T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: It comes down to light

By T.J. McNamara

Classically beautiful and timeless works inspired by nature and light are to the fore in exhibitions by four New Zealand artists.

Midnight in the Mountains by Bill Hammond, at Ivan Anthony Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade
Midnight in the Mountains by Bill Hammond, at Ivan Anthony Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade

The Auckland Triennial has been all videos and installations yet there is still a place for art objects that are conventionally permanent. The work of Ann Robinson has for many years occupied the area where craft edges into art. She has perfected the casting of coloured glass into objects by no means out of place in a gallery.

FHE Gallery has her latest work, titled Brim, a collection of bowls where she has returned to absolute symmetry and plain surfaces without fluting. Leaving aside her spectacular work based on natural forms, these pieces reach toward art because they are a meditation, superbly colourful, on the very nature of such vessels. A poem with the show indicates her approach to simplicity as a deeply thoughtful process. The last line is, "It always comes down to light."

The bowls are of two kinds: a deep form with a thick, rolled rim and a second shape, a disc with a fine edge and an opening on the top. The plain bowls have a small but secure foot that gives them a graceful poise. The depth and purity of the colour gives an illusion that the bowls are filled with light thick enough to have surface.

The disc bowls seem almost on the point of flight. The deep red and green examples are particularly splendid.

The results are works of great beauty. They are monumental, classic and always instantly recognisable as being by Robinson.

In the same class as beautifully crafted objects are the paintings of Nicola Holden at Antoinette Godkin Gallery. These too make exceptional use of the transparency of the artist's material and the effect of light through it. Holden's paintings are minimal abstractions of a special kind.

Lately, there has been a trend to lay bare the way paintings are made and mounted. These paintings all use cotton material so fine it is semi-transparent. This surface is attached tightly in the conventional way over the wooden framework known as a stretcher. Because the surface cotton is so thin the stretcher can be seen through it and provides forms that modify the colour but leave geometric areas of luminous transparency.

This method is at its simplest in blackwhitered where the frame has these colours that show through the plain material of the centre surface. The whole system becomes much more systematic in pink/blue/orange, a triptych where the three frames play variants on those colours.

Holden's work is delightful. There is no story, no symbolism, just colour, light and an insight into process. The exhibition, titled under, over, is a very polished, quietly impressive performance by a young artist.

Two more established artists are Saskia Leek and Bill Hammond at Ivan Anthony Gallery. New Zealand was populated only by birds (and a few bats) before the arrival of humans. Hammond has extrapolated that situation into a visionary kingdom inhabited by birdlike creatures with human characteristics. The creation of this mythology has enabled him to paint panoramas with an extraordinary atmosphere and tense emotional interaction. It is an impressive but by no means a sweet or sentimental space.

These established characteristics are followed in his new show, Goods and Services, but with the addition of a disturbingly monstrous winged lizard in some of the larger scenes. This may be a response to the earthquake that damaged his Lyttelton studio.

The lizard appears in Canopy2. It comes with a rush and a tornado, while nearby one of his angels/birds does a precarious balancing act on a severed branch.

Then there are larger, even more elaborate works, such as Midnight in the Mountains, which is three panels where his bird forms have taken on wings like angels. A horse is silhouetted against the moon while another has an elaborately patterned hide. These are still harmonious shapes in the midst of the anxious birds. This panorama of lake and mountain is curious and unified, rendered sad by the long, melancholy vertical runs of paint that have become characteristic of Hammond's work and add to the atmosphere.

The show also contains smaller pieces with isolated birds close to huge trees. These might be considered an idea in development. The figures are precariously trapped between mountains and giant tree trunks. They seem works in progress, lacking the vision of the larger, more populated work.

The career of Saskia Leek has been a consistent work in progress too. She made her name with pastel-coloured, carefully harmonious images, all of a uniform size and showing landscape and still life. Then the work became gradually more simplified and seemed headed toward abstraction. In this show, called Peace Leaves, that last step has generally been taken although in some works their origin, typically a bunch of grapes, is evident. The uniform size and softly pastel colours have been generally retained with some forays into dense, more autumnal colour.

The result is a uniform charm enlivened in one special example by a pattern of dancing, stylised leaf shapes.


At the galleries

What: Brim by Ann Robinson
Where and when: FHE Galleries, 2 Kitchener St, to June 29
TJ says: Veteran expert in cast glass shows richly coloured bowls that have a classic simplicity and great presence.

What: Under, over by Nicola Holden
Where and when: Antoinette Godkin Gallery, First Floor, 28 Lorne St, to June 22
TJ says: Elegant works in saturated colour that make use of the wooden support and fine, transparent cotton material to excellent effect.

What: Goods and Services by WD Hammond; Peace Leaves by Saskia Leek
Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, 312 K Rd, to June 22
TJ says: Hammond continues to conjure up his strange visions of mythical birds engaged in magic rituals; Leek shows pale, harmonious elegant works that established her considerable reputation.

- NZ Herald

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