T J McNamara on the arts
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TJ McNamara: Getting into the spirit

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No.5 Head of a Man by Richard McWhannell at Orexart Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade
No.5 Head of a Man by Richard McWhannell at Orexart Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade

New works by three New Zealand artists have a touch of strange ambition, with two aiming to convey the movement of the spirit

There is more than a touch of strange ambition about this week's exhibitions.

At Orexart Richard McWhannell is showing a series of self-portraits and related paintings of skulls to reveal the bone beneath the skin. The works come in two sizes: medium and very large, with more than a touch of the baroque sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt who, in 18th century Austria, made a series of grimacing character heads based on expressions on his own face.

Yet there is much more than studies of expression here. The large works are an ambitious endeavour to keep the spontaneity of a sketch while working on a huge scale. McWhannell also reveals a desire to preserve a carefully worked out system of tones of colour. The even harmonies of tone are worked out in the smaller paintings and developed in the over life-sized self-portraits, building on the pale blue and greens of the background.

These big paintings loom large in the gallery with a striking presence but they are disturbing, with a strong emphasis on the cavities from which the eyes look down because the viewpoint is from below the head. The heads, though strongly modelled, fade into the prevailing background tones and are disembodied since they have no neck or shoulders. The disturbing element comes from the extreme expressions mostly conveyed by the mouth.

In one work called Head on Blue (Disintegration) the mouth is twisted into an expression of sarcastic disdain. Head of a Man has deep eye sockets; these are reflected in Tonal Study of a Cranium, which has a counterpart in the large ghostly A Cranium with jets of black in the depths of the sockets.

A feature of the smaller works is the brushwork, which runs in parallel strokes, defining the form and adding to that tonal unity which is the artist's preoccupation.

The whole exhibition is an ambitious display of McWhannell's virtuoso skills in colour and modelling as well as an interest in extremes of expression. Such private ideas delivered on this lavish scale suggest he was driven by a surge of spirit to give outward representation to deep artistic inspirations. The results are fascinating and splendidly painted, extremely curious in effect but not to be missed.

Equally ambitious are the works of John Walsh at the Gow Langsford Gallery because they too are concerned with the movement of the spirit through familiar scenes. In one case the work is on a much larger scale than is usual with the artist. An interesting aspect of his development is that his landscapes have often in the past been populated with his own versions of mythical Maori deities. In these works the spirit in the woods is implied rather than specific.

An extreme case is Power Station 101, a painting so dark it is almost impossible to photograph. It is a bush-clad valley and in its immense decline right at the bottom run little tarns and a rivulet. They are the continual life that moves through this lonely world.

The same theme of the gleam of water through bush is in No One's Here It's Ours although this has unresolved compositional issues in the lower half of the picture.

The presence of a spirit in the woods is at its most ambitious in I Can't Stop Loving You, an elegiac painting about the death and departure of a hero.

It is set in the coastal bush that Walsh paints so well and among the trees the leader sheds his cloak of leadership. The trees are populated with sirens singing a lament - the spirit of a young boy and other presences are hidden in the trunks. All are looking out to sea and the sense of departure is very strong.

The work is slightly flawed by the bright chemical blue of the sky on the distant horizon.

Nevertheless, the intricate nature of the tangled bush and the authority of working on such a large scale make this a big step forward for an artist fulfilling the promise of providing something with a special feeling that is both Maori and Pakeha.

The works of both McWhannell and Walsh have an individual style that is instantly recognisable. Simon McIntyre's paintings at the Tim Melville Gallery are relatively anonymous and not only because it is his first exhibition for some considerable time. His work is academic abstraction, quiet, unobtrusive but carefully calculated.

Most of the work is the carefully distilled essence of an architecture building or setting. What emerges are patterns of light that might be reflected from windows.

These patterns are a delight against the soft harmony of the rich surface of the background.

In Fragment this works with the appeal of a charming melody.

At the galleries
Paintings by Richard McWhannell
Where and when: Orexart, Upper Khartoum Pl, to May 5
TJ says: McWhannell brings his capacity to work on large-scale to huge self-portraits that are powerful studies in tone and expression.

What: I Can't Stop Loving You by John Walsh
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, Lorne St, to May 12
TJ says: Walsh brings his skills in conveying the spirit that moves in the bush to deliver a sense of endangered treasure and, in one case, a grand elegy.

What: There and Back by Simon McIntyre
Where and when: Tim Melville, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to May 19
TJ says: McIntyre returns to the scene with quiet abstractions of architecture with an effect like soft music.

- NZ Herald

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