T J McNamara on the arts
T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Colour heightens vivid drama

Whitney Bedford turns conventional subjects into the unconventional with zestful use of colour giving them a theatrical impact.

Whitney Bedford: 'Orpheus towards Manukau'. Photo / Supplied
Whitney Bedford: 'Orpheus towards Manukau'. Photo / Supplied

Colour in art is generally decorative and atmospheric but it can also add vivid drama to painting. In one work by Los Angeles-based artist Whitney Bedford at Starkwhite, the theatrical quality resides entirely in the turbulent colour.

The painting is mildly called Landscape; exactly what is happening in the vivid splashes of intense colour is by no means clear but something momentous is going on. There are other potent images where the colour is associated with sharp delineation reinforced by the brio of the painterly handling.

The artist uses an unusual combination of ink and oil paint. A notable work, based on a subject that came to her attention during her time in New Zealand, is Orpheus toward Manukau. The ship in the famous wreck is washed over by waves described by rhythmic lines in ink. The tumultuous, astringent orange colour of the sky emphasises the feeling of catastrophe accentuated by a jagged line dragged through the paint to make a spectacular bolt of lightning.

The rigging torn by the wind adds to the drama intensified by the hull of the ship, conceived as a stranded whale.

In the biggest work, Smoke and Fire, the situation is conveyed with minimal gestures as well as a forlorn pink in the sails of a stranded ship. The horizon is evoked by a single line and swirling smoke and its reflection on the water by the lightest of touches.

This sort of attack gives special force to The Californian, a boat beached on a wide strand assailed by a gust of wind painted as one continuous brushstroke folding around the vessel. This is conventional painting made modern by swashbuckling skills.

Also in K Rd at Ivan Anthony Gallery is Tony de Lautour, known for his use of old paintings and images that might be found in junkshops to which he adds details that make ironic comment. Typically, a faded magazine illustration showing biplanes of another age (De Havilland DH9s), with the caption "The Birth of an Air Force", is given a whole new meaning by being overlaid with white rectangles which suggest both clouds and racial attitudes. Similarly, a pretty picture of ballet (Swan Lake) is almost blotted out by a black, sharp-edged geometric shape that contradicts the heavy sentiment of gracefulness, tutus and curves.

Other rooms show a change in gear where the artist references the Christchurch earthquake. These abstract works have a sense of dislocation. Parts of a Frame has a background of cracked paint and a broken dance of solid rectangles held together by jags of yellow.

Another formally inventive painting that reflects consequences of the quake is a big work of shapes in commonplace colours and woodgrain around a centre of a framed void. It suggests a variety of walls where the windows and doors are left empty with nothing beyond them.

De Lautour's work is always puzzling and even crude but sometimes it pays to pursue the puzzle.

The gallery is shared with Matt Hunt, whose curious imagined landscapes are familiar territory. Empty wide spaces and sudden hills are populated with comic-book figures and speech labels.

His fantasy, which for a while was all green idylls, has turned more complex. This is reflected in the uneasy faces in a tiny work called Chip Mania. All the other paintings are moderately large, each one a world of floating and dripping islands. Things are drawn exactly in a graphic book style but their meaning is never clear.

A typical work is Aquadimensional Cones of Zion with a prophetic giraffe, a rocket-headed angel, undersea mountains and a woman unaware of volcanic disasters in the void behind her. It is a carefully delineated fantasy but completely enigmatic.

Comic-book style, familiar in serious art now, is courageously used in a sequence by Andy Leleisi'uao that flows along the walls of Whitespace. It sends archetypical superheroes full of biff and bang and more than a hint of Polynesia on quests that touch on current Pacific issues, but only obliquely. The narrative so essential to a comic book sequence is not at all clear.

There are also some of Leleisi'uao's paintings that show inner states of mind, featuring his unique small active figures in vigorous silhouette. Where they are transferred to the comic sequence they really contribute to the impact.

In complete contrast Tiffany Singh, at the Melanie Roger Gallery, cultivates calm. She shows a pantheon of Indian gods cast in beeswax. Some are in pairs under bell jars and many are encased in elaborate wax temples sheltering under a copper enclosure.

These shrines are adorned with jewels, accompanied by little copper pots filled with salt. The shrines are similar, all guarded by an elephant-headed god but some female goddesses are on the floor and some hang from the ceiling. Overall, there is colour, reverence and the persuasive perfume of beeswax.

At the galleries

What: This and That by Whitney Bedford
Where and when: Starkwhite, 510 Karangahape Rd, to May 4
TJ says: Conventional subjects, still-life, boats and the sea enlivened by zestful colour and skilled confidence in the paint.

What: El Espriritu Del Antichristo by Matt Hunt; Central Planning by Tony de Lautour
Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, 312 Karangahape Rd, to April 27
TJ says: Hunt shows his visionary, apocalyptic landscapes with floating islands peopled by strange creatures while de Lautour makes ironic comment on old found images and abstract reflections on the Christchurch earthquake.

What: LeTumau, Art Comic Project by Andy Leleisi'uao
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, to April 27
TJ says: Brave attempt to accommodate the imagery of his unique painting to an address to the young in comic-book form.

What: Samsara by Tiffany Singh
Where and when: Melanie Roger Gallery, 226 Jervois Rd, to May 4
TJ says: A colourful pantheon of gods cast in beeswax and enshrined with jewellery.

- NZ Herald

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