T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: A profound sense of unease

From soil, to beaches, to insects, three exciting new exhibitions tell the stories of our landscapes.

A woman watches '2.5 Kilometre Mono Action for a Mirage' by Alex Monteith. Photo / Supplied
A woman watches '2.5 Kilometre Mono Action for a Mirage' by Alex Monteith. Photo / Supplied

With both the Auckland Arts Festival and the Triennial in May that will incorporate international art, we have strong reminders this week of the inexhaustible material artists find in our local life and landscape.

The soil itself is the subject of the big suite of paintings by Michael Shepherd at Whitespace gallery and it is also, in a way, the medium of the work. The artist has always been a technical virtuoso in the use of oil paint, but here he has changed to using a special acrylic paint that allows a huge range of tones. In these paintings the main colour is an organic brown used as a thick impasto, as well as thin spatters that fall like brown rain.

New Zealand artists often convey a sense of unease, and there is a profound concern for the future of our landscape in these paintings.

Most are a uniform size done on rectangular panels, each marked with a vertical row of holes, such as those found in pads where sheets are torn off in turn. This gives the clue to the titles.

Each of the 26 smaller works is called The Invoice Spoken for Anathoth. The holes suggest they are demands for payment.

Anathoth is a reference to a field bought by the prophet Jeremiah when he knew it would be overrun by the enemy, but would be reclaimed.

Other biblical references are in the excellent essay by Elizabeth Rankin with the show.

The paintings show the abuse of the land, but for all their grim power they do not deny the possibility of hope. There is a price to be paid, hence the invoices for the desolation.

Yet these are not tracts. They are contemplations, images with a memorable impact, which work on many levels. A dark pool of waste in a wide landscape is inscribed with "baptism". The tray of an abandoned truck is like an altar stone from the past. Ranks of alien corn are an invading army. The hook of a digger becomes a thing of menace.

A variety of techniques including drips and runs support the emotional effect.

Four bigger paintings have the same mood and levels of thought as the invoice paintings, but are less conspicuously metaphorical. They have the same level of accomplishment, vision and symbolism that make this rare Shepherd exhibition so remarkable.

Another work which has the New Zealand landscape as a principal actor is Temporary Mechanisms by Alex Monteith, who is showing a video work at Gow Langsford in Lorne St. Her work has previously mostly been seen in public galleries, at a previous Triennial and as a Walters Prize finalist.

The video now on show was made in 2011 and is a characteristic work.

The landscape is Muriwai beach, used for the quality of its wet sand at low tide and the spray that dissolves the distance in mist.

The work is described as 2.5 Kilometre Mono Action for a Mirage. It lasts 3.29 seconds. Basically, it is moto-X rider Mark Buxeda riding with the front wheel off the ground. In sum, it is much more than that.

We are looking along the beach where the sand near the water is largely unmarked. The sound effect is waves breaking on the shore. In the distance, in the mist, we can dimly see figures moving.

In the haze a tall figure emerges, apparently topped by a cross. Still in the extreme distance a flag waves, birds fly up and the totem-like figure gets gradually larger, reflected in shallow water. At this stage all is still quiet and the figure is shrouded in mystery as much as in mist. It approaches slowly and there is a sudden and startling end followed by calm again.

The work has elements of myth alongside the modern documentary reality. The mysterious figure has the strangeness of a dream. It is a monster emerging tall, strange and anonymous from the mist. There is no explanation or story.

It is complete in itself as an experience - and a very striking one.

Something also very New Zealand comes to us by way of London. Casey Moore is a New Zealand-born, London-based photographer, and his subjects, on display at FHE, come from the collections of the British Museum and may have been collected as early as the voyages of Captain Cook. The giant weta, the puriri moth and the giant bush dragonfly all have a special place in our fauna and imagination. These three are shown in exceptionally large, sharply detailed black-and-white prints.

The traditional process and use of silver gelatin paper convey both the delicate transparence of the dragonfly's wings and the polished leather hardness of its upper body.

Every hook and spike of the weta is there to give it horrid presence, and the hair on the back of the moth is like a fur coat.

It is a small exhibition, but brilliantly revealing.


At the galleries

What: Anathoth and Other Pottles by Michael Shepherd
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to March 17
TJ says: Exceptionally rich both in imagery and paint quality, this exhibition stresses damage to the land but hints at redemption.

What: Temporary Mechanisms by Alex Monteith
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to March 16
TJ says: A video that is a stunning tour de force combining documentary with poetic use of misty beach landscape and mythical force.

What: Anostostomatidae and Friends by Casey Moore
Where and when: FHE Galleries, 2 Kitchener St, to March 16
TJ says: The Latin in the title of the show refers to the giant weta which, with the equally iconic puriri moth and giant bush dragonfly, is seen in extraordinary detail in exceptionally large black and white photographs.The Invoice Spoken for Anathoth by Michael Shepherd, left; The Dragonfly, by Casey Moore, centre; and the video 2.5 Kilometre Mono Action for a Mirage by Alex Monteith.

For gallery listings, see www.nzherald.co.nz/arts

- NZ Herald

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