T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Journey beyond horizon

By T.J. McNamara

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Scape, Paul Hartigan, (detail).
Scape, Paul Hartigan, (detail).

Painting in this country often falls into horizontals or is dominated by a horizon, perhaps because looking out to sea is a large part of our shared experience.

The work by Simon Kaan, in just his second show at the Sanderson Gallery, is composed in horizontal bands in a way that recalls images by Colin McCahon and paintings by Shane Cotton. Similarities with Cotton also include horizons with dark islands or mountains seen as small, isolated shapes in the extreme distance.

The show has 10 prints taken from wood and four painted assemblages that could be considered as paintings. The paintings are larger and more imposing. All the work is untitled.

Simon Kaan, Untitiled, (detail).
Simon Kaan, Untitiled, (detail).

What makes Kaan's work distinctive is its delicately muted colour and the way it is either painted directly on wooden slats or printed from wooden slabs instead of the usual metal plates. It is a modern version of traditional woodcuts.

Wood and its textures are featured throughout the show, not just as support but as a source of texture. Sometimes it has a bold grain or the surfaces are painted then rubbed back to achieve an effect of weathering and age. Kaan's spare, fine images can be incised into the wood as dark emblems that cast shadows in a way that makes them real and timeless. The work is contemplative rather than done for dramatic impact.

An outstanding piece is No5, a tall work made up of a dozen panels of cedar. At the top is a seascape with a wide horizon and a delicate blue sky. Immediately below is a panel of wood grain. Further down is a recurring image in the artist's vocabulary, a narrow boat cut into the panel and emphasised with Chinese ink. These images evoke a Maori waka and a Chinese riverboat. The multicultural image links land and water as well as voyaging and migration.

A bare tree simplified to a shape like a tuning fork also prompts a variety of response. These sparse images fit very well into the colour and rubbed textures and add an extra layer of experience.

Altogether, the natural quality of the work, its atmosphere and its motifs drawn from mixed cultures makes this a fine exhibition. It leaves fertile room for further development.

Twenty years ago Paul Hartigan, always the experimentalist and innovator, showed works called The Infinities. These were computer designs done in bold colour and stylish assurance that made a striking impact. A reprise of these works at Pierre Peeters Gallery has both retrospective and recent elements.

These powerful prints make use of two stages of print technology. One part comes from 1998-99 and the rest were done this year. The early prints were created on vinyl with an inkjet process while the recent work is on paper, achieved with a dot matrix process that allows sharper imagery. The show is held together thematically by placing at the centre of the images the looped mathematical symbol for infinity. Behind the symbol are luminous forms that either appear to dance irregularly in a void or spin in circles.

The older ink-jet process produced soft edges to the colour shapes, increasing the indeterminate nature of the forms. With the more modern process on paper the work is more precisely defined, which yields a gain in complexity.

The largest and the most impressive of these singular works is an exception to the general chaos. Here, the symbol is surrounded by rhythmic waves of precise circles that produce the changing effects of Op Art, emphasised by its size and the unmoving simplicity of the central symbol. The exhibition is a spectacular return and re-working.

Muka Gallery, at 17 Chamberlain St in Grey Lynn, is where Frans Baetens and Magda van Gils made many editions in the 1980s of lithographic prints by prominent artists from New Zealand and overseas.

Its most inventive concept was to get these artists to make small prints that could be sold only to children. Adults were excluded when the children were making their choice. The idea spread to Australia and Europe.

Their 19th-century lithographic press has been given to a museum but a small gallery remains. In a series of exhibitions artists will display their adult work alongside some of the small works they made for children.

Peter Roche, Peeping Tom, (detail).
Peter Roche, Peeping Tom, (detail).

At present the gallery has work by Robert McLeod, John Papas, Peter Roche, Murray Grimsdale and Julia Morrison. It is intriguing to see how their mature styles carried over into their small work for children without any hint of condescension. The concept is a fine memorial to a grand idea.

- NZ Herald

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