T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: An unwavering gaze

By T.J. McNamara

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A fascination with androgyny challenges expectations

Roman Catholic Church, Apia by Shigeyuki Kihara at Pah Homestead.
Roman Catholic Church, Apia by Shigeyuki Kihara at Pah Homestead.

Three unusual, intriguing exhibitions this week deal with the interface between images of men and women and the fascinations of androgyny that can upset conventional perceptions.

At the Pah Homestead, Undressing the Pacific is a series of photographs and videos by Shigeyuki Kihara, who won the Wallace Art Award in 2012.

One of the issues she addresses in the show is the much exploited trope of the dusky maiden image of bare-breasted Polynesian women as sexual objects far from European conventions of maidenhood.

This is dealt with directly in a black and white magazine photograph showing three young women beating tapa, with their torsos exposed. The artist has intervened to alter the picture with obvious paper cut-outs as coverage, not from outraged "decency" but as a gesture against their exploitation.

A deeper meditation on the social phenomenon of the androgynous fa'afafine in Samoan society and the expectations of the conventional gaze is a group of three almost identical photographs.

They show an attractive figure stretched out on a chaise longue in the conventional pose of Venus, meeting the viewers' gaze unwaveringly. In the first photograph the figure is wearing a grass skirt; in the second the figure is nude; and the third figure reveals a penis.

Since this is a survey, some of this material has been shown before but recent work also shows new equally eloquent departures.

One is a group of colour photographs lit by red light that show a response to recent disasters in Samoa or perhaps a more personal catastrophe. The colour is powerful but more impressive is a group of black and white photos where the artist wears the black mourning dress of the Victorian period, shown against the prevailing white of colonial architecture. A photo taken on a beach positions the dress darkly against the long wide expanse of the sea with a wave breaking far offshore that suggests approaching peril.

The most original and expressive of all is where the dark figure is contemplating the ruins of a Catholic cathedral. The white floor and the curve of the apse open to the sky combine with the black dress to make a splendid image.

The video that won the Wallace prize moves away from the figure and concentrates on the dance of the artist's hands used to express feelings of the movement of a tsunami and grief at its effects. It contributes to an exhibition that is rich and unique.

Teachers of English insist that women are "beautiful" but men are "handsome". A double show of photographs at the Tim Melville Gallery refutes such conventional perceptions of beauty.

It is called Boys Don't Cry and consists of photographs by Heather Straka and Roberta Thornley. The works by Straka were taken in Invercargill and are all of Southern Men.

They include a large work in shades of grey with touches of red. It is a staged shot with a group of men crowded on one side of a long table. They are all young and muscular, clad in immaculate white singlets and shorts plus a butcher's apron. They all have red armbands. The table is a taxidermist's workshop. Chalked behind them is the chemical formula for testosterone.

In a similar work called The Shield they pose like a football team with a headless elk in the background. Because they are young, beardless and shapely with muscle, they look unambiguously but ironically beautiful.

One work that breaks the pattern is a coloured man with short hair wearing a blouse-like shirt fastened with safety pins and white shorts that lace up the side. He poses on a bearskin like a female model and is spectacularly attractive in defiance of categorisation.

Androgyny was never more ambiguous and the show elegantly and wittily poses questions about art, life and identity.

The photos of Roberta Thornley are richer in colour and they feature just one beautiful man seen as a muscleman (Pose 1) and as an elegant boy (Pose 2). (Pose 3), with the subject in a silky shirt, poses the most fertile ambiguity. Both shows are technically fine photography tensioned by irony.

There are ambiguities in the title By Order of Wych by Jason Greig at Ivan Anthony as well as ambiguities of gender. The first work in the show, Hypnos was a Greek, has a male face on a bare woman's body and arms with long fingernails.

Elsewhere Grieg puts his excellent draughtsmanship in the service of highly Romantic, Gothic black and white monoprints with an inky splendour. Long arms emerging from a black robe perform dramatic incantations.

The faces are strong characterisations that become macabre when skin pulls away from the teeth. It is a show that has the character of illustration but impressively so.


At the galleries

What: Undressing the Pacific by Shigeyuki Kihara
Where and when: Pah Homestead, 72 Hillsborough Rd, to April 13
TJ says: A mid-career survey of the work of a recent Wallace Award winner whose photography and video examine individual and collective identities in Pacific Island culture.

What: Boys Don't Cry by Heather Straka and Roberta Thornley
Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to March 29
TJ says: The opulent photographs of Roberta Thornley and the more stringent work of Heather Straka both challenge the stereotypes of gender imagery.

What: By Order of Wych by Jason Greig; Blocks and Plans by Tony de Lautour
Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, 312 Karangahape Rd, to March 29
TJ says: Tony de Lautour's work is choppy abstraction as usual but the dramatic Gothic monoprints by Jason Greig are moody and unsettlingly weird.

- NZ Herald

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