T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Working from the shoulder

By T.J. McNamara

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Paintings capture artists' expression of energy

Cleopatra by Jan de Vliegher at Gow Langsford.
Cleopatra by Jan de Vliegher at Gow Langsford.

Energy is a great thing in painting. It can be expressed in the subject and the way the artist paints. This week we have three energetic exhibitions, mostly of the painterly kind.

Gow Langsford is showing a spectacular exhibition of the work of Belgian artist Jan de Vliegher. He is from Bruges, once home to artists famous for their precise detail. His kind of precision is a different matter. It derives from hitting the canvas with paint exactly right first time. The brush strokes come from the shoulder rather than the hand and, as he is painting wet on wet, give the effect of complete spontaneity of response to the still-life subject he is painting.

Most of the works are large, much larger than their still-life subjects, which are decorated porcelain plates. They are not illustrations but pure painting. The subject is subordinate to the action. Yet this is not Jackson Pollock's form of action painting where the rhythm of the arm is all-important. The charm of the subject matter cannot be totally denied.

A typical work by de Vliegher is a stunning Cleopatra, derived from a Baroque majolica plate that dominates the end of the gallery.

The Egyptian queen stands tall and nude against golden drapery. Amid the slashes of paint that define her you can probably find the fatal asp if you look hard. The impact of the whole is connected with the blue and green landscape beyond the drapery.

Here, as elsewhere, the image is confined within the perfect circle of a plate but the canvas is square and as part of the action drips and splashes of paint remain on the surface outside the plate.

The images themselves are varied. The artist moves easily from the bold Cleopatra to a perfectly neo-classical plate from a service made for Napoleon. A feature of the control apparent in the elegant spontaneity is the brisk way he conveys the concavity of a plate by splashes of white light or a hint of shadow.

On the other hand, a second very big work, Gentleman Riding on a Horse, works its magic of colour and handling as a flat and busy surface.

The method used in the images derived from plates is carried over into a series of paintings of fish. He does red koi carp with daubs of red on white and the occasional yellow fish mixed in. These are lively paintings but without the polish and variety of the plate series.

Planet Alexie by Rob McLeod at Bath Street Gallery.
Planet Alexie by Rob McLeod at Bath Street Gallery.

Less self-consciously decorative but rather more gutsy is Planetheads, the work of Rob McLeod at the Bath Street Gallery.

These impressively large works, done on marine ply, lie flat against the wall and float like planets in space. The starting point for each is a famous painter, though the only resemblance may be colour combinations. The energy comes from the twists and turns of forms and the inventive grotesquerie of fingers, eyes and noses that overlap and intersect. These are an invented variation. McLeod's capacity to invent shapes and tie them thematically is apparently endless.

There is an element of caricature in the work. Planet Janet refers to Janet Fish and invokes age so the work is all grey and wrinkles. Planet Edward embodies a dark area where a moon-like form floats among ears and noses and a lapping tongue, while dark Mickey Mouse ears appear over the edge of the work. It has aggressive thrusting forms and the link is with Munch. Rob McLeod lets his fecund invention lead him in a variety of forms in each work.

The most colourful is Planet Alexie which takes off from the intense colours, especially the blue and red of Alexei Jawlensky who belonged to the Blue Rider group in Munich. At the top of the work a run of colour pours out of a drain pipe and down the canvas. McLeod is fond of runs and drips of paint as well as raised textures which animate the surfaces of some forms.

Textures and overlapping shapes help meet the special challenge of Planet Ad. Ad Reinhardt was a minimal abstractionist who often did paintings in a plain single colour.

It makes for a romping, witty show that embodies great invention and ripe experience in handling the qualities of paint.

Red Head by John Oxborough; Sanderson Contemporary Art.
Red Head by John Oxborough; Sanderson Contemporary Art.

The work of John Oxborough called White Out at Sanderson Gallery has an immediate impact. Despite the title, it is the vivid unmixed colour of the background of the paintings that makes the hit.

The paintings are all of heads done with sweeps and dabs of the brush to create just enough form to make them recognisable as people. Once again it is the energy of the act of painting that gives them their appeal. Green Cap has enough information to carry through the idea of a head in a cap. Red Head offers more: a solid neck, heavy eyebrows, and earrings to suggest characterisation. It makes for an audacious and lively show.


At the galleries

What: Paintings by Jan de Vliegher

Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to March 29

TJ says: Belgian artist uses porcelain plates and vivid fish as starting points for virtuoso displays of handling paint in an elegantly decorative manner.

What: The Planetheads by Rob McLeod

Where and when: Bath Street Gallery, 43 Bath St, Parnell, to April 3

TJ says: Inventive, convoluted paintings whose shapes are comic, with colour that refers to famous artists, float on the wall in all their vigorous energy.

What: White Out by John Oxborough

Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary Art, Osborne Lane, Newmarket, to March 23

TJ says: Studies of the heads of men and women done with flourishes of paint just descriptive enough to give them a hint of character.

- NZ Herald

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