T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: In shadow and in light

By T.J. McNamara

Installations are a visual sensation simultaneously in two galleries

Transmit/Receive by Cerith Wyn Evans at the Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson
Transmit/Receive by Cerith Wyn Evans at the Michael Lett Gallery, Auckland. Photo / Richard Robinson

The National Opera in Vienna has a safety curtain between the stage and the audience, which is raised just before the performance begins. In recent years the organisation Museum in Progress has commissioned prominent artists including Cy Twombly and David Hockney to decorate the curtain for a season. It is evidence of the status of Welsh artist Cerith Wyn Evans whose work is being shown here at Michael Lett and Hopkinson Mossman that he was asked to design the curtain for the 2012/13 season.

The twin exhibition is called transmit/receive though there is no actual transmission of signals between the two.

One medium that has been fashionable for a while is neon lighting. Wyn Evans' work on the safety curtain was a message in lettering, with a work in neon letters in the show at both galleries.

At Michael Lett the bright letters read, IN PRAISE OF SHADOWS. Elsewhere, the lighting in the gallery is dim and its large bare, pillared space is installed with four further works. Three of them are karaka saplings, trimmed to a long, thin stem and a neat crown of bright green leaves.

Each one is set on a low platform that rotates slowly and silently.

At the far end of the gallery when seen from the west is a modern chandelier. It contains large, transparent incandescent bulbs set in triangles of reflective stainless steel. It gently and slowly pulses. On full power it becomes a large, luminous sphere. On dim it is an artificial bouquet of individual lights arranged geometrically on a black background. The pulse is supposed to be Morse code but if it was, the transmission would be unbearably slow. Better to think of it as accompanying some solemn music. In the shadowy space of the gallery the piece has a moody minimalist austerity that is certainly effective.

The message on that safety curtain was that if you shift things from their normal context you will find they convey a greater truth than you found in them before. The trees are graceful, the light is compelling but it seems transient as many modern art installations do.

The show at Hopkinson Mossman Gallery is complementary. Where one is all shadows, the other is filled with bright light and quiet sound.

One neon work makes a play on Now/Here (NOWHERE) and another is Mobius Strip, an elegant sculpture in white light which is not really a Mobius strip, because rather than having one unbroken surface it has a beginning and an end with its terminals.

One remarkable sculpture is the most fascinating work in the twin shows. It is a freestanding work of rectangular box forms made of mirror-glass. Despite the apparent simplicity, the interplay of reflection between the forms is complex, unpredictable and surprising. The commonplace reflection of a mirror is made to reveal new experiences in keeping with the general philosophy of the artist's work. It is accompanied by isolated chords from music by Bach and other sources.

Both shows are in the well-established tradition of installation. It is worth mentioning that the finalists for this year's Walters Prize are all practitioners of installation work, as was the winner of the previous prize. The genre has its limitations. The values of uniqueness, craft and permanence are all eroded but the visual sensations can be intriguing and thoughtful as Wyn Evans' work shows.

In the exhibition of rare books and manuscripts called The Romantics: Jane Austen Meets Frankenstein at the Sir George Grey Collection Room at Auckland Library we are in a different world.

Undine and Huldbrand by Henry Fuseli at the Sir George Grey Special Collections. Photo / Richard Robinson
Undine and Huldbrand by Henry Fuseli at the Sir George Grey Special Collections. Photo / Richard Robinson

It draws on the library's great treasures of books and manuscripts and on Auckland Art Gallery's rich lode of drawings by Henry Fuseli. Some of the great literary treasures, like the first edition (1798) of Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge, which transformed poetry in English, are not illustrated but other poetic works by Byron and William Blake are in profusely illustrated editions.

Five striking drawings by Fuseli are the epitome of Romanticism. Two in particular incorporate the character of the Fatal Woman, the Belle Dame sans Merci, who was at the heart of Romanticism.

Fuseli's powerful forms are Michelangelesque. One, illustrating the tragic fairy tale, shows the victim, Huldbrand, oddly in armour at his wedding, fatally embraced by Undine, the forsaken water spirit, while his bride Bertolda hovers in the background. In another picture the great hero Siegfried is humbly kneeling before his bride, Chriemhild, ultimately the cause of his death. The forms are drawn directly and with great vigour.

Carnival by Harry Wong at Pierre Peters Gallery, Parnell.
Carnival by Harry Wong at Pierre Peters Gallery, Parnell.

Fluctuating artistic fortunes in New Zealand are shown in work by the brothers Harry and Brent Wong at Pierre Peeters Gallery. Both had spectacular success in the 1960s. Both faded from the scene. However, in recent years they have made strong comebacks with a change in style. Brent's fascination with light and cloud is shown, as is the development of Harry's vivid work done on the back of Perspex. It makes a show full of interest.


At the galleries

What: transmit/receive by Cerith Wyn Evans

Where and when: Michael Lett Gallery, 2/285 Great North Rd, Newton and Hopkinson Mossman Gallery, 19 Putiki St, Newton, to May 10

TJ says: Welsh artist Wyn Evans has complementary installations, one full of shadows and one full of light, simultaneously at two galleries.

What: The Romantics: Jane Austen Meets Frankenstein

Where and when: Grey Collection, Auckland Central Library, Level 2, to June 22

TJ says: Literary and art treasures from the library collections matched with powerful drawings by Henry Fuseli from the Auckland Art Gallery.

What: Harry and Brent Wong

Where and when: Pierre Peeters Gallery, 251 Parnell Rd, Parnell, to May 1

TJ says: Brother painters, prominent last century but off the scene until recently, show work - some old, some new.Picture / Auckland Art Gallery Collection c.1819-1822

- NZ Herald

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