T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Anyone who had a heart

By T.J. McNamara

Heart by Melissa Coote shows reality in hyper-intense detail.
Heart by Melissa Coote shows reality in hyper-intense detail.

In previous exhibitions, Melissa Coote has done large paintings of the outward anatomy of the human figure. Her startling yet touching exhibition at Fox-Jensen moves inside the body to the heart.

The show is entitled Painting Sculpture Paper. The largest works are two big paintings of the surface of a heart. They are done in her usual manner with pastel as well as pigment and pencil.

The organ looms out of a dark background like a rock. The surface of this object is rugged with craters and valleys which, at this size, appear as strange as the moon. They are unusual paintings of considerable force and presence.

The tender symbolism often associated with the heart is tellingly evoked in a small heart in bronze with a golden patina. This could nestle easily in the palm of the hand and its two parts with obvious veins and the ripple of muscle make it take on a life of its own as an independent but precious object.

Three contrasting massive hearts, also in bronze, emphasise size and strength and, because they are objects in the round, cavities again play their part in its mystery. The object that can be felt beating in every body and is associated with life in both its strength and weakness becomes spectacular, intricate sculpture - still life in both senses.

The exhibition is completed by five photographs printed from etched copper plates in a process that catches every detail. These are bulls' hearts such as were used by Leonardo da Vinci in his investigations of the workings of heart valves and the movement of blood.

Yet whether these are human hearts or not is beside the point. They speak tellingly in that metamorphosis from reality to art that emphasises the nature of something that has vast symbolic status in language and legend. It speaks not of surgery nor anatomy but of strange life.

Bare naked torsos that carry a weight of emotional impact and character are the subject of woodcuts by Sam Harrison that accompany the exhibition of the work by members of the Central Print Council Aotearoa New Zealand (CPCANZ) at Gus Fisher Gallery. They dominate the foyer, while the council's prints are in the main room.

Harrison's reputation is based on his life-size naturalistic figure sculpture. Woodcut prints are older than printing itself and began as the simplest sort of illustration. Hollows are cut in a block of wood, the remaining surface is inked, paper is pressed against it and the image is made.

In Harrison's woodcuts the wooden block is large enough to accommodate life-size images. The cutting of the blocks is decisive and bold. It defines the form and is able to convey shading so the bodies stand out against the dark backgrounds which retain the grain of the wood. A typical work shows two standing nude women. One is proud and assertive and stands tall; the other is diffident, even ashamed. She strongly resembles paintings of Eve cast out of Paradise.

Another work that refers to, but does not copy, painting is a full-length nude man laid out in a long narrow image. There is an obvious link to the famous, realistic Dead Christ by Hans Holbein, reinterpreted in a painting in Auckland Art Gallery by the late Tony Fomison. Harrison's work is a portrait with no nail holes nor wounds. Yet it is startling, a comment on life, art history and the nature of the medium.

The Print Council's show, Beyond the Frame, is untraditional since in many examples the conventional rectangle has been set aside in favour of freestanding work supported on dry branches, fan shapes, tubes, chairs, clothing and corrugated iron.

Everywhere we can see the effort to explore new possibilities. Woodcuts by Irene Keckes are even larger than those in the foyer. They are abstract and focus on the process of gouging the wood and the relationship between art and craft. Maria Lambert wraps woodcuts and etchings around chairs, whose complex imagery is a metaphor for our modern lives. Others position their prints on cardboard tubes or, in the case of Jeff Thomson, guttering.

Nearly two dozen artists are involved in these explorations and the work is highly individual, supplemented by a helpful catalogue from Robin Woodward.

The exhibition by Glen Wolfgramm at Orexart contains an innovation. The artist has retained his established style but has added vivid colour, giving every painting a different atmosphere.

His early paintings were black and white, evoking the rush and swoop of traffic and powerlines in the constant movement of the city. In this show the nearest visions to that time are the multi-coloured Amok with deep perspectives and Alter, which has a panorama at its heart.

Now there are variants like Creeper, which is green and pastoral, as well as Core, which has a fiery red background. The variations make for a fine show.

- NZ Herald

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