T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Likeness of a landscape

By T.J. McNamara

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Rugged, massive landforms are depicted with vigour and brooding solemnness

Karekare, Ode to Te Kawarau a Maki by John Madden, detail.
Karekare, Ode to Te Kawarau a Maki by John Madden, detail.

The tradition of landscape painting in New Zealand is maintained by the work of John Madden, whose exhibition Karekare is at Orexart.

It also exhibits the more recent attitudes to the landscape by seeking out rugged, massive landforms.

There is nothing consciously picturesque or sweet about Madden's work. The ruggedness is matched by the energy of his approach, which owes a lot to the late Tosswill Woollaston in the vigour and tumult of his brushwork.

The paintings are a very personal and painterly response to the character of the land around Karekare and Whatipu. Madden has studied this landscape for years and the vigour of his paint endeavours to catch the essence of it.

There are no baches, bathers or surf carnivals in his work but rather the massiveness of hill and valley, the wide horizon of the sea and the declivity of the tall cliffs.

The only building that is featured is when he crosses the Manakau Harbour and plants the red roofs of the Harbourmaster's station under tumultuous cloud, evoking the memory of the wreck of the HMS Orpheus near the heads.

A couple of weathered posts add significance to the rock called Kahu that guards the gateway to the pa at Parahaha.

That particular work makes good use of green to link sea and land, but the prevailing colours in the work are dark browns tending toward black. The brooding solemnness of the hills are sometimes marked with great splashes of red, which suggest this was once the scene of a massacre.

This adds a note of drama to the largest of the paintings, the very impressive Ode to Te Kawarau a Maki.

A different use of colour is notable in Captain Wing, Manukau where the darkness of a shadowed cliff is contrasted with golden warmth touching the top of a headland further down the coast. The sky is richly painted and the composition of the whole is strong.

The brushwork that conveys the artist's emotional involvement with this coastline he loves is sometimes not quite convincing. The viewpoint is often high and the painting of the immediate foreground loses the structure of the hills that is so convincing elsewhere. The effect of the dramatic Te Ahu is lessened in this way.

Overall, this is a grand response to Madden's untiring devotion to capturing in-depth the mood of this striking coast.

It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than between Madden's fevered attack and the cool precision of the small abstract works in Holding Still, an exhibition by Kirsty Gorman at the Melanie Roger Gallery. These are small works done in ink. The pale colours have the transparency of watercolour and soak delicately into the paperboard without a trace of the movement of the hand. They float against a plain background.

These graceful, geometric works are poised in the centre of the board. The forms are all sharp-edged and intersect and weave over and under, creating an unexpected balance.

More symmetrical than most is Free Form II, made to be seen from below by being set on a small shelf that is part of the work. It has a tall, triangle-like tower. Behind this, a second shape folds away in depth. This gives the work a little extra sense of movement in space that is not apparent elsewhere.

Another extra visual sensation is a group of images, all called Verso, where a blind shape is embossed into the paper and the composition relates to it and usually overlaps it. This adds more impact to these immaculate, though whisperingly quiet, works.

Another exhibition using transparency in veils of colour is Digital Landscapes by Ollie Lucas at the Pierre Peeters Gallery. This is also a show of abstractions but this time they are computer-generated and printed in pigment on cotton.

These are big images with overlapping veils of colour, mostly pastel blues and pinks. The ultimate origin is an urban landscape of tall buildings, but these are dissolved in cloudy forms.

Sometimes they appear as a vision through a mist, as in Proliferation of Walls. At other times they have more specific reference, such as Hades, which is all orange and peach shading into red with indistinct pale forms.

It is certainly no Dantesque vision of fire, mud and scalding rain, although there is a sense that the technique might allow for more force. There is very little difference from Lambent Structures, which features very similar colours.

What is evoked is a modern world of neon and advertising that is all smothered in a fog that dissolves structures, whether they hint at mountains as in Digital Landscapes or cities as in Proliferation of Walls.

The show has a strong overall impact of vivid colour; at the least it is charming and decorative, and at best it displays a very modern sensibility and technique.


At the galleries

What: Karekare by John Madden

Where and when: Orexart, 15 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to Mar 8

TJ says: Once again John Madden analyses his love for the coast in brooding hills, dramatically lit and painted with the utmost sense of energy.

What: Holding Still by Kristy Gorman

Where and when: Melanie Roger Gallery, 226 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay, to Mar 8

TJ says: Small, quiet, immaculately rendered constructions on linen, individually delightful but collectively repetitive.

What: Digital Landscapes by Ollie Lucas

Where and when: Pierre Peeters Gallery, 251 Parnell Rd, Parnell, to Mar 4

TJ says: Big prints show the urban environment transformed into veils of transparent luscious colour that hang in space.

- NZ Herald

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