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

T.J. McNamara: States of disturbance

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Carefully chosen words with bite give impression of torment

Father John Rea-healer by artist Richard Lewer. Photo / Dean Purcell
Father John Rea-healer by artist Richard Lewer. Photo / Dean Purcell

In the week when the top Wallace Award went to a spectacular collaged photograph by Jae Hoon Lee, it is a counterweight that former winner Richard Lewer has a varied show of painting in his first show at the Gow Langsford Gallery. Certainly painting is the best part of Lewer's exhibition, which falls into two categories, beginning with the exhortations he sends as signs to himself. These are on perforated sponge rubber, whereas in the past he painted them on pegboard.

Both are an insistence on the everyday and a deliberate rejection of the niceties of art.

The lettering gives the appearance of being dashed off but the sayings have a certain bite. One example that gives the title to the show makes a typical point on a large old map of New Zealand.

The message is, "god created ME in his own Image". God gets lower case but the "me" is in caps. On the foam rubber, the old and rather tatty stuffing of cushions, these sayings play games with words such as "Hope Less" where the separation into two words makes it ambiguous.

They are not in any way impressive as single works but cumulatively they give the feeling of a tormented psyche.

The real show is in the paintings themselves, for which Lewer has developed a remarkable style of an outward simplicity coupled with deep insight. They reveal psychic trouble transferred to the people portrayed.

There is an extraordinarily intense portrait, Padre Pio, of the Italian priest who received the stigmata. His face with its wide-open eyes stares out from a plain background as if he was troubled by the weight of being considered a healer as well as a priest by his followers. The nail wounds said to have appeared on his hands and body are indicated simply by big blobs of red. For all its apparent naivety it is an intense and touching image. Frank Ansell, a rainmaker, stands in the dryness of the Australian interior with the sun high overhead so he casts only a tiny shadow within the ring in which he stands.

He is as burned up as the landscape, with hands like black sticks. Yet his head is surrounded by the blue visitation of a watery sky.

Most impressive of all is Father John Rea, his face set like rock above his clerical collar and priest's black, death in his head and surrounded by the ghosts of his suppliants with their illnesses indicated by a crutch. These are searing images of people with a great self-belief that may be damaging to themselves and others. They are Lewer's unique expression of disturbed states of being, particularly within Catholicism.

There could hardly be a greater contrast between this show and the abstract paintings titled The Nature of Things by Simon McIntyre at the Tim Melville Gallery. These are very spare networks and patterns, an irreducible minimum that evokes rather than describes.

Deep in the background there may be observation of a building or even something as simple as a fence but the surface of the paintings display interactions that exist in their own right.

In Fracture, a broken network swings away in depth. In the big painting Light Breaker, the canvas is invaded by two rows of individual lines of colour. Where they intersect in the middle there is a lively sense of the unexpected complexities possible when like meets like.

These works provide a variety of quiet subtle sensations, freezing moments of perception into abstraction.

They make a contrast with the paintings of Justin Boroughs at Artis Gallery. He may be termed a realistic landscape painter and his landscapes are familiar rather than remarkable in themselves. Yet they are truly spectacular for the skill in rendering sea, foliage and patterns of light and shade.

He has painted the same scene several times so effectively that it has attracted other painters to the same motif. His deft rendering of the familiar Orakei boat sheds is a case in point.

Other works take on an iconic quality of timelessnesss, such as his church at East Cape, with the full sunlight catching the buttresses supporting the walls and roof, the mighty pines alongside, and the sea beyond. It is not just the appearance but also the feeling of the place - that it stands against radical change. Others evoke an elegiac feeling like the combination of fence, gate, isolated church, inlet and distant sea of the painting of the Kohekohe church in Manukau. Only in the big painting of Bean Rock & the A Class does his touch falter a little.

There appears to be some confusion about the direction of the wind. Nevertheless, the work contributes to an exhibition full of the charm of detail and delightful skill in the handling of paint. It has the recognition of the value of what is so familiar that it often passes unnoticed.

At the galleries

What: God Created Me In His Own Image by Richard Lewer
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 2 Kitchener St, to Sep 28
TJ says: Lewer shows his unique combination of naive style and psychological insight in portraiture What: The Nature of Things by Simon McIntyre

Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to Sep 21
TJ says: Spare, graceful abstractions based on observation.
What: First Light by Justin Boroughs

Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, Parnell, to Sep 22
TJ says: Familiar scenes painted with such skilful concern for light that they become iconic and timeless.

- NZ Herald

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