T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: The country we dream of

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Michelle Bellamy's Big Omaha Wharf. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Michelle Bellamy's Big Omaha Wharf. Photo / Steven McNicholl

The way we were and the way we are now are contrasts strikingly illustrated by exhibitions this week. The book Selling the Dream, recently launched at the Jonathan Grant Gallery, is an excellent compilation of vivid New Zealand publicity posters mainly from the 1920s and 30s. These showed a dream country of Maori dance and war canoes, birds, swimming, skiing and swordfish leaping.

The designer of many of the posters was Marcus King who was also a very competent painter. His Manuka Thicket, Karehana Bay and Nocturne, Seatoun are skilful works of great charm but most of the work are colourful dreams of lakes, snowy mountains and the coast. The thinking is conventional. The energy and style was in the posters.

Across the road at the Parnell Gallery two painters are both working realistically in the same conventions.

Russell Jackson has a reputation for painting birds. Here a smallish painting of a rifleman is one of the most effective works, exactly capturing the clutch of its feet on the side of a tree.

A much larger plover is less successful. Birds feature in other paintings but mostly as accessories to rocky coastal landscapes from Bethells to Browns Island; they make solid, competent painting done with obvious affection for the scenes.

Michelle Bellamy, who shares the exhibition, is attracted to the problems of painting weathered corrugated iron and timber. These have been added to the tropes of painters of the New Zealand dream. She portrays old stores of wood and coal, boatsheds and a fisherman on a lake. They are exactly and tellingly rendered but never conceptually exciting. They explore colourfully, well-worked and, it must be said, well-loved territory.

Down the road at Bath Street Gallery a totally different spirit prevails. Super Heroes by Chris Hargreaves is international in style, with photographs, sculpture and photographs of sculpture.

The principal series of photos, excellently printed and presented, are of a plastic toy hero, GI Joe, striking various warrior stances. The effect is polished irony. The same toy figures are covered with gold leaf and mounted on tall pedestals but the largest sculptural work is a series of swings hung from the ceiling with bailing twine. They are titled Swings and Roundabouts.

The strongest element is a group of three stealth aircraft made of wood and mounted like ducks on the wall. Each has a special surface. One shows a view of a town that is a potential target. It is a dream of a drone attack. Another shows galaxies and nebulae. It is a dream of space. The third is gold, a dream of value and cost. Everything is carefully crafted but each aspect comes across as seeking meaning in a world without surety.

The wit and colour of the exhibition Hartrell De Hurrigan at the Antoinette Godkin Gallery would be unthinkable a generation ago. It is a combined show of work by John Hurrell and Paul Hartigan. The latter artist has long been known for his creative abstract use of neon tubes. His work in the medium has never been better than in this show.

Most of the works are mounted on a circular base and the tubes twist and loop energetically. From the loops, arms emerge from either side with sockets where the power leads in. These arms give a special vigour to the work, notably in Takine, where they thrust out horizontally from a delightful tangle of blue, yellow, ruby, clear and white glass. The abstract loopings twist and turn but give real thrust to the horizontals.

Hurrell's contributions are colourful sculptures hung by an almost imperceptible nylon cord from the ceiling. Fashionably, they use found objects as their medium. They are made up almost entirely of plastic ties inextricably mixed together in great clusters. It is very amusing and every now and then the clusters really take on a character, notably one called Algie. It is hardly profound but it is fun.

There is a fine debut exhibition at the Melanie Roger Gallery. Alexi Willemsen's paintings seem at first to be no more than a pale mist of colour but a close look shows forms, figures and landscapes emerging from this pastel-tinted mist. The effect is absolutely unphotographable. A photo would show a plain canvas. There is a dreamlike poetry in the way people appear through this mist, combing their hair, doing gymnastics, sometimes strangely isolated and peeping at something in Suspicion. The real subject of these works is paint. Unlike the traditional landscapes mentioned earlier, the way Willemsen's tones and atmosphere can be manipulated for a variety of subjects with almost infinite nuance are as important as the subject. It makes a lovely first exhibition and has the ultimate accolade of being almost a sellout.

- NZ Herald

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