The exact representation of recognisable objects remains a popular mode of painting and sculpture. Despite the skill, the mode is empty unless the representation carries a weight of metaphor giving meaning beyond the outward appearance.

The work of Paul Jackson at Orex includes The Smoking Tohunga, which features a picturesque, thoughtful man with full-face moko, dressed smartly in a stylish modern hat and smoking a pipe. It looks superficially like a good pastiche of a portrait by Goldie, even down to a characteristic black frame. Seen in the light of the rest of the exhibition, it becomes more of an emblem of interaction in a modern world.

Tattoo is an integral part of the whole exhibition and another thing the artist takes from Goldie is to show the marks as a cicatrice chiselled deep into the skin rather than the more superficial modern work. While using the moko he avoids specific tribal motifs so it is a metaphor for tradition rather than the identification of an individual.

The works all have a fertile ambiguity. The show is titled The Burden of Ideas and Meaning. A notable work related to this is Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, depicting a man with a full-face moko lying on a bed where the linen sheet is a fine still-life in itself. His face is proud, dignified and thoughtful but his shadowed eyes reflect a weight of deep sadness.

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The subtleties extend to images where the moko is not so deeply cut but appears as a shadow emerging from under the skin. A small work in this manner, Why Do I Cry When You Lie to Me?, is the most deeply moving painting in the whole exhibition.

The end wall of the gallery is dominated by a large painting of a full figure lying in the attitude of the dead Christ. Yet this is Lazarus, who was rescued from death. The face is tattooed yet the body is carved like wood in deep patterns. His arms are bound but the bonds are breaking. His belly is red. Although he is obviously a man, his body may be about to give birth. His head is adorned with 11 huia feathers - the Apostles without Judas.

It all makes a challenging exhibition of traditional painting and drawing shot through with eloquent indications of modern angst and situations.

The sculpture exhibition by Jim Wheeler at Artis Gallery is explicitly titled Nature as Metaphor. The artist, renowned as a medallist, is here working mostly in bronze although cast-iron and stainless steel are also used. The works all have plant forms and the metaphorical element is the relationship between human activity and the natural world.

Silver Beech Icon by Jim Wheeler.
Silver Beech Icon by Jim Wheeler.

This is exemplified in a work that stands at the door. It is a 2m high version of the peculiar leaf of the lancewood standing tall, almost like a human spine. It has a green patina except for the centre where the principal vein is polished bronze and falls the length of the piece like a flow of water. The title is Standing Idol. The natural form is to be honoured like a forest god.

Most of the work inside the gallery is of branches of native trees based on the artist's response to our native bush. The range is wide. A cast-iron work, Kauri Branch - Drought, has a burned, rust colour with heavy monumental leaves and a seed cone that is a hope for re-birth.

In contrast to the weight of this work is Autumn Wreath, a delicate bronze circlet of the seeds of the five-finger plant woven into an intriguing dance. Most of the sculptures are sprightly wall works. One is substantially over size. The huge branches of APEX - Pacific Kauri reach out like giant antlers.

On the floor are versions of a concept the artist has made his own. He uses old spades and garden forks or their handles and adorns them with plants in bronze. Plants and vines spring forth in a more homely and native version of the medieval legend of polished wood growing miraculous leaves, so the reference is redemption and renewal. It all makes for a very attractive show embodying invention, skill, observation and thought.

In contrast are the large abstract paintings of Shintaro Nakahara and the complex drawings of his wife, Yoshiko, at Sanderson Contemporary Art. Shintaro's wide, swinging forms enlarge the signs of calligraphy in complex compositions of colour. The colour is flat and solid but sometimes energised by luminous paint.

Go by Shintaro Nakahara at Sanderson Contemporary Art.
Go by Shintaro Nakahara at Sanderson Contemporary Art.

The size and weight of these big paintings is in complete contrast to the monochromatic, intricately detailed work of Yoshiko, done with ink and pen and wash on paper. Thousands of tiny strokes create patterns of immense complexity. Each work has an individual character and evokes admiration for the concentration and extraordinary intensity of detail as well as a special atmosphere.

At the galleries

What:

The Burden of Ideas and Meanings by Paul Jackson

Where and when:

Orexart, 15 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to August 29

TJ says:

Accomplished draughtsmanship and painting is at the service of moody faces with moko combined with virtuoso still-life.

What: Nature as Metaphor by Jim Wheeler
Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, to August 31
TJ says: Sculpture, mostly bronze, of tall monumental shapes and wall works of carefully studied branches of leaves show admiration for the life force they represent.

What: Gem by Shintaro Nakahara and Everyday by Yoshiko Nakahara
Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary, Osborne Lane, 2 Kent St, Newmarket, to August 24
TJ says: Husband and wife create contrasting drawing of the utmost delicacy and complexity and large swinging compositions of colour.