T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: World of light and shadows

By T.J. McNamara

Rat Holes in the Babylon of Information by Jess Johnson.
Rat Holes in the Babylon of Information by Jess Johnson.

Three artists this week all show remarkable skill in drawing and each creates a world distinctly their own. Anah Dunsheath in Hot Lines, at Artis Gallery, creates a series of dark piazzas as a stage where men and women, drawn with comic-book economy, act out dramas of attraction. Closeness defines their attraction and distances their alienation.

Their confused alarms and tensions are symbolised by their telephones. In Crossed Wires a man sports a cellphone in his waistband while his female partner holds a hopelessly out-of-date handpiece.

This is a world of night and the people who emerge out of the darkness are young and smartly dressed, with an emphasis on accessories of belts and shoes. There is a suggestion that they are celebrities. Often there are third parties lingering in the middle distance.

Amid the black and grey of the work are vivid touches of colour. Sometimes this is the brightly coloured case of a modern phone. At other times it is the vivid red of now vanished telephone boxes. In Mixed Messages, the red is a letterbox and the main actors are both carrying letters but going different ways while an athletic youth is exercising in the background.

Each painting is a melodrama about attraction and possession. All are open to interpretation and full of the implicit drama of an untold story which the viewer must supply.

Dunsheath has extended her work beyond painting into collages of photographs on to stainless steel. The photos are manipulated by using negatives or by using steel to sculpture the images into icons. Space Time is a tall, curved steel pillar with a polarised image of Sophia Loren on it. Two wall works have waves of steel and reach back to memorialise Marlon Brando and Ursula Andress.

It all adds up to a highly individual show, inventive and assured in its manner.

The work of New Zealand-born, Australia-based artist Jess Johnson at Ivan Anthony is also full of invention within the confines of an exacting style. Her technique is unusual. She presents imagined scenes and masks drawn in fine ink lines allied to detail of temple buildings of mind-boggling complexity. The masks hang surrounded by elaborate settings. The intricate lines are filled with colour from fibre-tipped markers with a precision to match the dense patterns. What is distilled by this extraordinary technique is a sharply defined world of emblematic magic with sexual overtones and hints of cruelty. Enigmatic, blocky lettering is part of the scene and hints at overall purpose and meaning. The work has little to do with traditional art modes and a lot to do with the imagery of adult comics, cosmology and science fiction. Grotesquerie and humour also play their part.

One of the simplest works is a naked man hung by the knees from a chain in a paved space with patterned walls. He vomits up an intricate mass of worms. The accompanying rubric is CULTURE WURM. Wurm is the German for dragon. Intricately involved masses of worms are only one of many feats of drawing throughout the show. The title piece, Rat Holes in the Babylon of Information, has a magus in a long robe gesturing towards a tower of naked men in yoga poses. A border of similar figures are in a pose that evokes both gymnastics and torture. A stage in the centre has more men in danger of falling into boxes set in the platform. In the distance is a semicircle of gold, which emphasises ritualistic quality.

It is an amazing piece of work typical of this show, colourful and strange and impossible to decipher explicitly.

The exhibition by David Barker at Depot Artspace in Devonport, called The Shadow Series, is largely made up of works done as part of his recovery from life-threatening illness.

The paintings show exact observation with light and reflection brilliantly painted in a way that allows us to see the world through his acute eye.

Twilight Waiwera by David Barker at Depot Artspace.
Twilight Waiwera by David Barker at Depot Artspace.

The interplay of shadows and reflections, the textures of timber and the tangle of plant growth are all done with masterly technique. More than that, the paintings are tightly composed so they have an organised strength that is not centred but articulated across the whole painting and linked by the relationship between structures and fascinating analysis of the shadows they cast.

The whole process can be studied in this exhibition because Barker follows the traditional method of making a preliminary sketch. The sketches are on show alongside the final works. The subjects range from Venice to Tiritiri Island as well as Barker's special skill in painting boats. There is also a portfolio of recent etchings done with the assistance of printmaker Merle Bishop.

This comprehensive show is an opportunity to see the quality of draughtsmanship, painting and colour of one of our most accomplished traditional artists, whose accuracy and style goes far beyond simple realism.

At the galleries

What: Hot Lines by Anah Dunsheath

Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, to May 25

TJ says: Dramatic paintings of light, darkness and shadow, tension between men and women and works on stainless steel that memorialise movie stars of another era.

What: Rat Holes in the Babylon of Information by Jess Johnson

Where and when: Ivan Anthony, 312 Karangahape Rd, to May 24

TJ says: A strange show of mystic symbols and situations created by an impressive complex technique of fine lines filled with colour from pigment fibre pens.

What: Shadow Series by David Barker

Where and when: Depot Artspace, 28 Clarence St, Devonport, to May 22

TJ says: David Barker returns to the scene with masterly paintings of sea, land, buildings and boats, finding equivalents in paint for his sharp observation of detail and the way shadows bind what light illuminates.

- NZ Herald

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