T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Water, water everywhere

By TJ McNamara

Vincent Ward's Painted Bird at Pah Homestead.  Photo / Steven McNicholl
Vincent Ward's Painted Bird at Pah Homestead. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Two brooding shows by two artists reveal an obsession with submersion.

"Not waving but drowning" is a line from a poem by Stevie Smith and it exactly applies to the tormented, naked women underwater in the installation Inhale by Vincent Ward at the Gus Fisher Gallery.

The artist brings to this work his huge reputation as a filmmaker and a vast technical expertise as well as his initial training as an art student. In keeping with modern art photography and high art videos, everything is blurred and this effect is multiplied by projecting the films on muslin screens. This enables the images to be seen from both sides and on a wall beyond the screen.

What is the purpose of the indistinctness of the body swirling in the confined space of a cellulose tube in green depths inhabited by fish? Ward is showing vulnerability in an unwelcoming though beautiful environment. This immediately evokes the myth of the sea nymph Undine who sought to find love on land and thereby gain a soul. This story is the basis of ballads and stories in many different cultures.

The ballet Ondine made famous with Margot Fonteyn is a modern version.

A myth is a way of exemplifying or explaining a natural phenomenon or human situation. The Undine myth is more than a fairy tale. It is an image of the unhappiness of a clash of cultures. For all its technical brilliance, potent colour and atmosphere, these images do not carry the symbolic or metaphoric message that would deepen their visual quality. They just suggest drowning.

Other images of a face peering through cracked blue glass also suggest women cut off, in isolation.

The work in the smaller room at the gallery uses short clips on four facing screens. The material is again images of myth: a shot taken from one of the artist's films of a great white horse bringing life or death to a helpless man under the street lights of a Taranaki town, the Blue Bird of Happiness against a colourful painted floral background, a tense woman's face dissolving in blood, a bird flapping its luminous wings in a void. These things are all visually strong but it is hard to make connections as they flit from one screen to the next.

The show at Gus Fisher is complemented by Exhale, a large display of his paintings at the Pah Homestead in Hillsborough. These big paintings are mostly figures of nude women swimming in the darkness of deep water, sometimes singly but often in pairs. They are an ambitious exercise in figure paintings.

Again they appear deeply troubled. They may suggest the Wagnerian Rhine Maidens after they have been robbed of their gold but there is not enough context to make them illustrative of some particular story. They are labelled Swallowed, Falling, Abandoned. They are imposing works because of their size and dark backgrounds. Yet the most painterly works are not the women but a bright, almost abstract painting of coloured leafage, Painted Bird, and an apocalyptic work, The Blood Dimmed Tide.

The two exhibitions together are a body of work of a size seldom seen here. They are evidence of an enormous talent not working at full potential and, at times, more than a little misogynistic.

An exhibition equally consistent in style if not in scope is The Memory Archive by Evan Woodruffe at Orexart. These paintings have a documentary quality all done in dark monochrome in various shades of red, green and sepia in a special German resin-oil colour that imparts a range of tones resembling black and white photography.

The green shades give a heavy brooding quality to a forbidding hill in Are You Ready for the Country?, a work made truly strange by drainpipes in the foreground. Some other landscapes include children ambiguously shown as caught between wonder and fear as in Mixed-up Childhood. Like Vincent Ward the artist is intrigued by submersion in water, successfully in Submersible and less so in Gerascophobia (fear of growing up).

The outstanding work is the jolting rhythms of a rapt girl dancing around a fire that is certainly the record of a strong memory.

A very special evocation of a place as idea and memory is Redoubting Antarctica by Ruth Watson at Two Rooms. Throughout her career she has been preoccupied by cartography, with work here done over maps that have the South Pole at the centre. Target makes the Pole the bullseye and, more subtly, I know what you did last summer isolates the Pole of Relative Inaccessibility in a bright cartouche some distance away from the Pole itself.

The largest work in this absorbing show is a domed disc with Antarctica at the centre and the surrounding black richly textured with fine filings that make it like a sky of stars.

There is intriguing detail in a series of old prints of the part of an early Mercator map that shows an imagined extreme south.

The old maps also have marvellous details such as the open-air cooking fires that gave Terra del Fuego its name.

Upstairs at Two Rooms are four paintings by Jeena Shin that are the purest of pure abstraction. They show white on white. The work has the fascination of an extreme that approaches the absolute.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 28 Dec 2014 19:16:23 Processing Time: 237ms