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

T.J. McNamara: Beauty and the beasts

Unique works offer a sheer delight within the surreal.
Nigel Swinn's The Rabbit in The Water.
Nigel Swinn's The Rabbit in The Water.


The superb retrospective show of photographer Fiona Pardington at Auckland Art Gallery, which finishes this weekend, is a series of essays. Pardington conveys, in a variety of styles, a sense of excitement about objects that have striking visual qualities but also have strong colour, emotional, intellectual or historical associations and makes groups of images of them.

Every photograph is an individual work of art within the group, whether it is of birds' wings or oddly coy glamour poses found on old contact sheets. They always bear the unique weight of her thought.

Starkwhite has another essay. Pardington has assembled a series of glass unicorns, the mythical beast like a graceful horse with a horn in its forehead. They are signs of purity and prosperity and were thought to be dangerous and could only be caught by virgins. They are often seen in heraldry and are part of the arms of the Queen and of Scotland. These Pardington ornaments have been photographed as something rich and strange.

Colour is crucial in the translation of seven different animals into visually compelling images. Sanguine is a red unicorn with a blue horn against a pattern of red coral, which is in itself a symbol of innocence often hung a round a child's neck.

Fiona Pardington’s White Light Unicorn
Fiona Pardington’s White Light Unicorn

Luna, which has a strange head more dragon than horse, is surrounded by deep blue and posed below a huge moon crossed with lines. Flora has a background of flowers like flames, while Lovers is two unicorns, each intent on the other. The most graceful of all is a slender white beast, all flowing curves, mane and legs.

Pardington's work is often sombre but this exhibition is sheer delight.


Bonsai, a collaboration between two artists at Whitespace Gallery, is another unusual exhibition. The carefully trained plants are by artist John Lyall and the photographs of them are the work of much-admired artist-photographer Haruhiko Sameshima.

After a career of substantial installation and performance art, Lyall's crippling illness has forced him to work on a small scale and he has become an expert in shaping bonsai.

Trees from his collection, in special pots of his own choosing, have been photographed against a plain, white background by Sameshima. There's an elegance that captures every detail of tiny green leaves and the patterns of growth of branches and the tangle of roots when they are exposed as part of a composition in a special bonsai style.

Cascade, Exposed Root Style is a remarkable example. Each elegant pot and the tree are mounted on a plain wooden stand whose severe shape is a contrasting part of the whole composition. Every tiny, aged tree has a different character.

In some works, the evidence of training using twisted copper wire is left on show. Binding part of the tree to a rock, subtly done, is evidence of the Japanese influence where value is given to the character of isolated rocks.

Each of the images in this appealing exhibition of beautifully matched art and photography is unique. There are no editions for the major works but the show is supported by some very effective prints in small editions by Lyall himself of the shadows of bonsai on walls.


Photographs shown by Nigel Swinn are of the kind that seize a moment and situations in time and place that have unique qualities. These opportunities result in works that are not snapshots but considered images that give the moment a sense of timelessness.

Swinn opens a crate sent to him and there, surrounded by clouds of white cotton wool, is a perfect specimen of a tui. It makes an impressive image. He finds a rabbit floating in his pond. The water is clear so the animal is floating serenely in space, its colour rhyming with the rocky floor of the pond.

The images insist on reality but embody an element of the surreal. How many millions of tourists have taken shots of the gardens at Versailles? Swinn's winter photographs of the trimmed hedges bare of leaves and the promenades empty of people are brilliantly sharp and offer a stillness that is almost palpable.

John Lyall and Haru Sameshima's No. 7 Cascade Root on Rock.
John Lyall and Haru Sameshima's No. 7 Cascade Root on Rock.

At the galleries

What: 100 per cent Unicorns by Fiona Pardington
Where and when: Starkwhite, 510 Karangahape Rd, to July 9
TJ says: An imaginative visual essay built around glass unicorn figurines, all given a colourful setting to emphasise the romantic associations of the mythical beast.


What: Bonsai by John Lyall and Haru Sameshima
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to June 25
TJ says: The combination of the work of veteran artist and acclaimed photographer makes an exceptionally elegant exhibition of a traditional art.

What: Still Life by Nigel Swinn
Where and when: FHE Galleries, 221 Ponsonby Rd, to July 2
TJ says: FHE Galleries, recently shifted from their long-established premises in the central city, are showing art photography, notably by Nigel Swinn.

- Weekend magazine

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