T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Floating on a white rabbit

By T.J. McNamara

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'Bad Dad' by Michael Zavros.
'Bad Dad' by Michael Zavros.

At a time when installations and found art flood the scene and Tracey Emin's famous bed is expected to realise more than $1 million at auction, it is unusual to see an exhibition of precise realism in paint.

Prominent Australian artist Michael Zavros is an exceptionally gifted draughtsman and an outstanding painter. Interestingly for a contemporary artist, he is devoted to the pleasure principle. His paintings at Starkwhite give delight.

His work is in some measure autobiographical. The show is called Bad Dad, which sounds like a child's playful talk. It includes a delightful short digital film of one of his small daughters dancing and miming in front of a television screen while the artist is painting in his studio.

The painting that gives the show its title is a self-portrait. It shows the artist in a swimming pool leaning on an inflated white rabbit, surrounded by colourful pool toys. The mastery of painting is apparent in the tiny flecks of white that make the arm of the figure and his hair look convincingly wet.

It is possible to read meaning in the painting beyond simple representation. As well as a hint of Alice in Wonderland, his pose recalls a painting of Narcissus by Caravaggio. In mythology, Narcissus spent endless time contemplating his image in pools of still water. Any artist, it suggests, is often lost in contemplating himself, his thoughts and actions, even in a swimming pool.

In another lively work, Zavros paints one of his expensive ties rising up like a striking cobra. Such still-life gives opportunities for displays of virtuosity. The Greek is a work of remarkable verisimilitude. It is a rhapsody in blue with blue hydrangeas and a deep blue glass vase with a band of classical pattern in gold. The delicacy of the variation in blue is masterly. The nature of the composition is quietly but distinctly phallic.

This art is a balancing act. Upstairs are two other arrangements of hydrangeas in glass vases. The flowers are humorously shown in the shapes of a rabbit and a poodle. These are on the edge of kitsch but do not quite tip over.

The same area displays etchings and a charcoal drawing as tributes to men and horses inspired by the Marlboro Man. The exactness of detail and the control of tone are impressive. Cowboy pictures could easily be banal but these are not.

At the level of astonishing virtuosity this is a fine exhibition with an underlying wit always present in the skill.

From paintings that look like photographs to photography itself is a small step this week. Expatriate New Zealand artist Boyd Webb has an exhibition of recent photographs called Images from the Cusp at Two Rooms. Webb left New Zealand in the 1970s as a conceptual artist and sculptor but his international reputation is based on theatrical, surreal tableaux contrived in his studio and photographed on a large scale. He was short-listed for the famous Turner Prize and in 1997 had a show at the Auckland Art Gallery.

'Slim' by Boyd Webb (detail).
'Slim' by Boyd Webb (detail).

The exhibition at Two Rooms is different. Each work is a medium-sized print of a single small object. The emphasis is on colour but with the surreal quality of his big tableaux.

Webb is keen on the interaction of word and image so the titles are important. They add to the frisson offered by the objects, mostly seen against a plain background. Slim is a tiny peg-shaped doll, probably originally given to a teething child. Its halo of carved hair and the absence of arms give it a strange, archaic air. Some of the dolls must be very tiny but they are enlarged for the photographic prints. The most compelling one is Visage where the sweet, artificial face that fills the space has a disturbing stare.

The edgy quality extends to fish coloured like jewels that on examination turn out to be lures. There is an irony that an object looking like a fine fish is a device for killing them. Objects of artifice given a disturbing twist through masterly photography make this a fine exhibition though not quite what we expect of Boyd Webb.

FHE Galleries are showing the photographs of Casey Moore, also from New Zealand, and living in London. He works with a large-format camera.

His subjects are, for the most part, flowers greatly enlarged. Cut flowers inevitably die quickly. The images of these blooms are slightly blurred to imply transience and change.

'Camera Ephemera' by Casey Moore.
'Camera Ephemera' by Casey Moore.

This way of working has gains and limitations. A softened rose enlarged can look like thick felt yet the complexity of a dahlia looks rich but vulnerable.

Elsewhere in the show the artist has black and white enlarged photographs of insects from the British Natural History Museum collections. These are sharply detailed and sit well with ferns in a similar format. This part of the exhibition spreads over both parts of FHE and it is descriptive and thought-provoking.

At the galleries

What: Bad Dad by Michael Zavros

Where and when: Starkwhite, 510 Karangahape Rd, to June 28

TJ says: Virtuoso photographic realism in paint combined with a shrewd wit and desire to please make this an exceptional, if unlikely, exhibition on the current scene.

What: Images from the Cusp by Boyd Webb

Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to July 12

TJ says: Tiny dolls enlarged to human stature and fish that are not what they seem are photographed and given vivid life by light and colour.

What: Camera Ephemera by Casey Moore

Where and when: FHE Galleries, 3 Kitchener St, to June 28

TJ says: Using retro camera, film and printing methods all his own, Casey Moore makes large images of flowers emphasising their ephemeral nature and of insects and ferns conveying their richness of detail.

- NZ Herald

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