By T.J. McNAMARA
Contrast - polarity, difference, apposition, opposition, light and dark, chiaroscuro - is the stuff of life and art. The Auckland Art Gallery can give us such contrasts because it is two galleries, the old and the New.
The popular Grahame Sydney exhibition was well positioned in the old gallery. The Stephen Bambury exhibition, Works 1975 - 1999, mostly about opposition and reflection, is splendidly displayed in the New.
Abstract, geometrical, minimalist art is difficult. It is doubtful whether this exhibition, which comes from the City Gallery in Wellington and is curated by Wystan Curnow, will be as popular as the Sydney show - despite the fact that every time we consider placement when we plant a tree or hang a picture, or consider the colour when we paint the kitchen, we are involved in abstract art.
Bambury's works are for the most part made up of squares that form crosses. They are severely geometrical although sometimes there are small, unexpected displacements that rack up the visual tension a little.
There are factors that elevate these works to the status of fine art - sometimes, here and there, magnificent art.
One of the factors is hinted at in one of the long titles the works carry, Mechanical Reproduction Depreciates the Quality of the Presence of the Actual Work of Art. This piece is a tall column of repeated elements that rises from the floor. It has presence because of the subtle modulations of surface, the changes we can observe in each of its elements, exquisite variations on a theme. The fact that it begins on the floor emphasises the architectural nature of much of Bambury's painting. At one level the merit of the work is as a complement to the plain spaces of modern architecture.
Another element that lifts these works into the realm of art is the extraordinary richness and unexpected subtlety of colour. The subtlety lies not only in the choice of colour but also the arrangement of it. Frequently the colours are simply the primary colours so dear to Mondrian, who is the grandfather of this sort of painting, but it is the arrangement that matters, how it makes the eye reach from one colour to another across the rich silver, copper or gold surfaces that separate them.
When Bambury departs from the primary colours he can provide startling combinations. An early work, simply titled No. 51, is two panels, one green and one grape. The grape colour is deep, rich and intense. The green is thin and the canvas shows through. It has movement where the other colour is static. The difference in intensity is emphasised by the darker colour being on a slightly smaller surface. The painting is about colour, reaction to it, and to ways of applying it.
Much of Bambury's early work is in the nature of demonstration. His evolution to mastery is long and here obscured by the fact that the paintings are not hung in chronological order. Some paintings have been suited to little nooks in the gallery. One construction is high on the wall of the light well. The principle behind this is not only to suit the painting to the situation, which has been expertly done, but also to force the viewer to consider individual paintings apart from any notions of progress. The visitor would do well to take the ground plan offered by the attendant and, for goodness' sake, turn left at the top of the stairs. Turn right and you are lost. The viewer who considers the dates will find that the early works are troubled.
Works such as Unity and Division (1986), which is made up of two uninspired frames, or the simple white frames of Arogoto are unconvincing. In the early works there is a problem with edges. A work such as Area Series Red (1978) has wonderful colour but must be seen from straight in front.
Bambury successfully solves the edge problem when he shifts to painting on metal plates. He gains immensely from the qualities and colour of the metal, which plays an important part in such pieces as Siena Vi, where colour, textures and shape-shifting make a work that is vibrant and monumental.
There is one triumphant piece of hanging. Two grand paintings, The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo, are inspired by Hopkins' great poem. One is dark and strong, the other lyrical and full of movement. They are not hung together but if you stand near the division in Gallery 18 you are close to The Golden Echo and on a distant wall you can see the substantial presence and dark polarity of The Leaden Echo.
This and the luminous and chiming effects of Of the Feminine and Masculine are the sumptuous high points of this important exhibition.