T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Voyage into a fairyland

By T.J. McNamara

Artist is in full command of his rich works with subjects unique to this country.

Fishing for the Sun by Trenton Garratt
Fishing for the Sun by Trenton Garratt

Centuries ago, fairies were dangerous, not twinkling creatures with wands sprinkling Disney Dust. They were non-human people who could steal your soul. The fairies in the paintings of John Walsh at Gow Langsford are similarly potent, born from Maori legend and the darkness of the bush.

The exhibition, called The Voyagers, is full, deep forest allied to the penetration of sea and land. The method of painting on hardboard surfaces with thin, at times almost transparent, paint is equal to conveying both figures and landscape melded together with a sense of belonging.

Often the paintings show a vision between two dark masses of dense green foliage. Populating the vision are special figures. In Whenua Patupaiarehe (Fairy Land), ordinary human existence is indicated by a village almost lost in the wild sweep of landscape between sea and sky.

Much more prominent is a figure of a man with vividly coloured wings looking out from the bush towards the tiny figure of a woman in the middle distance. What is their relationship? It is left to the viewers' imagination but the tension between the two is palpable.

Walsh is in full command of such big works. Another is Marakihau, in which the spirit hovering over the land has the shape of a shark with a human head. The whiplash movement of the fish tail of the spirit is full of muscular power. Once again the sombre landscape is peopled only by a tiny village.

As well as the large paintings, the show includes a number of small but dramatic works. One, The Voyagers, gives its name to the whole exhibition. It is based on a drawing made by the chief, Thomas Tui, who went to England with missionary Thomas Kendal in 1818. There he made a drawing of a mighty waka crewed by odd dancing figures. Coincidentally, the drawing is on display in the Auckland Central Library as part of a superb display from the Sir George Grey Collection.

Walsh has used the figures but the canoe is modified by a shark tail and a mysterious figurehead with a face composed with the lightest of touches of paint.

The images extend to another small work, Te Hokinga Mai, in which the canoe is a coffin bearing an elder figure of immense dignity through the night to a new life.

Occasionally, there are lapses such as the fingers, which should curl around the staff of a Maori flag held by a man in a tree, but remain stiffly straight. Altogether though, Walsh's work, sweeping in technique and subjects special to this country, has developed to new heights. He has one clear style of expression, which links him to traditional painting.

Trenton Garratt is more modern. A varied show called Absorption and Reflection at Starkwhite comprises five works - small paintings, a large one and a sizeable installation. The eyecatching thing is the installation. Two tall pillars standing right in the middle of the floor are surrounded by a big water installation, about 2m by 6m, yet only a little over 2cm high.

The aggregate concrete of the floor is dead level and highly polished. Water is confined by a little transparent wall glued to the floor. It makes an exceptionally shallow pool that reflects the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling. The concrete underneath has a random pattern of patches where some areas absorb the water a little and look damper than the rest of the surface.

The effect of these damp patches under the thin layer of water produces remarkably lively shadows.

The large painting, Fishing for the Sun, has a blue background with a faint wave pattern on it. Across the canvas are a number of white dotted areas which shade off into clouds and the whole is dominated by two bright flashes of radiant white. It richly evokes the night sky without being an exact depiction. In the same way, small works in oil on silk are sprayed with a zigzag pattern that convincingly recalls waves. These are unframed, have tattered edges and are quickly improvised. There is more presence in two framed works, named after Takapuna and Milford, which have bright, white sunshine glittering across the top of the waves.

The whole exhibition is intriguing but the water installation is a transient demonstration and the improvised nature of some of the painting gives the feeling of a demonstration rather than a full exhibition.

An exhibition by Matt Palmer at NKB Gallery in Mt Eden is made up of landscape painting, atmospheric and generally dark in tone but devoid of human activity, though roads and houses play a part in several of the images. The subdued tone that unifies the works moves them from simple illustration to scenes richly reinterpreted by memory. The style is particularly effective as the road reaches to the sea in Castleford, Barrytown and where the houses dip over the ridge in Ridgeline, Mapui, King Country.



At the galleries

What: The Voyagers by John Walsh

Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to July 6

TJ says: Richly painted visions of the spirit world wrapped together with sombre landscapes and the past based on Maori legend.

What: Absorption and Reflection by Trenton Garratt

Where and when: Starkwhite Gallery, 510 K Rd, to July 13

TJ says: Paintings, which evoke waves, stars and the sun, allied to an ingenious installation using reflections in shallow water.

What: Memory and Myth by Matt Palmer

Where and when: NKB Gallery, 455 Mt Eden Rd, to July 9

TJ says: Moody landscapes with trees, houses and powerlines where the colour suggests shifts between memory and reality.

- NZ Herald

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