T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

Excess and exploitation

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Emotions run high in the gripping work of Seraphine Pick

'Coat Hanger' by Seraphine Pick. Photo / Natalie Slade
'Coat Hanger' by Seraphine Pick. Photo / Natalie Slade

In her prolific career Seraphine Pick's art has developed through a number of styles, although all of them in some measure have been related to the power of attraction underlying sexual tension and the vulnerability of women.

In her emotionally powerful show Wankered Again, at Michael Lett, the work is concerned with isolated people and what formerly was tension is here a gripping angst.

Many of the paintings resemble the work of the emotionally tormented Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. One in particular, Yellow Bench, is a woman in the same pose as Munch's The Morning After. A sprawling woman, limp with the enervating effects of drink and drugs, listlessly dangles an arm over the edge of a bench.

Everywhere in the show there is a sense of excess and exploitation, particularly of women, which makes it as up to date as yesterday's news but more telling. The painted image has much broader implications and more lasting than a sensationalist video clip.

With Munch a great deal of power comes from the colour. His famous Scream is shot through with vivid red to express anxiety. In Pick's work it is frequently an acid yellow that conveys anxiety and trauma. There are times when brilliant keynotes of colour lift the whole painting as in the patch of green in Handbag, while the dark greys and black emphasise utter misery in the appalling Gutter.

The subtle symbolism of colour is extremely effective except in the largest work, Conehead, where a drunk figure blinded by a traffic cone on his head staggers down a road to a river under a sky painted a lurid blue that forces the atmosphere too theatrically.

Yet the traffic cone has the effect of symbolising a wild party as well as blind emotion and such details are used effectively throughout the show, notably in Coathanger where a victim is symbolically hung out to dry. Only the images of faces crammed with cigarettes arouse disgust rather than sympathy.

The quality of the painting is high but there is nothing comfortable about this show. It conveys very powerfully aspects of the human condition, especially of the young. The understanding is deep and often wrenches the heart with pity.

Where Pick's show is emotionally powerful, the work of Richard Killeen at Ivan Anthony is classically calm. He is one of our veteran artists and one of the first to use computers in his art. With their aid he has accumulated an immense store of images. Some were motifs from his early career as a painter but the sources were many, ranging from Egyptian and Greek antiquity, through many other cultures, as well as zoology, modern machinery and vehicles.

This hoard was drawn on in a multiplicity of combinations to make his prints of an alternative world filled with jumps in time and space. In this show he has taken two disparate motifs, both natural and artificial, and combined them into something like a polished medallion isolated on the white background of a large sheet of paper.

His invention is astonishing and the technique remarkable. Each image is highly polished and all of them, because of the subtle use of shading and highlights, appear as three-dimensional. This is very difficult to achieve in a computer print. The effect is like polished stone and each piece has the quality of an artefact. There are 500 such prints and most of them are in the gallery filling all the walls.

Every image turns on itself as a complete composition. A recumbent dreaming figure meta-morphoses into a horse. On a wheel, hands turn in a rhythmic salute. A ladder takes on wings.

Floating within the images themselves like something set in amber are details of more complicated scenes. The effect is magical but serene and still. Choosing any one of this multiplicity of prints would be a real dilemma. The uniform simplicity of presentation belies the richness of this exhibition.

There is no simplicity or stillness in Off The Wall by Ewan McDougall at Black Asterisk. His painting is like poetry that is so bad that its sheer ineptness is of interest. Off the Wall has neither drawing, finesse or composition, and the colour seldom goes beyond the raw primaries laid on thick. Yet he has had 67 solo shows since 1988 and his individuality is instantly recognisable.

His appeal is his almost maniacal energy. The paint is applied with feverish spontaneity and creates a thick clotted texture. The gallery is filled with the smell of oil paint.

In every picture, full frontal figures with stick legs and arms dance about. Into the mix goes some political comment in the way of a mild joke attack on insurance companies, some graffiti, and some coarse language. All the figures raise their hands and spread their fingers in a weird dance. One variation is Rush where there is a dense pattern of hundreds of faces.

By breaking all the conventions and ideas of taste something childlike but not childish is created - recognisable, very funny, very lurid and aggressively "in your face".


At the galleries

What: Wankered Again by Seraphine Pick

Where and when: Michael Lett, 2/285 Great North Rd, to December 21

TJ says: Far from the delicacy of her early style, these telling visions of modern excess are expressionist work of considerable power.

What: Reproductions from Image Database by Richard Killeen

Where and when: Ivan Anthony, cnr East St-Karangahape Rd, to December 21

TJ says: Elegant images printed on big sheets of paper combining motifs collected over many years to make things rich and strange.

What: Off The Wall by Ewan McDougall

Where and when: Black Asterisk, 10 Ponsonby Rd, to December 4

TJ says: Confrontational vivid paintings full of wild dancing figures rawly painted to make crudeness and a hint of obscenity virtues of a sort.

- NZ Herald

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