T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Strokes on a broad canvas

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The arrival of Europeans in NZ makes for some precious art

'Genesis' by James Ormsby at Whitespace Gallery. Photo / Richard Robinson
'Genesis' by James Ormsby at Whitespace Gallery. Photo / Richard Robinson

A new work by James Ormsby, measuring 8.5m long, graces an entire wall at Whitespace Gallery. Entitled Genesis, this impressive length of fine paper is lettered with the opening chapters of the Bible in English and Maori. The drawings that illuminate it refer to the arrival of the European in Aotearoa and the development of relations with Maori. In the middle is a detailed drawing of two sticks bound together in union but with a gap accentuating that they were originally separate.

The texts make impressive columns of writing, but are difficult to read as they have a specially designed crowded, hermetic typeface.

This difficulty is a link with The Ormesby Psalter, a 13th century illuminated manuscript of the Psalms meant for meditative reading held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The work, an amalgam of art and text, was done by an ancestor of the artist.

One feature of the original work is the beautifully illuminated initial capitals.

Ormsby has decorated his English text with magnificent capitals and the Maori with plainer ones in a different style. A vast stylised waka stretches right along the lower part of the work, drawn in the patient, linear style that is the trademark of Ormsby's art. The waka begins on the left with areas of black that are the darkness of time. Then a geometric maze suggests order, followed by a whirlwind that is the turmoil of life. On the extreme right are a series of heads displayed like a genealogy.

Of the drawings interspersed among the columns of text, one shows Cook's ship Endeavour. On the ship is mounted a saw blade with its associations of deforestation, and from the top of the mast circles of red drop down. They recall Allen Curnow's magical line from his poem about Tasman's visit, "The stain of blood that writes an island story." This work was initially shown in London.

Other pieces in the show take up aspects of this large impressive work. They are done in ink, an unforgiving medium when used on paper, but Ormsby's hand never falters in the impressive detail and intricate patterns. All the drawings are concerned with history and national identity. At a time when art is overwhelmingly international, they are something very precious for this country.

There is a mystical element in the refined work of Kazu Nakagawa at the Bath Street Gallery. He has long been resident in New Zealand and became prominent for his exquisitely crafted furniture in wood. In recent years he has made sculpture in wood. The works are small in scale with pale scrubbed surfaces, sometimes with canvas glued to give subtle texture and accentuated with carved details in black.

The series are conceived as symbols of a set for a play about life. They are often very beautiful although carry a weight of thought.

The making of the works is very precise. In Moon and Remnant the two parts fit together exactly when the work is closed. When they are opened they reveal classical lettering.

The narrow staircases that are a feature lead from one stage of being to another related state. The three Temples of the Moon, Sun and Tide are excellent examples. The meditated simplicity and calm of this work captures something of the essence of life.

Life as a child seen through the spectacles of adulthood is the subject matter of the surreal work of another immigrant artist, Joon Hee Park, at Orexart. This vivid exhibition has works full of sharp detail, generally of toys, all observed by a childlike figure with an adult face. There is just enough knowingness in the face to bear comparison with Paula Rego, the British painter who does similar situations but with more savage tensions.

The work is at its most obvious in Temptation where the figure sits by a window surrounded by large lollies, mostly liquorice allsorts in bright colour. The still-life realism of much of the work is carried out with consistent accuracy, with snail shells, lobsters, dolls or even jellyfish in Jellydream.

This makes some paintings very static. An exception is Spiky Journey where the girl is floating over hill and lake in a teacup supported by an accurately painted, smiling puffer fish. Here the Alice in Wonderland quality really takes off.

Artists manifest energy in various ways. There is just time to catch the exhibitions at Two Rooms Gallery that show this. Downstairs Judy Darragh's SCI FI is one of her best exhibitions yet.

She takes the big PVC banners that advertise action films and obscures their titles, retains some of their details but gives them abstract energetic drive with powerful flashes of white and colour, red-rimmed spheres, tiny glass balls and tape.

The transformation doubles the power of the image and makes it general rather than particular.

Upstairs is work by a prominent British artist, Alexis Harding. He gets startling visual drama from the chemical mismatch between artists' oil paint and household enamel. This collision causes skinning, wrinkling and a spectacular surface. Harding uses the process to such good effect that he won the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize.


At the galleries

What: Work on Paper by James Ormsby
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to December 1
TJ says: Material drawn from illuminated work by an ancestor in the 13th century is combined with Maori tradition using Ormsby's unique drawing style.

What: If Things Were Perfect by Joon Hee Park
Where and when: Orexart, Khartoum Pl, to December 1
TJ says: Sharply painted surreal dreams of the temptations and memories of childhood.

What: A Play and Land by Kazu Nakagawa
Where and when: Bath Street Gallery, 43 Bath St, Parnell, to December 1
TJ says: Small, simple, immaculately made sculpture that carries a weight of thought and feeling with classical simplicity.

What: SCI by Judy Darragh; The Long Room Drying Depot by Alexis Harding
Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, to November 24
TJ says: Judy Darragh spectacularly adds explosive abstract energy to film posters; English painter Alexis Harding makes colourful use of the chemical interaction of artists' oil and household enamel paint.

- NZ Herald

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