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

T.J. McNamara: Circles and the forms of nature

Geometric shapes and bold colour evoke the pioneering days of a bush-clad isthmus and its development into sprawling conurbation.

Part of the James Cousins exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland. Photo / Supplied
Part of the James Cousins exhibition at Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland. Photo / Supplied

Circles are often used in art to contrast human with natural forms. At Gow Langsford Gallery, James Cousins is showing new works - flora taken from an anthology of plants as background to establish a key colour. The plants are only dimly perceived because they are overlaid with geometrical patterns, with the most prominent a system of concentric circles done in fine lines with great exactitude. A tight grid is sometimes behind this. On the surface of one painting you can see splashes of raw paint.

When the paintings are seen at close quarters the effects of circles and grids have a fascination of their own.

The result is that the plants are seen as a harmonious vision of soft and beguiling colour. Most charming of all is the pink, blue and rose combination in 373. The most complex is 20, where bursts of radiating lines and a framing edge reveal the interacting layers that make up the image.

Circles and natural forms are part of the work of Mark Wooller. A group of paintings called Crop Circles are in his extensive show at the Warwick Henderson Gallery. All the works, with one exception, use his established style of painting extensive areas of dense bush made up of large trees packed closely together. The trees are uniformly dark green with touches of red rata berries. The painting is done with minute care.

In Crop Circles, an exactly circular area of different and brighter touches of vegetation suggests some sort of ritual intervention. It is an appealing motif with a touch of magic.

The other pieces are similar to Wooller's previous work where the bush is crossed by intersecting roads with familiar street names, such as Nelson St or Cook St. These evoke pioneering beginnings. The mood is intensified by groups of envelopes, again exactly painted down to the stamps and postmarks of correspondence relating to the later inhabitants of these streets. Similarly, some of the dark bush is divided by paintings of carpenters' rulers, with the artist especially fond of the brass hinge of the tool. Pioneer building is evoked.

One exceptional painting represents the empty land that is to become Auckland dramatically reaching down to the sea like a giant hand tattooed with early surveyors' marking out of sections. It is a potentially useful variation on the artist's milder take on the development of the city's landscape.

Art galleries in Auckland tend to group together to their mutual advantage. The show at Orexart, which recently moved from the CBD to Arch Hill, is called Terrain, a group show of landscapes exhibiting a variety of styles. Richard McWhannell, the renowned portraitist, shows a group of moody paintings of West Coast beaches composed by the dark of the hills and the flood of the incoming tide.

The same coast is the subject of two big paintings by John Madden, but his work is full of attack and drama. Full-blooded brushstrokes convey the dash of waves, the ruggedness of rocks and darkly shadowed headlands.

Headlands feature in the work of newcomer Ross Lewis but his approach is Romantic and misty with his colour and brushwork mild and delicate. Peter James Smith adds scientific elements to his seascapes and vivid skies, as the result of travel in the Southern Ocean. Typically, Gale Force, which is painted like a blackboard diagram, has the equation necessary to calculate the force of the wind on the Beaufort Scale.

Variety of approach is the essence of contemporary art and is pushed much further at the Hopkinson Cundy Gallery right next door. Here, the work is academic avant-garde. It is not about a subject like landscape but rather creating independent things that exist in their individual rightness. Peter Robinson is showing a large palisade of poles clad in rings of black, white and grey felt that are like totems and genealogies, or even strands of DNA.

Dane Mitchell has two works. One is a table of flasks of many shapes, all containing breath. The other is a sheet of light-sensitive material that lies on the floor and pulsates with something like heartbeats. There is an intensely personal take on Samuel Beckett's play Malone Dies by Daniel Malone and a big wall necklace hung with fetishes and a bottle of methylated spirits by Australian artist Mikala Dwyer. It is called Methylated Spiritual.

It makes for a challenging and very stimulating exhibition.

Uncomfortable in a different way is the show of superb photographs of flower arrangements by Emma Bass at Black Asterix Gallery. The photographs are bright, clear, precise and exuberant. The uneasy element is that each arrangement contains hints of decay. Like a basket of fruit painted by Caravaggio, the beauty is marred by hints of time and fate. A tulip that bows its head is the strongest image of all.

At the galleries

What: New Work by James Cousins
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to May 11
TJ says: Combinations of colourful flora and remarkable geometrics make for fine viewing from close by or from a distance.

What: The Measure of Things by Mark Wooller
When and where: Warwick Henderson Gallery, 32 Bath St, Parnell, to May 4
TJ says: Further examples of Wooller's finely detailed, schematic masses of dark bush linked to streets, letters, rules and magic circles.

What: Terrain by various artists
Where and when: Orexart, 1/15 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to May 4
TJ says: Treatment of mostly coastal landscape ranges from atmospheric moodiness to storming attack, pale mists and Romantic skies.

What: Light Sweet Crude by various artists
Where and when: Hopkinson Cundy Gallery, 1/18 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to May 11
TJ says: Distinctly Modernist work including magic rods of felt, breath caught in flasks, a book from the Warsaw Public Library and a witty, spiritual take on methylated spirits.

What: Imperfect II by Emma Bass
Where and when: Black Asterisk, 10 Ponsonby Rd, to May 8
TJ says: Elegant, perfectly photographed flower arrangements at the point of decay, emblematic of transience.

- NZ Herald

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