T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: From the sublime to the meticulous

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Alexandra Kennedy, 'Packing Triangles'. Photo / Natalie Slade
Alexandra Kennedy, 'Packing Triangles'. Photo / Natalie Slade

There was a time when abstract art was new territory in this country. What was a frontier is now occupied in many forms. There was also a time when a big exhibition by an Australian artist would have been a rare event. The work by Dale Frank at the Gow Langsford Gallery would once have been something new in subject and material.

The show, Devon Is My Favourite Luncheon Meat, is surprising only for the sheer size of the work. Frank's style is well-known: abstractions in thick, highly coloured resin varnish. The medium allows him to achieve colours of great intensity and a highly polished surface. The fluidity of the varnish enables him to mix colours in huge, interacting swirls and contrast these with linear, dripped trails. It is a dazzling form of abstract impressionism and the results are symphonic in a vividly visual, lollipop way.

Any solemnity is tempered by the improvised quality of the forms and by the titles. The titles are less indecent than previously, but still have the feeling of afterthoughts rather than a statement of intent.

Soaked White Bread has dark caverns, caves and a potent flow of green that seems more seashore than preparation for frying. The rich blue and red of The Boy with Three Nipples and Lovely Locks has no hint of a figure, but some paintings like Wesley's Turtle Neck and Turtle Head have bold, thrusting forms that reach across the picture space.

The paintings are spectacularly colourful and one of their great merits is the sense the viewer has of participation in the multitude of decisions involved in their making. Although every form has an unpredictable originality, one is constantly reminded of a controlling mind at work with huge experience in this unusual medium.

The seven works are hung together as one huge mural. This adds to the overall impact, but emphasises the lack of a distinctly individual atmosphere in each one.

The four artists who make up Quattro at the Antoinette Godkin Gallery are also working in the field of abstraction, but are much more restrained. They practise geometrical abstraction, with hard edges and shapes more precise than anything found in Frank's surging paintings.

Alexandra Kennedy has a big work painted directly on to one of the gallery's largest walls composed entirely of triangles. The work will inevitably be lost at the end of the show, but it can be re-made on any wall if commissioned. It has an unobtrusive elegance allied to clean, pale colours. It is one-dimensional but the precise pencil drawings jag about as groups of lines in space and give much more of a sense of tension and movement.

Monique Jansen's work is notable for painstaking drawing that gently subverts geometry with a touch of human frailty. Her screen-print in this show is more open than her intense drawings, but is still basically variations on a grid. By contrast, Sarah Munro makes tight structures where perspective, light and shade make them three-dimensional. They thrust out from the wall in neat geometric abstract games established by computer programs.

The most colourful and varied painting in this quartet is by Kathy Barry. Her forms are more varied and rhythmic, but they too show there is life in geometric abstraction.

Abstraction can work in ways both large and small. Frank's work is rompingly large, but most of the work in Restraint, a third exhibition largely of abstract art at Sanderson Contemporary Art, is really tiny.

Charlotte Nancy floats pale tinted ovals on fields of colour in a way that is simple but moody. Wendy Kawabata makes three-dimensional patterns from pages of books fanned out into cone shapes, but her tiny drawings of cloud-like shapes float in a wide white space. Clare Kim makes even more minute images of medallion shapes compiled of innumerable dots. In a variation, Alexandra Odelle joins a multiplicity of scale shapes to form clusters with a hint of colour peeping through.

Amid all this abstract art and infinite capacity for taking pains, it is almost a relief to turn to two exceptionally large drawings of industrial structures by Antony Densham. These impressive images are done in charcoal, always the medium for those who want to draw on a large scale. The charcoal gives dramatic light and shade to Xerox copies of pictures of towers and steel structures connected by ladders.

The drawings are as atmospheric and visionary as the etchings of imaginary prisons made by Piranesi in the 18th century.

The splendid exhibition of the 20 years of winners of the Wallace Art Awards at the Pah Homestead is a potted history of art over the last two decades.

The awards have the distinction of being judged by artists and consequently there is an emphasis on skill in painting and making, as well as conceptual imagination. Many of the winners were young artists at the start of their careers and have gone on to establish a reputation developed from their early vision.

There is an extraordinary variety in terms of size and authority. If there is any trend visible, it is that the work has become more radical over time, though there is only one work of photography.

The show is an exciting tribute to the quality of art here and the generosity of the valuable prize. One of the judges of some of the early awards was Lady Pippa Blake, who has a substantial exhibition at Artis Gallery in Parnell this week.

At the galleries

What: Devon Is My Favourite Luncheon Meat, by Dale Frank
When and where: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to March 17
TJ says: Prominent Australian painter shows examples of his characteristic painting using thick, vividly coloured varnish in constant fluid movement.

What: Quattro: Sarah Munroe, Kathy Barry, Alexandra Kennedy, Monique Jansen
Where and when: Antoinette Godkin Gallery, 28 Lorne St, to March 22
TJ says: Four artists all working in abstraction but using the picture space in different ways in mural painting, drawing and screen-print.

What: Restraint: Antony Densham, Catherine Ellis, Wendy Kawabata, Clare Kim, Charlotte Nancy, Alexandra Odelle
Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary Art, 251 Parnell Rd, to March 4
TJ says: An exhibition by artists who mostly work in small, subtle abstraction in a variety of media, but dominated by two big drawings of industrial subjects.

What: Twenty Years of Winners: Wallace Awards Paramount Winners 1992-2011
Where and when: Pah Homestead, 72 Hillsborough Rd, to April 22
TJ says: The long-established award, judged by artists, has had many young winners who went on to establish considerable careers. Dale Frank's No2 They Confiscated My Tusks (left); Packing Triangles by Alexandra Kennedy (above); Anthony Densham's No3 Composite Study I (right).

- NZ Herald

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