T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Hollows, hills and ripples

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Clockwise from top: Andrew Barber installation, Hopkinson Mossman gallery
Clockwise from top: Andrew Barber installation, Hopkinson Mossman gallery

Three exhibitions this week are within the accepted categories of installation, abstraction and narrative painting but each has an aspect of style that makes any ultimate destination, public or private, problematic.

The principal work by Andrew Barber in a maritime-inspired show at Hopkinson Mossman is painted directly on the gallery's wide floor. This installation, called The Sea, is a series of dark blue stripes in a regular wave-like pattern over the entire floor.

The curves of the stripes are calculated so that, from a short distance, there is a distinct optical illusion that the surface of the floor has a succession of hollows and hills. The illusion is as convincing as anything by Brigit Riley, the great exponent of optical effect.

As well as the sensation of the floor, the curved stripes splash up the wall in a loose way quite different from the regularity of the stripes themselves. This clever painting would be reproducible but it is hard to imagine where.

The cleverness extends to two large rectangular "pictures". These are made from attractive cotton canvas and at first glance look totally blank. A moment later patterns resolve themselves on the surface and emerge as stripes and shapes. These are made by reversing areas of the weave of the canvas. The artist has had sailmakers do the necessary deft invisible stitching. One large work is a pattern of simple diagonal stripes.

The other one is more complex, made up of 26 small canvases, each based on the signal flags for the alphabet. Here the patchwork made by reversing the weave is in crosses and circles as well as diagonals. They make an intriguing series and continue the links with the sea. They are available for purchase as single flags but it is hard to see in what situation they might be displayed. In any case it is the ensemble that matters.

There is a similar puzzle with the lighthearted exhibition by Peter Gouge at the Tim Melville Gallery. One half would require a very sympathetic home. The paintings are done on irregular tatty pieces of old carpet, each with two large brass eyelets to give a way to hang their odd shapes.

Each piece of carpet has an abstract dance of irregular, linear forms. There are two kinds: one in sharp-edged bright colour plus other lines in enamel which give a reason for the use of the carpet. These lines have diffuse edges because of the texture, adding to the spontaneous effect of the jazzy shapes. The painted parts are allowed to run and the result is lively.

The same artist's much smaller paintings in the next room are more careful and considered, painted in a strict grid on jute canvas. Every rectangle of colour is one element of the grid or a multiplication of it. These groupings of identical units are made into tidy patterns intersected by lines. The composition is never regular, is sometimes complex and rhythmic, but always bright and neat.

The effect is of winsome charm and the whole group shows considerable invention, with L.M.R. perhaps the most effective. The huge contrast between the two parts of the show suggests a new talent exercising itself as the artist seeks different ways of expression.

In contrast, the path of John McLean whose paintings fill Artis Gallery is by now well-travelled and unique.

The show is called Telling Tales and the works appear like illustrations from some yet-to-be-written book. They are based on folk memory and social and personal tensions. All are filled with his usual awkward figures with their curious triangular faces and a bright palette of colour that emphasises blue and green.

The painter enjoys feats of representation such as the transparent water with limbs of people and whales and fish seen though the transparency.

The most direct series is The Whaler, with the harpooner in the bow of a whaleboat sighting his prey just off the coast. There is more intensity in Whaler's Son Avoiding the Hunt.

The son hides on a rock up to his shoulders in the sea with a whaleboat in the distance. Tensions between the sexes are given their own metaphorical situation in The Adoration and Envy of the Fisherman where a crowd of bathers are all sitting improbably on rocks covered with mussels and barnacles with women looking admiringly at a successful spear fisherman and a group of men bitter that they do not appear as clever hunters.

The strongest paintings are those concerning Springheel Jack, a tramp, here given legendary status as he frees trapped swordfish and guides home a lost fisherman - but where they would hang remains a puzzle.

At the galleries

What: Flags by Andrew Barber
Where and when: Hopkinson Mossman Gallery, 1/19 Putiki St, to November 16
TJ says: Works with a maritime theme, one painted as Op Art on the floor and the others arrangements of unprimed jute with changes in the weave of the canvas for imagery.

What: Never Calm by Peter Gouge
Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to November 16
TJ says: A lively first solo exhibition at this gallery divided into two parts: an open and improvised abstraction on old carpet and bright, lyrical and neat tiling.

What: Telling Tales by John McLean
Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, Parnell, to November 17
TJ says: Action stories off the Tauranga coastline with whalers, fishermen, their admiring women, legendary tramp Springheel Jack, clear water and trapped marlin.

- NZ Herald

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