It is some time since we had a passionate art controversy in Auckland. Past arguments were stimulated by overseas exhibitions or sculpture bought by the Auckland Art Gallery that upset conservative city councillors.
Now the controversy is closer to home, about photography shown by Jono Rotman at Gow Langsford in Lorne St. The dispute is not over the quality of the work but the subject matter, eight fierce, marginalised men from the Mongrel Mob. All but one have full-face tattoos. Zap Notorious proclaims his affiliation and notoriety in large lettering tattooed right across his forehead and nose. The one man without tattooing also has the cleanest jacket but his expression is as troubling as the rest.
The demeanour of these men is aggressive and arrogant. Their gaze is challenging even when a subject, Bung Notorious, has only one good eye. In their regalia of black, white and red the men go out of the way to be offensive by identification with the hideous energies of Hitler's Nazi party. Two wear German helmets. One, bright red, has the insignia of the SS on it. Swastikas are everywhere. The Nazis had a genius for military style in uniform and its malign attraction.
Here the striking panoply of regalia suggests the feeling of being outside the law and acceptable social behaviour. The faces are superbly photographed in composition and in detail, over life-size and in colour. The poses are monumental and give more than a hint of the heroic, notably in Willy Clark. Does this make the work bad art?
It is relevant here to consider the paintings of Gottfried Lindauer, given to the city by public subscription, that are soon to be shown in Berlin and the artist's home city of Pilsen. Some of the images are tattooed warriors proudly carrying weapons. In their time these were honourable men. Art can record the heroic along with the brutal.
Lindauer based many of his paintings on photographs but softened his subjects into the picturesque. Rotman's photographs are certainly not picturesque. They emphasise conscious brutality yet in the same way as Lindauer they bear witness. They are a record, done brilliantly and are totally memorable images. This does not disguise the menace presented by the subjects. Their truth brings a shudder of dismay at an alienated malignancy that is a sharper emotional response than many exhibitions evoke.
Gow Langsford's second gallery on Kitchener St is showing art that is more abstract and much more benign. All that Glitters concentrates on golden, feel-good colour.
Reuben Paterson has a circular work with a surface entirely of golden glitter. Auckland-born artist Max Gimblett has a quatrefoil of polished gold with barely perceptible traces of texture. It reflects viewers and dissolves them in a vision of peace and harmony achieved by inventive technique and emotional effect. The only turbulence in the show is found in the highly tactile, vigorous painting and silkscreen abstraction of Judy Millar. Other twin galleries offering contrasts are Fox/Jensen and Tim Melville which share a building in Newmarket.
Gentle but rich responses are evoked by the extraordinarily subtle works all called Accord by Geoff Thornley in Fox/Jensen. The subtlety lies in his magical surfaces. Each painting has a softly layered surface that blends colour in a harmony of waves. The work is rich and strange, the surface stabilised by bars of plain colour contrasting against the richness of the major part of the surface. The paintings achieve an impressive harmony varied only by the delicate colour combinations of each work. The effect is masterly.
Next door, the work of Elliot Collins is much more varied. His work hitherto has combined lively, atmospheric painting lettered with epigrams. In this show lettering plays its part but in different ways. A clever work is simply the letter C taken from a large metal sign and filled with bright blue neon tubes. The part played by words is in the punning title, Deep Blue Sea.
In the midst of this experimentation is an exceptionally large piece of pure painting in four panels. It contains a horizontal dark area of black with minute touches of colour that recalls Ralph Hotere. A lettered rubric appears out of this dark. Above it is a richly painted area of light that is like McCahon and the horizons of his Muriwai visions It is an impressive painting and aptly titled This is Where I leave You, as a talented artist expands his horizons.
At the galleries
What: Photographs by Jono Rotman; All That Glitters
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St and 2 Kitchener St, to May 24
TJ says: At one gallery is the impact of brilliant photographs of men who notoriously set themselves apart; at the other serene art of golden visions with much less immediate shock.
What: Accord by Geoff Thornley
Where and when: Fox/Jensen Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to May 31
TJ says: All the artist's experience and skill show in the colour of these richly modulated abstract surfaces tensioned by bars of clear space.
What: This is Where I Leave You by Elliot Collins
Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to May 31
TJ says: The continuing development of this painter shows in his experimental technique and in the very large painting that gives its name to the show.