T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Young energy meets meditative maturity

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Reuben Paterson's Bottled Lightning. Photo / Natalie Slade
Reuben Paterson's Bottled Lightning. Photo / Natalie Slade

The double exhibition at the University of Auckland's Gus Fisher Gallery celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Elam School of Fine Arts as a degree-granting institution. It also makes an excellent start to the year's exhibitions.

The artists are Christine Hellyar and Reuben Paterson, both graduates of Elam. They belong to two generations: Hellyar is long-established as a sculptor and Paterson is the new generation exploring a range of media.

Above the doorway into Hellyar's exhibition is some of her early work, involving a clothesline of underclothing with intricate lace moulded in black latex to make it lasting and sculptural.

The exhibition inside the room, titled Hutton and Cotton, is more white than black. It is a meditation on the nature of museums and collections. The inspiration is one particular collection, the McGregor Museum, begun in 1884 and in 1975 named in honour of Professor W. R. McGregor. It was then partially demolished in 1991 in response to demands for space at the university.

The small gallery at Gus Fisher is exactly the right space for such an installation, since it preserves the building's original floor, and the tall windows have the feeling of both a chapel and museum. They make the room a special place.

In this place are installed some cabinets and drawers saved from the McGregor Museum. Because this is a work of art about museums and not a museum itself, the pieces installed have been made by the sculptor.

Drawers mounted on the wall contain landforms done in coarse white knitting, folded like hills. The landforms are based on the linear diagrams in the celebrated book on geomorphology by Professor C. A. Cotton. His diagrams influenced mighty paintings of hills by Colin McCahon. Here the knitting links them to craftwork and they become, as it were, domesticated.

They fold into a Marine Terrace, a Submarine Shoreline, or a Wave Cut Seacliff. These plain forms are enlivened by small precious details such as a cluster of pearls, or a small crocheted volcanic rock.

One wall is given over to 12 boxes that contain what look like whitened moa bones. The extinct past is depicted by the threatened present because the "bones" are actually branches of the kawakawa tree, which is threatened by a virus.

Kawakawa twigs as bones are assembled in clay nests in a group of three cabinets rescued from the McGregor Museum. The cabinets also have specimens of fungi, an algae and big shell-like shapes. A great deal of the exhibition is clay-white, but in and on the cabinets are nets and braided ropes, often in vivid red. These colourful works recall specimens of plaiting and net weaving collected by early explorers.

Woven through all this serious reference is a vein of whimsical irony culminating in a splendid work called Big White Cloud that hangs between the tall windows. It has fat globes at the top and long trailing falls of cotton as a pun on the name of the scientist.

The foyer at Gus Fisher is dominated by a big Reuben Paterson gesture. It is a vast drape of Mylar foil hung on the stairs. It pings light everywhere across the foyer and it is typical of the artist's use of modern sparkling media, including sequins, diamond dust, huge quantities of his trademark glitter, as well as video.

The most famous user of glitter is the British artist Chris Ofili, who is quoted as saying that these days "decorative beauty is a rather taboo thing". In the midst of a good deal of contemporary irony and intellectual outrage, Paterson's work is first and foremost decoratively spectacular.

Whereas Ofili uses glitter to suggest magic, Paterson uses glitter to refer to history - his personal history and his part-Scottish, part-Maori background.

It may be of some account that the artist was born near the coast in sight of the volcanic mutterings of White Island, because the work does have an inner energy and the glitter, which seemed self-consciously kitsch in his early work, now conveys an impressive optical energy.

The show's major work is a huge mural, Bottled Lightning. Reading from the left, the panels incorporate fabric patterns remembered from his grandmother's dresses, thrusting kowhaiwhai patterns and looping stylised patterns of vegetation and then, suddenly, a frowning lion face like those sometimes found on bed-spreads and hangings. It is aggressive and adds a special force to the thrust of the more abstract patterns.

The transforming power of the glitter does not work quite so well when applied to a big box of shoes. It really is too much Cinderella stuff.

But there are two collections of gourds, which have been made vivid by sequins large and small, suspended from carefully plaited cords that terminate in neat bindings around their stalks. This element of careful making also extends to the big paintings, where the areas of colour are sharply defined and the glittering surface is flawless.

Even when the work is black and white, like Nigh, in the foyer, the precision of the fragmented patterns which set black and white against each other adds to the tension and links it to the video. That also has expanding and contracting patterns which you look down into, like a pool.

Also in the foyer are three paintings that are great fun. Party fun. They have bits of ribbon, sparkles, streamers, ejaculations of colourful pigment, and the tawdry memory of celebration. They could only be done by a young artist. They are inconsequential but very funny, especially Older and Wiser.

It emphasises the contrast at Gus Fisher between the exuberance of energetic promise and meditative maturity.

At the galleries

What: Hutton and Cotton, The McGregor Museum Revisited, by Christine Hellyar; Reuben Paterson: Bottled Lightning

Where and when: Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to March 3

TJ says: To commemorate the Jubilee Year of the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland, its gallery is showing the contrasting work of two Elam graduates; with a fine flourish it combines solemnity and glitter.

Check it out
For gallery listings, see nzherald.co.nz/gallerylistings

- NZ Herald

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