T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Friedl pulls the strings

By T.J. McNamara

German artist tales a dramatic approach, whether the subject be politically manipulated figures or playgrounds

The Dramatist by Peter Friedl at Artspace. Photo / Chris Gorman
The Dramatist by Peter Friedl at Artspace. Photo / Chris Gorman

The latest venue for the work of Peter Friedl, a world-travelling Austrian artist, is at Artspace in Karangahape Rd. He is typical of many modern artists in that his work ranges through a variety of forms of expression.

What is on show at Artspace is a series of documentary photographs, a group of marionettes and a mass of drawings that record varied moments of perception.

The drawings fill the main room of the gallery. There are over 100 of them uniformly ranked on the walls, untitled but carefully dated. Mostly they depict heads of a range of striking characters. They are done in pencil, watercolour, crayon and marker pen, which gives the impression of immediacy. The strongest of them are executed broadly rather than in detail and present resolute characters or victims. One highly effective work shows a dark face bleeding and battered and is an image of courage in the face of attack.

In a side room are four carefully wrought marionettes suspended from the ceiling. They are collectively titled The Dramatist. Drama involves conflict and each of these marionettes represents a person who was deeply conflicted.

All embody political drama.

The first, clad in an elaborate military uniform, is of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of a slave revolution in Haiti that established the independence of that country. He was both slave and emperor. The second little sculpture is Henry Ford, the capitalist who made it possible wage-earning families to have a car.

The third is Julia Schucht, a Russian violinist who married Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian political philosopher and founder of the Italian Communist Party. She bore him two children, but although a devoted wife she was planted on him by the KGB.

The fourth marionette is the least known. John Chavafambira, a black African healer, was subjected to psychoanalysis in South Africa. His case was published as "The Black Hamlet" caught in the conflict between his traditions and the expectations of the modern world.

All these figures had not only profound personal dramatic conflict but were manipulated by forces outside themselves. Hence their presentation as marionettes on strings. The images are very effective, but more commentary is needed in the presentation.

The third, quite different, work is called Playgrounds. In the adjoining room there are six projectors on the floor. They project on the walls, at 20-second intervals and at child height, bright clear photographs of more than 1000 children's playgrounds from throughout the world.

The remarkable thing is that despite the huge variety of surroundings the playgrounds are instantly recognisable, with red the prevailing colour. The basic equipment is slide and swing. Next comes the climbing frame.

There are fewer seesaws than one might expect. Instead they are replaced by "safer" equipment on springs.

The whole is a fascinating presentation of the basic similarity of provision for children's play over many nations. It makes a substantial political statement about equality.

The culminating impact of these three aspects of Friedl's art show him to be as much a political philosopher as an artist.

Cruz Jimenez is an artist born and trained in California and now an Aucklander of some years standing. His work at the Jervois Road Sanderson Gallery occupies a space somewhere between abstraction and the observed world.

His paintings are full of an upward movement. The forms do not describe particular objects but suggest the workings of microscopic sea life. Most of the works are untitled but one painting is called See How All Things Come Alive, where the movement of the objects takes place beneath a sky and the moon.

The technique of these works is very complex. The colour is pale, the atmosphere misty but the overall feeling is of richness of texture and a hint of mystery. His experimentation with mixed media extends to a little sculptural work that incorporates not only horsehair but an elegant old balance scale. However, it is the painting that prevails.

Veteran artist John Blackburn, who oscillates between England and New Zealand, was unable to attend the opening of his show at Artis Gallery in Parnell. So it is called In Absentia. Nevertheless the show conveys a lively spontaneous presence. The paintings all seize on an idea or an object and with a flourish Blackburn makes an artwork of it.

A big painting, The Chinaman's Dream, shows a slab and two headstone shapes and is a monument to some rubber gloves made in China. The gloves are incorporated in the painting to give texture to one of the forms that reflect the fingers and the slab of text is taken from the instructions translated into English. The wording that came with the glove is enigmatic and strange so the piece makes mystery from the commonplace.

There is a group, Muriwai I, II, III, which have a rhythmic dance of circular forms of colours and textures found at that beach. They are especially evocative.

At the galleries

What: The Dramatist and Playgrounds by Peter Friedl

Where and when: Artspace, Level 1, 300 Karangahape Rd, to April 17

TJ says: Three aspects of the copious work of this Austrian artist: his drawings, his marionettes and images of playgrounds, all speak of his humanism.

What: Feo by Cruz Jimenez

Where and when: 122 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay, to Mar 15

TJ says: Attractive, cloudy paintings that filled with the rising movement of mysterious forms and rich colour.

What: In Absentia by John Blackburn

Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, Parnell, to Mar 16

TJ says: In his established manner, this veteran artist starts with commonplace objects and improvises lively, artful abstract paintings from them.

- NZ Herald

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