T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Fresh work shows off young talent

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A spate of exhibitions from some of New Zealand's bright young things shows they're shaping up nicely.

Maumahara (Remember) by Jimmy James Kouratoras. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Maumahara (Remember) by Jimmy James Kouratoras. Photo / Sarah Ivey

The Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery on the third floor of the splendid old wool stores in The Strand opens its new season with a first show by artist Jimmy James Kouratoras. The show is called Pou, which refers to the posts that support the roof of a Maori wharenui. The posts are carved to represent ancestors and tribal stories. Nevertheless, there is a strong European influence too because most of these works are painted on canvas in vivid modern colours. Some recall the work of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the Viennese painter who loved Northland and lived a large part of his life there.

Like Hundertwasser, these paintings represent the working of the spirit and nature as represented by the gods. One typically striking painting represents Tumatauenga (God of War). The post-like figure of the god has bands of bright colour and stands out against a dark background. Not all the work is quite so fierce. Te Ra (Sun), a blaze of gold, makes great use of the puriri moths that flit about like spirit messengers.

Equally bright but rather less effective is Burn Metamorphosis (Pepetuna), which also incorporates the puriri moth but here they look like asymmetrical butterflies and the lines of force that stream up through the canvas would work by themselves to create the force of the painting.

The mixture of motifs is notable in Putahi Nga Wairua, a work that makes great use of the Maori kite shape alongside Greek lettering.

The exhibition is completed by six sculptures made from wooden posts. The electric colour does not sit so well on these as it does on the spectacular paintings, but altogether this is a remarkably strong and vivid debut show.

Other exploratory and experimental art this week comes from another young artist. John Ward Knox at Ivan Anthony Galley has already established a reputation that is almost the pinnacle of all that is quiet, diffident, gestural and unobtrusive almost to the point of imperceptibility.

In the past he has made pieces that are no more than a hint of shading that just disturbs the surface of a white wall. In the present show there are two kinds of work, all without any title or number.

One style is tiny pencil drawings on irregular sheets of paper. Less than 2.5cm square, they show details of hands and faces done with conventional skill. The other kind has aspects of convention too, but they are quietly subverted. A stretcher is the supporting framework on which the fabric of a painting is tautly fixed. Ward Knox does not use canvas, but linen so fine as to be almost transparent. It is carefully prepared so it is a flawless surface with the stretcher visible through the transparency. Across the immaculate surface, a single fine thread is looped or falls limply or, in one case, as a tense horizontal line. This thread is the one irregular element in a situation of the utmost rationality. The delicate purity of the composition elevates it to emblematic status.

Stretchers also play an important role in the work of Johl Dwyer, who shares an exhibition with Emma Smith at the Tim Melville Gallery. He works directly with the support. The stretcher is laid flat and filled from the back with a layered mixture of plaster and paint. When set, the resulting surface is worked, sanded back and the stretcher itself is sometimes gilded.

The result is an extraordinarily dense surface and one that relates to the commonplace surfaces of walls and plastering. Here it is subtly coloured and since it has the shape of a tablet, something to be treasured.

At the moment it seems a clever beginning and, in at least one case - in the boxy Homage To Joseph Cornell - to have considerable potential for development.

Emma Smith uses oil, gouache and ink to achieve attractive, swirling abstract images. These are one step away from direct observation, being based on photographs she took of the historically important Oakley Creek.

The stream is quiet and murky and the murk on the surface is reflected in the slowly coiling shapes in many of the paintings but the colour, predominantly blue, is painterly rather than natural.

The swirls form attractive rhythmic shapes, particularly in Gully and the inventive Tuck with its floating circular shape. The show still has the feel of an academic exercise conscientiously carried through.

There is a big contrast in the work of Ben Foster in his exhibition Continuum at the Sanderson Parnell Gallery. There are four abstract twisting sculptures, of which three are neat little decorative pieces called Ribbon, like early thoughts for the fourth which gives its title to the show. This is much larger, with a big gain in size and in the tension and drive of the twisting form.

The other works, in white plastic, are animal forms in a faceted, cubist style. They are a seal, a dog and a life-size horse. At this size they should be monumental, especially the horse, but the immaculate white and systematic quality of the forms makes them more toy than monument.

At the galleries
What: Pou: Return to the Light Givers by Jimmy James Kouratoras
Where and when: Saachi & Saachi Gallery, 3rd Floor, 23 The Strand, Parnell, to Ap 4.
TJ says: Energy and colour fill this debut exhibition which links modern design to Maori lore.

What: on going by John Ward Knox
Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, 312 Karangahape Rd, to Mar 2
TJ says: Small scale and ultra-subtle effects are the trademarks of the work of art's current wunderkind and this show has extreme examples of both.

What: Two Painters: Johl Dwyer and Emma Smith
Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to Mar 9
TJ says: Two young painters; Johl Dwyer, makes the physical support of a painting an essential part of the work and Emma Smith takes running water as a source of swirling abstraction.

What: Continuum by Ben Foster
Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary Art, 251 Parnell Rd, to Mar 3
TJ says: Ben Foster's latest sculptures take on two forms: a twisting abstract shape at its best when large and impressively big plastic animals.

- NZ Herald

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