Room that's on an abstract scale

By PAT BASKETT

Studio is hardly the word for the place where Richard Adams paints. He works in a sequestered corner of the front garden of his home in Brown St, Ponsonby.

A camphorwood tree provides the only shelter. "If it's raining," he says, "I can't paint."

His gear - paints, brushes and a canvas chair that looks as if it serves as a palette - is stored under the house next to the wine.

Adams laughs. That's not what takes him to this shady spot. It's the special quality of outdoor light. You just can't replace it, he says. If you take outside a painting done indoors, it loses something. But one painted in natural light looks even better inside.

And if it rains there are other things Adams can usefully do. Painting is a serious sideline for this versatile artist. His job is as violinist with the Nairobi Trio jazz group, which he set up 10 years ago with guitarist John Quigley. The name is intended as a joke because there are four players none of whom come from Nairobi.

Adams was taught violin by his mother. "I was lucky," he says, "because she kept me at it."

He was playing in the Wellington Symphonia by the time he left school at 16, and then auditioned for the National Orchestra trainee section. He failed because of his poor sight-reading, having learned by ear.

Films were what interested him then and he and a friend went ahead and made one. He co-scripted, produced and directed Artman, which was shown at the Wellington Film Festival in 1979.

Films and paintbrushes provided a means of earning a living for the next 10 years, and Adams painted sets for movies, including the New Zealand production Came a Hot Friday.

A large landscape was often required for movies, and learning to paint these trained his eye in ways that have fed his purely abstract paintings of the past few years. What was a horizon line has become a compositional device, giving perspec-tive, or a separation of one area.

Though it is 10 years since he worked on sets, he still paints landscapes, though these days more as an exercise - like playing scales on the violin or some unaccompanied Bach.

"And," Adams says, "because I like to touch base with reality from time to time."

In a room he doesn't call a studio, but where he does drawings and works on paper, he shows me a 1995 view across the Manukau Harbour towards Big Bay. A dark strip of low hills separates a luminous grey sky and the silver sea. "It was an exquisite day, I remember, with lovely greys."

Mention the large, commissioned murals he did for the North Harbour stadium and he wrinkles his nose. They wanted, Adams says, photographs on canvas - nothing abstract. He was able to oblige with his version of photorealism - a technically demanding task, given that each mural was 10m x 3m.

These weren't painted outdoors. For large commissions Adams hires a studio.

Over the years he has worked in many artists' studios, starting in 1979 when he worked in the dome that was built in the garden at Rita Angus' cottage in Wellington before it became a residence for painters. Adams couldn't afford the whole house and worked in the kitchen.

When he moved to Auckland he rented the Gillies Ave studio that belonged to painter Louise Henderson. Later he worked in what had been writer Barry Crump's bach in Devonport.

The landscapes are done from photographs, and photographs also form the basis of his abstract work - of fragments that he sees as potential paintings, tex-tures, cement on the road, the juxtaposi-tion of colours and materials.

The surfaces of the canvases have a depth reminiscent of ancient walls or weathered stone, with layers pared away to reveal the underlying colours.

A small corner of blue throws a larger plane off balance. The rigidity of rectang-ular lines is interrupted by a flaring curve - like a quaver, Adams says.

The paintings share with the music a sense of energy and spontaneity - a quality Adams likes his work to have.

"This helps me in feeling that I am the guide of the brush rather than the master. This also applies in playing jazz improvisation. It helps to allow the feeling of notes you imagine to pass through you rather than trying to arrange them for the listener. In that way they can play themselves and the painting can really paint itself."

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