T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Bright ideas in shadows

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The interplay of light and dark in new exhibitions creates striking shows

Destination 2 by Judith Wright. Photo / Natalie Slade
Destination 2 by Judith Wright. Photo / Natalie Slade

This crowded week is notable for the strong use of shadows and small, lively works. The most prominent exhibition is Heavy Shadows by Graham Bennett at Whitespace. Look up in the forecourt of the gallery and you'll see suspended high above the doorway a red version of the polished steel figure sculptures that dominate the show.

They are derived from a public commission the sculptor did for the Fine Arts Square in front of the Opera House in Seoul, South Korea. It was a floating figure with outstretched arms called Tipping Point. When the figure was installed on guy wires high above the ground, the artist was intrigued by the shadows it cast on the tiled area below. The shadow was elongated in the morning and evening, and changed direction with the sun.

The works in the gallery itself are variations matching the figure and the shadow, in various forms. They, and the grid pattern of the tiles, are cut from plates of Corten or stainless steel. There is little to choose between the variations. They are all effective, admirable works perhaps better seen singly than in rows.

The show also includes Bennett's more familiar collections of mechanisms based on clock faces and Meccano parts. In contrast to the still strength of the figurative work, they are delicate, suggesting the passing of time. Their idiosyncratic qualities are intriguing - but for all their dainty invention they do not have quite the same presence as the figures.

Another exhibition that makes potent use of shadows is by Australian artist Judith Wright at the Fox/Jensen Gallery. Three of her four works are large sculptures of figures made of found objects lit so they cast tall shadows on the walls behind them.

In the show Destination, the strange images and shadows are a child's view of the adult world. The theme is set by Destination 1, the torso of a child with a halo and wings in a tin tub. Its shadow emphasises the wings.

Other works have a human shape but a surreal presence. They are at once strange and vaguely comic. In one, a Pinocchio-like figure crouches on a prayer stool and gazes up at a mannequin with a veiled female torso. Her head is a sharp foxy mask with horns, and behind her neck are small wings. In the shadow the worshipping child is lost, but the torso, horns and wings make a towering shape more sinister than the figure itself.

A third work is a shepherd with white hair and a highly realistic sheep at his feet. His hook-nosed face is like a medieval demon mask and his tall staff is topped by a sharp hook. This detail is lost in the shadow and the light should be adjusted to include it.

The immediate effect of the work is playful, but close inspection reveals frightening detail and the shadows cast become menacing. The impact is powerful and there is a poignancy about the complicated emotions involved. They justify the artist's considerable reputation across the Tasman.

There is a tendency to link size to importance, but a group of exhibitions in Jervois Rd achieve wit and intensity in work on a small scale. Three artists are showing at the Melanie Roger Gallery. Kirstin Carlin does thickly textured expressionist paintings of roses in oil on board. Each of her seven densely plastered little paintings has a different colour scheme and each is given a woman's name. Thus Mona has red and pink roses, Meredith is a very dark blue with flecks of yellow, Dora, where the roses are most explicit, is basically two shades of green. The effect is intense and succeeds remarkably well.

In complete contrast, Tessa Laird makes amusing pieces from ceramic with a bright, shiny, colourful glazed surface. Works come as books, still-life or candlesticks. In the case of one book, Finnegans Wake, the candlestick grows out of the book and, because James Joyce's complex narrative begins with Adam and Eve, the candlestick has the primal pair and a green serpent.

Some of the books are amusing - for instance, a book with a German title that has a delightfully complex cover of excited Mayan gods.

The third artist is Ruth Thomas-Edmond, whose Sugared Heap is like a range of mountains made with corrugated cardboard. Its structure is complex. From one direction it is rosy brown, from the other grey and brown. First shown in Wellington, this work is an extraordinary successful object with a intricate interplay of vertical surfaces and horizontal edges.

At the Letham Gallery, three artists are showing small-scale works.

The most outstanding ones are by Jo Dalgety, who uses an unusual technique of contrasting the transparency of watercolour with the intense black of charcoal. The effect is atmospheric landscapes that are rich despite being small.

For gallery listings, see nzherald.co.nz/arts


At the galleries

What: Heavy Shadows by Graham Bennett
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to Feb 24
TJ says: Sculptures in plate steel make fine play with a figure commissioned for Seoul.

What: Destination by Judith Wright
Where and when: Fox/Jensen Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to Mar 9
TJ says: Startling sculptures of found material which combine with shadows to vividly show the haunting of childhood imagination.

What: Kirstin Carlin, Tessa Laird, Ruth Thomas-Edmond
Where and when: Melanie Roger Gallery, 226 Jervois Rd, to Mar 9
TJ says: Three rising stars show flower painting in heavily textured brush strokes, witty ceramics in the shape of books, and complex sculpture in corrugated cardboard.

What: Paperwork by Amy MacKinnon, Jo Dalgety, Susan Thomas
Where and when: Letham Gallery, 35 Jervois Rd, Ponsonby, to Feb 23
TJ says: Three painters who share a studio show their work on paper with a combination of watercolour and charcoal the most effective technique.

- NZ Herald

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