionate thought of the poet.

Frizzell's extraordinary productivity spills over into two other galleries in Kitchener St, with the whole conglomeration titled Rugby, Rhyming and Here. Amid all the hoopla of the Rugby World Cup, Frizzell's paintings and the prints dig deep into our rugby culture in a way that is quite different from the high flash of most of the promotions.

Look for the print of oranges at half-time and another of the old footy boots whose dirty laces make a map of New Zealand. The images, the poetry and the artist capture something unique in our culture.

Artspace is hosting a show called Test Transmission, its first exhibition curated by the new director, Caterina Riva. It features two young European artists: Patricia Dauder from Spain and Tobias Kaspar from Switzerland, as well as a collective from Canada.

Dauder's work is the most conventional. She is described as having "an anachronistic fixation on physical materials" - which means she uses watercolour. Her work is related to her filming of waves breaking on a beach and her horizontal lines suggest waves. The colour is unusual and intense, and the reference to the tides supported by an image of the moon.

Kaspar shows photographs of jogging, described in the accompanying literature as "the perennial pastime of the bourgeois bore; at once the icon of suburban absurdity and earnest Beckettian perseverance". The word JOGGING is made up of large letters cut from wood scattered on the walls of the main gallery. Each letter has a sharp image of legs, the under-soles of trainers and a variety of tracksuits.

Some of the images are quite telling, like a letter G with a runner wearing adidas watched with intense curiosity by spectators on the balcony of a distant apartment. Breaking up the word certainly affects the meaning and perception of the action.

The work by the Canadian collective, done in 1979, is a video where a group talk about being on television. The participants are constantly drinking from test tubes, which allegedly contain the essence of artistic experimentation. Their ideas about how art and video might relate are rather out of date; the video is no longer the enemy but now the tool of art.

Nevertheless, despite some awkwardness, the video itself is often very beautiful, with large areas of plain colour that inject bursts of energy.

There is a bonus for the daring at Artspace: a piece called Worry Wort by Jack Hadley. You can only see it by mounting a perilous iron ladder into an unused void in the roof, where you find an exceptionally strong scaffold with a glittering gold object swinging from it. Beyond the scaffold are two objects: a symbol of good luck - a cat with a battery-driven arm and the box it came in, with a space cut out of the front through which you can see a charming little video of the artist playing on instruments against a constantly changing background and images of spectral cats and people.

It strongly suggests climbing to the top of a mountain to seek enlightenment and finding odd, quirky ironies instead.

* See today's Canvas magazine for a profile of Dick Frizzell.

At the galleries

What: Rugby, Rhyming and Here, by Dick Frizzell

Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 28 Lorne St; John Leech Gallery, cnr Kitchener-Wellesley Sts, to October 12

TJ says: The artist's resolute attention to all things New Zealand - the rugby, the landscape and our fine poetry - are given rich expression in a copious show.

What: Test Transmission, by Tobias Kaspar, Patricia Dauder and General Idea

Where and when: Artspace, Level 1, 300 Karangahape Rd, to October 8

TJ says: The first exhibition under the new director, Caterina Riva, shows artists and European sensibilities we are unlikely to see in commercial galleries; also at Artspace, an installation by a young New Zealand artist where the viewer must climb a ladder to gain enlightenment.

For gallery listings, click here.

- NZ Herald

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