T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Echoes of courage

By T.J. McNamara

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An artist ahead of his time finally gets fully deserved recognition
Dennis Knight Turner's Fleece No 2.
Dennis Knight Turner's Fleece No 2.

Echoes from the past are resonating around two public galleries at the moment. The Gus Fisher Gallery is showing the work of Dennis K. Turner, the mystery man of modern painting in New Zealand. In the 1940s and 50s he was a prominent figure. Then he left the country and largely vanished until, late in life, he was seen in some small exhibitions here that had little impact.

His career began when contemporary art was a minor activity in Auckland, where it was impossible for a serious artist to gain a living from painting. The only time he appeared in the newspapers was when he was fined 10 shillings for working at his trade in public on a Sunday.

Some of his early works were murals, in particular a series he painted for Auckland trade unions around 1948. Surviving examples are on show in the foyer of the gallery. They are redolent of the period with strong, determined, mostly male figures - carpenters and builders, transport workers and agriculturalists, all working strenuously and caught in statuesque attitudes. The colour is subdued but rich and the forms sharply delineated. They have a force similar to that of the great Welsh muralist Sir Frank Brangwyn, an excellent example of whose work was on the stairs of our National Gallery before it became Te Papa.

The murals were encouraged by R.A.K. Mason, one of our greatest poets, who was also a union official and editor of the communist magazine People's Voice. They reflect a time when there were close links between artists, poets, novelists and the extreme left-wing of politics. The tone is reflected in a mural of a muscular worker carrying a red banner lettered with "UNITY".

Allied to this is a series of paintings of sheep and shearers, notable for an exceptionally fine work of a shedhand throwing a fleece on a bench for grading.

Turner's sympathies are also shown in the main gallery in a powerful work called Main Street, done in 1945, showing dead bodies piled up amid the ruins of a city.

The rest of the room mostly has examples of his modernist experimental paintings that were very advanced for their time. Before he left he had developed a number of motifs that became part of mainstream art and illustration here. The smaller gallery has some monumental examples of his painting of shearers at work as well as a number of quick, deft portraits.

He did the illustrations for A Good Keen Man by Barry Crump and published a book on Maori life called Tangi. His interest in Maori art went back to his upbringing in Whanganui when he was fascinated by the taonga of Maori families he knew. In the company of Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters, Turner became aware of Maori rock drawings and, in the 1950s, used the motifs in a series of small paintings called Oceanic Abstracts, seen here on the back wall of the gallery. They are both complex in imagery and technically sophisticated. His landscapes are more symbolic in the manner of Eric Lee-Johnston. He makes dramatic use of burned tree stumps in several paintings, notably King Country Landscape, done in 1964. Expressionist landscapes also appear in his striking series of Landscape Heads shown in Auckland in 1963. Particularly powerful is the vivid red Landscape Head - Blood Tide.

Many of the works would be remarkable in any time or context but here they take on a special significance as a record of a time and a courageous but unregarded talent.

The other large exhibition is work by Michael Smither at the Pah Homestead. It is called Colour Can Be Sound, although it is really about how sound can be colour. This is a topic that fascinates Smither, a composer himself. He has the capacity to hear sounds as colour and has incorporated his sensation in abstract paintings and sculptures. The past is evoked by some early works which, Expressionist as they are, show he has always had a highly individual palette of intense colours that make his work recognisable.

The early works include (upstairs) St Francis Rolling in Thistles, 1968, which has a shock factor. At the top are two rutting pigs. The saint is agonising over the carnality that humans share with animals. It is intensely humanistic, but all the recent work shown here is rarefied abstraction. Painting is static while music is progressive; yet it is almost impossible to comment on the abstract art without falling back on the vocabulary of music. In these paintings the titles are sometimes specific. A system of harmonising concentric circles is titled Green Canvas - e flat. Downstairs, one room is dominated by six large Polyphonic Charts. These are grand swinging loops of colour that suggest solemn chords.

The outstanding works are the stacks of short pieces of brightly coloured wood; shading from one colour to another, they suggest the progress of music. Harmonic Chant is particularly vibrant. The whole show is a large experiment that has produced some delightful results.

- NZ Herald

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