T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: From shark aggression to butterfly beauty

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Damien Hirst's skull is a vision of beauty, and Michael Smither's bars are linked to the musical scale.  Photo / Dean Purcell
Damien Hirst's skull is a vision of beauty, and Michael Smither's bars are linked to the musical scale. Photo / Dean Purcell

Damien Hirst is a world-famous brand with a great range of expensive products. He is a company with an entourage of associates and assistants like some of the great painters of the past. He is also an inspired artist.

His work usually conveys a feeling of aggressiveness. To see his celebrated shark in vitrine is to gaze down the maw of a killing machine. One of his huge flayed anatomical statues has graced the courtyard of the Royal Academy.

A bright red version of the same work, called Virgin Mother, in New York in front of the Lever Building, is shocking.

The young female figure has the skin peeled back on her right side and her swollen belly cut open to show the Christ Child in her womb and half the skull of her head is exposed.

There are skulls in the exhibition of his work at the Gow Langsford Gallery but most of the show is made up of prints of butterflies done last year and, surprisingly, they are simply very beautiful.

More beautiful than the real butterflies mounted on painting that are also part of the show.

Butterflies figure large in Hirst's work - many of his works use huge numbers of real butterfly wings - but these prints are more than lifesize artificial images using foil in colours that catch the light.

The method of applying the foil is something of a mystery, but it would seem it is attached to something like a wood-block, then pressed on the paper. There are editions of 15 of each image, but only one print of each is available here.

The colours are magnificent, often in unusual combinations such as maroon and gold. The blues and greens are particularly rich. The one print that is all gold is the least effective.

With more than two dozen variations, there is a great suite of the work on one wall. The butterflies are interspersed with some prints of skulls that have a similar jewelled splendour and are obviously derived from the famous diamond-covered skull that made the news some years ago.

A round skull also features in the one large painting in the exhibition. Its background is made darkly vibrant by the use of the fairground technique of dropping household enamel on the spinning disc.

The skull in the centre is not so much a reminder of mortality as a vision in keeping with the title, Beautiful Apollo Idealisation Painting. The work has startling carrying power.

Slightly more grim but equally colourful are a group of plastic skulls - all with full sets of teeth but fitted with watch faces in the eye-sockets and enamelled with paint dripped on the spinning subject. These works are called The Hours Spin Skulls and are completed by a tape of The Hours' latest album slotted into each head.

It is easy to dismiss Hirst as belonging to a movement in British art whose time has passed, but this show convincingly demonstrates that his invention still flourishes and it is really good to see evidence of it here in Auckland.

It is a while since Gretchen Albrecht was the brightest product of a new regime at Elam School of Fine Art. At the time, her work was surreal, then it grew into her vortex paintings that could evoke a variety of things from the sea to the heart of a rose. Colour, allied to sweeping brushwork, was always at the centre of the work. Her exhibition at Sue Crockford offers no surprises. The impressive vortexes of colour are, as usual, counterpointed by rigid geometrical bars that emphasise the depth of the swirl.

The paintings in this show range from a symphony in green and yellow called Falling on Grass to Ariel in white and blue to deep and dark blue ocean. They are as consistently fine and energetic as ever.

Another of our long-established artists whose work is dependent on colour is Michael Smither whose work is at Artis Gallery. Smither has displayed an extraordinary talent for handling paint evidenced by paintings of Taranaki and family situations that have become iconic in our art.

He is a musician and composer, so his art has recently become an abstract investigation of colour harmonies stimulated by the study of music. The tints are the same bright colours used in his former more conventional work but are restricted to 12 shades which he sees as corresponding to a scale of 12 notes.

The best of the pieces are two stacks of small rods called Four Spectrums I and II. These are bright assemblages with a distinct sense of progress up the stack.

They are eclipsed by the largest piece in the show which is in the same form but bigger, standing nearly 3m tall.

The rods making up the stack are balustrade wood that is smooth, hard and has something of the quality of a xylophone. The inspiration here is not so much music but sound effect.

The work is called Siren, based on the wail of a fire engine. The work is a whole series of distinct rods. A siren is a screeching glissando but once we know the title the sculpture seems to fit the fire brigade situation. It is a big, effective piece of decorative sculpture in the same way as the painted roundels are bright clear abstract works based on his perception of music.

Colour plays its part in the installation by Dane Mitchell at Artspace but the principle stimulus is not visual but scented.

In the main gallery with its blank white walls is a box made of mirror glass. At intervals it buzzes a little and releases a perfume the artist has concocted to match the situation. The scent is somewhat astringent.

In the second room the perfume has been dropped on photographic paper that will gradually develop in the intense red light of the room. The smallest room houses the best outcome of these demonstrations with a large piece of mirror glass that exactly reflects the ceiling. On it are placed sealed glass phials that contain the perfume. It can be seen but not smelt. The intriguing thing is the way the liquid gently vibrates in response to the traffic outside.

The perfume in three states - gas, solid and liquid - makes an installation as spare and sharp as the scent itself and introduces a new sensory stimulation to the art scene.

At the galleries

What: The Dead and the Souls, by Damien Hirst

Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to August 14

TJ says: Skulls as jewelled dead and souls as butterflies - the work of the famous British artist is often powerful and beautiful.

What: Falling on Grass, by Gretchen Albrecht

Where and when: Sue Crockford Gallery, Endeans Bld, 2 Queen St, to August 13

TJ says: The artist's familiar swirling voids of rich colour are as effective as always.

What: Harmonic Assembly, by Michael Smither

Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, to August 14

TJ says: More of the artist's explorations matching colour to musical scales in paintings and constructions.

What: Radiant Matter, by Dane Mitchell

Where and when: Artspace, level 1, 300 Karangahape Rd, to August 20

TJ says: A gas, a solid and a liquid - a specially designed perfume is transformed in this lean, spare, clinical conceptual show.

Check out your local galleries here.

- NZ Herald

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