T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Gardens of Eden

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Karl Maughan's new exhibition conveys pure delight in painting.

Beaconsfield Valley by Karl Maughan. Photo / Natalie Slade
Beaconsfield Valley by Karl Maughan. Photo / Natalie Slade

A new exhibition by Karl Maughan at the Gow Langsford Gallery is not a new departure in subject and style, but it shows further increase in the sheer flamboyance of the painter's technique.

As usual the subjects are gardens filled with flowering shrubs of many kinds, bisected by a sunlit path and backed by a cloudless sky of unvarying blue. The composition of these spectacular works is varied a little, to their advantage, by an arch in Rakehou Roa, which provides a contrast in light and shade, and an overhanging fringe of leafage in Beaconsfield Valley which emphasises the depth of the work.

This pelmet of leaves emphasises the genuinely fascinating quality of the work after the immediate impact of the stunning high-key colour of the flowers. The dark green overhang shows carefully studied pattern shapes, but the effect of light is conveyed by a series of flourishing touches of yellow along the lower edge of the leaves.

The same flair also deftly moulds absolutely convincing roses with three or four brush strokes and repeats the feat again and again.

This flair in handling paint is worthy of Manet. Maughan does the same with lilacs, hydrangeas, rhododendrons and a multiplicity of other flowers. The character of the flowers is captured too. The golden daisies in Halcombe Road do not all turn their faces to the viewer as happens in most flower paintings. They come at all angles. Other colours in the same paintings are unnatural, notably some foliage in blue, but are necessary to make the colour composition sing.

The result is not, despite the titles, a picture of a particular garden but a work on a large scale painted with great dexterity, impressive at a distance and fascinating at close range. They convey no sense of labour but rather pure delight in colour, shape and painting.

The Corban Estate Arts Centre is hosting a remarkable exhibition. In the early 1970s Brent Wong was considered one of our leading artists. In those days his paintings of rolling hills, characteristic of areas near Wellington, beneath bright skies with tumultuous clouds, had an uneasy, surrealist power. Enigmatic objects, sometimes abstract constructions, sometimes houses, hovered in the sky.

Later Wong abandoned this style for a different pre-occupation - light. He painted luminous circles and landscapes as atmospheric as Turner watercolours. For a while he stopped painting and was lost to the art scene.

The exhibition at Corban Estate is curiously titled Abandoned Works. It is made up of works that remained in his studio because he was not happy with them. His quality control must have been stringent because this exhibition has some startling paintings in the early style and some particularly striking landscapes flooded with light.

The show has three parts. The first is Surrealist Beginnings 1971-1974. The paintings in this room are similar to the ones in public galleries everywhere in New Zealand. The Wandering Land with a slice of land floating above the hills is as good as any done at this time. Snowstorm, with a different variety of cloud and a snail coming over the ridge of the hills, is a failed experiment, as is Volcanic Landscape with Still Life which is crowded with a jug and a balloon. Yet the works with houses and ruins instead of the shapes still retain their metaphysical force.

The second section is The Emergence of the Cloud where buildings are enhanced by the play of light, particularly on clouds. Some are simplified as in the plain Hill, Layered Cloud. Extra detail like some obtrusive butterflies in one work show some confusion of intent.

In the third room the paintings, some as recent as 2008, have a metaphysical feel. Tangible objects are almost absent except for a bright moon in Lunar Halo and landscape in the large but delicate Dust Dark Coast. Abandoned works these may be but they retain considerable potency and offer worthwhile insight into the development of an important painter.

Roberta Thornley has an exhibition called I Will Meet You There at the Tim Melville Gallery. The image with this title is a charming photograph of a grassy glade with a pattern of sunlight but the highlights are portraits of young men and women.

She finds one answer to the problem of making a portrait of an unknown sitter interesting as an image complete in itself by going back to the manner of Victorian photographer, the celebrated Julia Margaret Cameron. Backgrounds are dark and the light plays across features and shoulders. The profile shot of Max is close to a direct quotation of Cameron's style.

Most striking of all is Gabrielle, where a dip of neckline reveals the shadows of the collarbones, the tower of the neck and the lovely line of the cheek. The eyes are startlingly blue. It works as an image of character and grace without forcing or unnecessary drama. The art of Roberta Thornley continues to develop.

- NZ Herald

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