T J McNamara on the arts
T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Distracted vision

By T.J. McNamara

A major exhibition of NZ painting does not reach far enough to extend our consciousness
Ngatai Taepa's Tane Mahuta.
Ngatai Taepa's Tane Mahuta.

The major exhibition of painting at Auckland Art Gallery diffidently named Necessary Distraction has divided opinion about the curatorial concepts.

It is the first substantial exhibition devoted to New Zealand painting for more than 20 years. The 23 painters on show are mostly young though some are mid-career; the 100 or more works are challenging and many have been specially commissioned for the show. Yet despite some excellent work, there is a failure of nerve at the heart of it.

The setting is strange. To try to break away from flat, white gallery walls, a large suite of spaces has been constructed on the first floor. The building of these spaces has in part been left exposed; divisions are only partly lined and much of the timber framing is left bare. The walls have been painted as if they had just been plastered so there is white on corners and edges and spots covering nail fixing.

The effect is odd. The open framing allows some paintings to be seen from a distance, which is an advantage, but the work in progress idea has strange implications. There are no seats, which suggests an assumption that no one is going to stop and spend time with the works.

There are no labels or numbers near individual paintings and, as yet, no catalogue, so the viewer must constantly go to a list in a corner of each space to find titles and a lead into the painters' intentions.

Distraction in the name of the show suggests the works as a whole are taking the viewer away from the realities of life, yet that is where the paintings often fail to grip. The great establishing generation of contemporary art in New Zealand used form, colour and paint and the force of their artistic personalities to extend our consciousness in substantial ways.

Transcendental is a big word, but it fitted their endeavours. They pushed us beyond what we knew and felt. Most of these paintings do not have the same reach.

The first four painters on show set the tone for the rest. Andrew Barber does neat, small tapering paintings of the pattern of lines on a tennis court. It is deliberately banal. Only in one big abstract work, commissioned by the Gallery, does he use the power of colour and line to make a forceful image.

Immediately after, we come upon Nick Austin's witty little paintings all called Travelling Envelope. They have a naive charm as they show a car travelling along a road crossing a hilly landscape with an envelope in each painting. We are told by the commentary that their power lies in their insignificance, their ephemerality. These slight images of the ideas of travelling and messaging are pleasant without needing a weight of commentary.

 Scope by Julian Hooper.
Scope by Julian Hooper.

Next comes Julian Hooper with colourful, clever paintings of unexpected forms and inventive colour and then it is on to Kim Pieters who plants small areas of pale colour and dim constructions of line in a wide space on an even paler surface. Each work has as title a quotation from the poet Wallace Stevens such as Music falls on silence like a sense, a passion that we feel, not understand. The images are thin intellectual and aesthetic refinement.

The efforts of these first four artists in the show are typical of most of the rest.

The ultimate in refinement is Patrick Lundberg who makes his art on three walls with pairs of pins with large spherical heads. These are carefully spaced out on three walls, each pair leading the eye to another on a journey across space. Equally poised but much more solid are the handsome, big abstract paintings by Oliver Perkins.

Oliver Perkins' Lyttelton Heads.
Oliver Perkins' Lyttelton Heads.

Exceptions to this refinement are Stella Corkery's rip or bust self-reflective and self-indulgent musings in paint. Dan Arps, a Walters Prize winner, is a heavyweight. His roughly cast work is in-your-face, defiance of any conventions. A big trough plastered with thick red paint is an extraordinary object but a very ugly one.

In contrast is the fine craftsmanship of the works in wood by Ngatai Taepa. These are elaborately dovetailed koru forms in intricate interlocking patterns. Impressive, they are more varnished sculpture than painting.

Other variants on conventional painting include Jeena Shin, who makes the white walls of a room shimmer with barely perceptible collaging of triangles of gloss white juxtaposed with black collages in conventional picture form. Simon Ingram has brought his painting machine into the gallery along with four canvases. The programmed results weave snail tracks across the walls and the canvases.

There is a surge of colour and loose lively painting at the end of the tour with the only veteran painter in the show, Barbara Tuck, and two vivid colourists in Milli Jannides and Nicola Farquar who are both notable for confident painterly attack.

The exceptional size, and mysterious technique of James Cousins, more potent than most of the rest, makes a strong coda to a curious, wandering show.

At the gallery

What: Necessary Distraction; A Painting Show, curated by Natasha Conland
Where and when: Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tamaki, Kitchener St to March 28
TJ says: Symptomatic of the power of the curator these days, the show is a very idiosyncratic collection reflecting one person's view of painting here now.

- NZ Herald

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