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

TJ McNamara: Deep thinking tangled in many materials

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Joe Sheehan's carved marble letters can, with time, be made to yield meaning.  Picture / Kallan MacLeod
Joe Sheehan's carved marble letters can, with time, be made to yield meaning. Picture / Kallan MacLeod

Braille is a feature of the work of Peter Panyoczki at the Bath Street Gallery. It is not meant to be read with the fingers but is written in terms of rods of light, to be seen, not felt.

Translations are available alongside the works and it would appear that if we could read the Braille we would discover the texts were taken from philosophers such as 18th century bishop George Berkeley. They are meditations on the nature of knowledge and matter, and deal with the existence of things and ideas.

The whole exhibition is surrounded by a haze of philosophy but, in essence, these inventive works convey propositions expressed as a variety of visual sensations.

The remarkable thing about this assured show is that the artist has complete control over a number of expressive techniques that range from inkjet prints to light boxes to lead, sand and driftwood.

Inkjet prints are the basis of many of the works. Acrylic rods may transmit light, as in the work Jasmin, but these have a basis in a printed surface. Then there are other works that are simply prints on paper that show still lifes of tomatoes, bananas, lemons. You can see the artist struggling to give these images another level of meaning in Still Life III where the cut surface of an orange is given a strange colour of decay and below it a strange piece of fruit is fading to dissolution.

More impressive is a simpler work, Perception l, showing two glasses glowing with light, energised by fine concentric lines of colour. Other work in this big show is even more adventurous in technique. The Possibility of a Beginning is a pale work with an egg shape in the centre that hints at a number of embryos.

Another philosopher gets a mention in Hommage a Leibniz II that has islands of sand on an aluminium background but each patch of sand has a tiny edging crackling with bright colour. The whole thing is strongly decorative but may reference the many areas of thought that Leibniz investigated and illuminated.

One work, Origines, is pure decoration. It is an oval of bright red pieces of pumice mounted above the work surface. Its vivid colour and rocky surface give it great carrying power without the burden of philosophy. A similarly shaped work with the heavy title Silent Drift of Time is made up entirely of driftwood. It is an opportunity lost. The driftwood fills the oval but there is little sense of movement.

This ambitious exhibition is full of extraordinarily visual things but the ideas behind the surface are frequently obscure.

Also in Parnell at the Sanderson Gallery the veteran artist Alan Pearson has an exhibition called Variations on the Figure and his technique is expressionist. Even though the subject ranges from Fiona Faces Mortality, which is a nude female figure, to Forest Murmurs, a vision of the bush, everything is painted with dash and energetic flourishes of paint.

The nude, done 18 years ago, is enlivened with quick strokes of light on the shoulders and legs and bright red on the cheeks - though the mood is sombre.

Some years ago, Pearson moved to Australia and many of the works in the exhibition have the characteristics of Australian painters such as Fred Williams and Ian Fairweather. They give the colour and feeling of the bush, sometimes with a strong sense of pattern and elsewhere with isolated flicks and dashes of paint. They hover between landscape and abstraction.

The figures, which are the theme of the show, appear as hints of presences that move through the bush and are at one with it. These dissolve into abstractions of brown, russet and yellow and are very effective when modulated with blue and green as in Bush Symphony. These paintings succeed when this hint of a spirit in the woods is matched by spontaneous strong flourishes of paint as in the two attractive little paintings called Into the Mystic.

Something quite different is found in the work of Joe Sheehan at Tim Melville Gallery. His medium is jade, not only New Zealand's pounamu, but jade collected from Australia, Canada and Russia. Sheehan shows the value of the material by fashioning it into a simulacrum of gold bars. The stone bars placed on a wooden palette have the weight and something of the richness of gold. He makes a memorial to carving by using the stone to make replicas of a set of old chisels. Whatever the symbolism, the variety of colour and the transparency of the material are wonderful.

The transparency is used to good effect in a series of works which give the show its title. They are all called Record and, in these, the stone has been turned into discs, like 45rpm records. The discs are very thin but thicker toward the centre which gives two shades to the colour of the stone.

From the centre out, they are engraved with fine lines that reinforce the notion of recording. Particularly interesting is one piece made from jet-black jade.

Only in one work does the material change. This piece, made from classical white marble, is in the form of letters shaped as if they were inflated with air. The letters spell out Words Fail but they are jumbled and it takes a little time to puzzle it out. It may be a solid expression of the inability to communicate.

The show is fascinating in many ways - in the use of materials that have such emotional resonance but also in its wit, which deals in curious ironies.

In the same building at the Jensen Gallery is a small, esoteric exhibition of photographs by Lisa Crowley which offers an interesting contrast in scale. The show is called Printed Mind and contains images where the mind is closely focused and where it expands.

The intense images are exceptionally small. They show parts of an old printing press. The compression suggests how different it is from a modern press. The best of the shots is one that gives a close view of a system of cams bright against the dark interior workings of the press.

The contrast is with a large photograph of a seascape. Its vast space suggests the power of nature and the intellect. The scale and subject of the images reflect an interesting dichotomy between tightly-controlled machinery and the expanse of nature.

At the galleries

What: Matters by Peter Panyoczki

Where and when: Bath Street Gallery, 43 Bath St, Parnell, to October 29

TJ says: Paintings and prints combine with unusual mediums to make remarkable images that do not quite convey the weight of philosophic thought the artist intends.

What: Variations on a Theme by Alan Pearson

Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary Art, 231 Parnell Rd, to October 30

TJ says: Paintings from several decades that record in lively paint the impact of a shift to Australia by the artist.

What: Record by Joe Sheehan

Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to October 29

TJ says: Beautiful jades and marble are fashioned into objects that in their reality carry history or messages but here have no function except to be art.

What: Printed Mind by Lisa Crowley

Where and when: Fox/Jensen Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to October 29

TJ says: One large photograph and a number of tiny ones show the mind focusing on the sharp detail of printing process and the wide range of thought.

Check it out
For gallery listings, see nzherald.co.nz/

- NZ Herald

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