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

Adventures of a sad clown

By T.J. McNamara

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Concorde by Wilhelm Sasnal.
Concorde by Wilhelm Sasnal.

Two shows this week are in adjacent galleries in the new art precinct that has developed in Arch Hill. Orexart Gallery has works by Richard McWhannell whose fertile visual imagination continually explores new imagery expressed in a traditional painting manner but always with a modern spin.

The idea in this exhibition, called Crossing the Lake, is that the art was always present in a range of historic events, both here and overseas. The events depicted are sometimes more specific than others but always the symbolic presence of the artist is included. The symbol chosen is taken from the full-length portrait of Gilles by Watteau in the Louvre.

Gilles is the clown in 18th century comedia del arte performances and McWhannell's portrayal of him is the unmistakable original sad clown obliged to be funny, but shot through with melancholy. In one simple but telling piece, Appaloosa Night, the clown is solitary, mounted on a white horse that has stopped to drink. This is the lone explorer playing his part in opening up the American West or the Australian Outback. The atmosphere is emphasised by the scrubbed, raw quality of the texture in the foreground.

Elsewhere he mixes with others: American Indians in Visiting Geronimo or in the middle of a group of 19th-century Maori in traditional dress resting on the green sward of an English estate in The Roehampton Reception. Later he will join Te Kooti and some of his whanau on horseback in New Zealand.

He is present with Scott in the Antarctic, with the New Zealand forces in the Middle East in the Great War and, very memorably, at the oars of a rowboat in Catching Courbet's Wave. He is an uneasy witness in a crowded scene, Tension Back-stage, that vividly recalls Max Beckmann's claustrophobic paintings. He is last seen in Pukekawa in a moody painting called Who Fed the Baby?

This is a witty, thoughtful and intriguing show, though with some unevenness when a message is pushed too far towards the grotesque, as in Whakapapa.

Next door at Hopkinson Mossman, the work of Dane Morrison is made entirely of found objects. Unusually for such material the works are highly polished and some are very impressive.

There is an elegant simplicity to Hypnosis Venn, which is two intersecting rings of polished brass. One is elegantly lettered with SLEEPING, the other with WAKING. The space in common between them is neither state but combines both. Perhaps it is dreaming. This concern for the undefinable or unconscious state pervades the whole exhibition. Clairalience (The Scent of an Object Not Revealed to the Eye) is two brass rods held between two carefully crafted wooden clamps to support a piece of paper loaded with perfume. The whole is a lovely object. These works have the effect of early beautifully crafted instruments.

The Auckland Art Gallery is offering the opportunity to see some examples of artists currently admired on the world stage. These are on loan from the Naomi Milgrom Art Collection in Australia. Its variety is attested by its title: A Puppet, a Pauper, a Pirate, A Poet, a Pawn, a King.

Andreas Gursky from Germany makes gigantic photographs using digital technology to overlay and spread his scenes taken from a high viewpoint. His Los Angeles embodies the experience of flying in over the immensity of the city by night. His swirling image of focused business in the New York Mercantile Exchange is marvellous in its detail.

The show includes two preliminary designs for operas, The Magic Flute and Woyzeck, by the South African artist William Kentridge, whose extraordinary animated drawings for Shostakovich's opera The Nose was seen here in an HD broadcast film from the Metropolitan Opera.

His invention extends to a circular kinetic sculpture of a table with a reflective cylinder at the centre as a vehicle for the unique drawing process that scaffolds all his work.

There is a video by Kara Walker, whose silhouette work about racial history and politics in the United States has received great acclaim. Here her silhouettes are shadow puppets and the unsettling work includes violence and sexuality.

The paintings by Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal are traditional oil on canvas but styles change with every different subject. His sharp shape of the Concorde against the sky summarises everyone's image of that memorable aircraft.

The steel sculpture of Scot Martin Boyce is very precise and formal but oddly tender in Of Kisses, and the photographs of Thomas Demand recreate spaces that look almost normal but carry wide implications.

At the galleries

What: Crossing the Lake by Richard McWhannell
Where and when: Orexart, 15 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to December 21
TJ says: The artist creates a strange atmosphere as he injects Gilles, the sad clown, into a variety of historical situations as witness to melancholy and humour.

What: Other Explications by Dane Mitchell
Where and when: Hopkinson Mossman, 19 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to December 21
TJ says: Dane Morrison makes attractive objects, sometimes in polished brass, that suggest spaces and other intangible manifestations such as sound and perfume.

What: Works from the Naomi Milgrom Art Collection
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery, to January 27
TJ says: Splendid Australian collection enables us to make contact with the original work of six prominent international artists. Richard McWhannell takes us on a journey in a witty and thoughtful way

- NZ Herald

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