T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Throwing the towel in

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Rift,  by Andrew Craig.
Rift, by Andrew Craig.

Auckland Art Week includes plenty of local activity, with three shows from outside the city. Two are international and one is from Christchurch. The most radical is at Michael Lett. The artist is Paul Lee, born in England, resident in New York. His art is fashionable enough to have made the Saatchi Collection and prominent galleries in London and the United States.

The text that accompanies the work says he is influenced by a Japanese philosophy called "mono no", which translates as "the pity of things" or an "object's pathos". The objects Lee uses in his art to evoke pathos are towels, washcloths and lightbulbs.

We have become accustomed to collage as an art form for more than a century but this show is not pictures made out of towels but an exhibition of them to suggest uses that they imply.

It is a subtle distinction and one that is hard to follow. In two works only the blue and yellow hemmed edges of the towels are used in groups of four. Both works are called Negative.

In one more substantial piece, grey towels are covered by black towelling, cancelling them out and the suggestions they might offer. In another, eight grey towels are arranged to leave a rectangular space in the centre on a white wall which reads as light. This is contradicted by lightbulbs painted black and mounted on each towel.

Paul Lees' 'Washcloth Stills'.
Paul Lees' 'Washcloth Stills'.

All this is further contradicted by the most accessible work in the show, Washcloth Stills. This is a line of 33 pairs of washcloths, each stained in a different abstract pattern. This exercise in variations on a theme occupies the length of a long wall and is formidable as a design exercise.

None of the other works carry the weight of nostalgia or history they are assumed to imply.

Another show, this time at the Jensen Gallery, comes to us from Australia. The aim of Tomislav Nikolic is to show colour, not as a film of paint covering form but to give it thickness and weight. He does this by mixing his paint with finely powdered marble.

The result is tablets of painting that glow with a soft luminosity. They are made with layers of different colours and seem to arrive naturally at the final hue. In several of the works the effect is heightened by a deeply channelled space between the painting with its many layers and the frame. In some cases the channel is lined with gold leaf that adds to the sense of treasured object. The outside frames have a striking function in setting a context for a particular colour scheme and emphasising the individuality of each interior tablet.

Its Descent into the World of Glamour has a bright red showy frame as the surface grows from red and violet. Its Emergence as Doctrine is a small work held within an exceptionally deep wide frame which emphasises a treasured beginning. Next to it is a work with modern colours of gold, yellow and green that has a completely plain frame in brilliant orange. The largest work of all, The Intuitives Continue to Work, has a thick frame of gold leaf and becomes truly monumental. It is a painting where a wide surface of pale sandy colour emerges from layer after layer of harmonising colours beginning with green. The one work that is unframed looks isolated and unfinished.

The show is called Utopia: The Ending of Glamour. The careful layering of colour suggests the gradual emergence of objects that are utopian in the sense they aspire to be complete in themselves without projecting social fashion or the ups and downs of the artist's personality. They are transcendent objects and offer no obvious literal meaning except a very rarefied art.

More immediately accessible is Fracture by Andrew Craig at Orexart. This Christchurch artist paints rock and nothing else: no people, no vegetation, no flowing water, although sometimes there is evidence of ice abrading the rock.

The faces of these slabs of stone are painted with detailed care and their fissures, their stratification and deep dark cavernous spaces are given dramatic force. The paintings are not just pictures of a rocky mountainside; they also convey the sense of contesting forces at work. They say as much about pressure and tectonic forces as they do about the outward aspect of the rock.

The drama is intensified by subdued but powerful colour, as in Palimpsest, where an overarching grey rock is contrasted with precipitous rock, golden brown in the sunlight. It is not only the play of light over the rock surfaces but the darknesses that give the painting force. In Cavern, a huge rock is caught in a cleft with pressure from both sides. Under it is a dark space - the cavern, a space into which one would not dare to venture. These close-ups of mountain landscapes have real force.

- NZ Herald

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