T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Power and identity

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Michael the Genuine Article by Robert Jahnke. Photo / Natalie Slade
Michael the Genuine Article by Robert Jahnke. Photo / Natalie Slade

With the use of bold words, artist Robert Jahnke again delivers a potent message in his work.

When Robert Jahnke brings an exhibition to town you can be sure it will be big, bold, plain, polished and very committed. IAMINFAMOUS at the Bath Street Gallery is no exception. This show of various states of mind is done on stainless steel in black and white with lacquer that gives a polished surface and makes a modern monument to the people and ideas evoked by the images.

The pitch of the work is indicated by the use of the convention of solid capitals of God's answer to Moses, "I AM what I AM". This rubric was used as an assertion of spiritual power and individual identity by Colin McCahon and subsequently adopted by other artists to the extent it has become commonplace.

Jahnke has restored its power by lettering the words without a space, making of them a rectangle in white which matches the square of black on which they are inscribed.

There is always a message in work like this from Jahnke and it invariably comes from his Maori standpoint. Here the "I Am" is an assertion of individuality and self-determination. This is not customary Maori art using specifically Maori motifs, but it has a note of prophecy that is part of Maori heritage. It also asserts the right to self-determination.

The point is made in a collaboration with Michael Parekowhai in the foyer, with a colossal four-panel work that asserts "I AM HE". This is contemplated by one of Parekowhai's life-size figures; in this case an American Indian in a war bonnet. With an irony typical of Parekowhai it resembles an enlarged toy and has the face of a mild adolescent. The point made is that despite all the stereotyping and sentimentalising, there is still an assertion of the difference and independence of an indigenous people. They are what they are despite the distortions.

This tone of positive assertion is set by the piece Cogito Ergo Sum, the Latin for Descartes' famous "I think, therefore I am". Here the English version is worked in a tight design above the heroic I AM. In Infamous, where the word means set apart and derided, the word is set below the lettering.

Most of the other works have two panels. In the first is a man or woman who has played a part in revealing the wrongs or establishing the rights of indigenous peoples. There is a portrait of Frantz Franon, the Algerian philosopher and writer who explored the effect of colonisation on the psyche of a nation. The English version of the title of his influential novel, The Wretched of the Earth, becomes part of the weighty epigram that characterises both him and his attitudes.

This is a strong exhibition with an impressive unity of purpose. But it does not have the symbolic force of earlier work that had the detailed figures of out-of-work Maori freezing works' slaughtermen or the leaden axes that referenced dubious land transactions.

It is a big step from works that grapple with big issues to the small-scale, sensitive, even delicate images of close personal relationships that characterise the two exhibitions at the Ivan Anthony Gallery.

Kushana Bush, who recently had a big retrospective at the Pah Homestead, here extends her delicate drawing, her eye for fine detail and tight composition into the area of the interaction between parents and young children.

In the most bittersweet of the works, the parents' bed has been invaded by the children in the weekend at a time when the adults were obviously planning to have sex. Nothing is explicit but a great deal is implied and the situations are filled with tension. Family at Dawn is the most amusing piece and Tucked In the most quietly opulent.

The richness often lies in the abundance and flow of fabrics. These are painted with an amazing virtuosity in miniature, particularly the ones with repetitive patterns.

Michael Harrison works on a similar small scale and also emphasises close human relationships, along with his familiar cats that think like humans. A typical work is Shipwrecked featuring an Adam and Eve couple with a clouded emotional future shown by black that envelopes the man's face. These delicate works can be magical as in Late Arrival, which is a pilgrim with a staff entering an enchanted forest.

The cats that have played such a large part in Harrison's work are represented by a charming study of a pensive cat arched over by the cat God as he thinks of relationships. He can slip easily into banality as in Sandy Ash but the best convey an unease that gives them depth.

There is a sense of the weight of the world in the colourful Reading Room in the window area at Objectspace.

The mass of reading required for Tessa Laird's doctorate is made permanent by books, such as Goethe's heavy tome on colour theory, in ceramic with covers glazed in vivid colour.

The setting for this large scattered library - a fireplace, a seat and a chair made in brick by Peter Lange - is perfect for this weight of learning.

- NZ Herald

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