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

T.J. McNamara: Down vivid garden path

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Skilled brushwork and singing colour work splendidly up close and at a distance

'Marchent Ridge' by Karl Maughan, showing at Gow Langsford Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade
'Marchent Ridge' by Karl Maughan, showing at Gow Langsford Gallery. Photo / Natalie Slade

Several stalwart practitioners of the fine art of oil painting have substantial exhibitions this week. The most spectacular are the paintings of Karl Maughan whose work is spread over the two sites of the Gow Langsford galleries. The works exude confidence in the qualities of paint and the artist's virtuoso expressive power in handling it.His format is well-defined. He paints luxuriant bushy landscape gardens filled with vividly flowering shrubs such as rhododendrons and camellias backed by green leafage. There is some innovation in this show called Long View, with paths frequently leading into the depths of the garden and glimpses of sky.

Distant sky and pale mountains are part of the impressively large Marchent Ridge, with a grassy path alongside a slope, at one point vividly lit by bright sunshine. It contrasts well with the masses of bright colour convincingly portrayed in the artist's rhythmic thick brushwork that moulds individual flowers in the foreground. The pale blue ridge in the background effectively conveys distance, although the hills lack even a hint of form.

Given that the subject is commonplace it is the brushwork and colour that are the most fascinating parts of these images. The wide brushstrokes are applied thickly, with an unerring unifying purpose that is intriguing to see close up or admire at a distance. It never really falters except, perhaps, in a formless flat area at the top of one of the smaller paintings, Lucas Creek.

The singing colour is intense and very high-key. The Kitchener St gallery has two impressive screen-printed images on display. In these, although the composition remains the same, the process allows arbitrary changes in some foreground colour. In these prints the exciting surface is lost but the changes emphasise the consciously composed nature of the works. The reality of place is the inspiration: colour and the arrangement of it is under the artist's control and a unifying factor that makes these highly approachable works paintings far beyond simple illustration.

On Measuring the Ocean by Peter James Smith at Orexart has a similar unity of approach. Leaving behind his recent painting on found objects, he mostly confines himself to orthodox images of the Southern Ocean and the islands that are part of the New Zealand protectorate. There are only two works not on linen canvas. They are painted on sets of scales reflecting the artist's emphasis on measuring systems.

Most of the works show Smith's virtuosity in painting sea, coastline and dramatic clouded sunsets. Added to the spectacular combinations of these factors are formulae written like chalk on a blackboard. These cross the surface and are sometimes accompanied by literary quotations. Paintings that include The Wandering Albatross naturally include quotations from Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner.

A painting of the turbulent sea off the Auckland Islands has a graph and formula for calculating the mean height of waves. New Zealand's Southernmost Tree, a spruce planted by Lord Ranfurly on a visit as Governor-General, has a simple calculation for finding the height of what is claimed as the southernmost tree in the world. Here and there the works are in 19th-century frames, reinforcing the feeling of battles. Sailing ships must face the perils of the Southern Ocean whose loneliness is tellingly evoked throughout this impressive show.

The gallery is shared with Peter Wichman's Quiet Life. Crowded pots, bottles and tubes of perfumes and potions of everyday use are given life and seem to crowd together of their own accord. These things are painted in acid colour and often outlined in black.

They are instantly recognisable as related to his earlier paintings of restless eccentric people.

Much further off the beaten track is the path laid down by the recent work of Mark Braunias at Bath Street Gallery. It is a path that leads to a curious temple of wit in line and shape as well as characterisation of people through their faces and attitudes. The show is highly varied, with paintings and drawings as well as a video loop developed with Jill Kennedy that is abstract and very funny.

The flood of paintings and drawings all have a hint of human form because they are lively abstract shapes with limbs of a sort. The major pieces are two large works crammed with ideas. Men are from Mars shows a whole suburb of men, each with a separate character mixed in with abstract shapes, a tomcat and an armadillo. The other work, called Encyclo Dimensional, is filled with men striking various attitudes: teaching, thinking, writing. Around the edge are pages from a publication to come.The whole is part of an effort to create a parallel world with some human characteristics. The aim is carried through with wit and great invention.

At the galleries

What: Paintings and prints by Karl Maughan
Where and when: Gow Langsford Galleries, Lorne and Kitchener Sts, to November 30
TJ says: Maughan's vivid garden paintings are more complex than before but done with the same virtuosity.

What: Measuring the Ocean by Peter James Smith; Quiet Life by Peter Wichman
Where and when: Orexart, 15 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to November 30
TJ says: Splendid skies, turbulent seas and lonely islands are the material for Peter James Smith's dramatic paintings, while commonplace objects have a special intensity of colour in the work of Peter Wichman.

What: Encyclo Dimensional by Mark Braunias
Where and when: Bath Street Gallery, 43 Bath St, Parnell, to November 23
TJ says: This copious exhibition is part of the creation of a parallel universe made with great skill, humour and endless invention.

- NZ Herald

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