T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

TJ McNamara: Magic mushrooms and pounding hooves

From misery abroad to quiet fungi at home, a bit of everything on show in city

Clinton Watkins' Stride. Photo / Sam Hartnett
Clinton Watkins' Stride. Photo / Sam Hartnett

Photography used to fall into categories: press, art, documentary and, latterly, the moving photography of video. Today the categories are blurred, with a bit of everything in Auckland this week and a stylish flourish of painting to top it off.

The biggest collection is the annual World Press Photo Competition at the Nathan Club in Customs St, with dozens of brilliant shots mostly concerned with human misery and violence.

The local photography is more quiet and still and less involved with human misery.

The exhibition by Fiona Pardington called Phantasma at Two Rooms takes documentary and makes it art. This fascinating exhibition follows on from her previous show of plaster casts made by early French explorers in the Pacific. The strangeness of those dusty heads is more than equalled here. The subjects are mushrooms from a collection donated in 1863 to the old Museum of Natural History in Nice by one Jean-Baptiste Barla.

The Barla fungi are vividly coloured plaster and wax models in museum cases, carefully lit and enlarged against a dark background by the photographer. The result is a series of images that make the strange forms weave in the dark.

The darkness is a reminder of how mushrooms appear almost miraculously overnight.

The strangeness of these specimens is emphasised by the 19th century handwritten cards that give the scientific name of the fungus and the area where it was collected, alongside a note about which are edible and which are poisonous.

These strange fungi range in form from the very aptly named Phallus impudicus, which looks almost pornographic, to the craterous Craterellus cornucopioides, known as Trumpets of Death.

Some are familiar, such as the ones with big, spreading orange heads covered with spots. This is evocative of fairy tales, rather grim fairy tales, and legends of magic mushrooms and transformations.

These exhibits are one step away from their original fleeting reality and the way they are photographed means they take on a further almost mythical unreality. Upstairs at Two Rooms is an exhibition by painter Stephen Bambury made up mostly of paper collages and screen prints. The imagery is his usual blocky cross forms given a new impact by the use of beautiful hand-made paper. The work is at its most effective when he uses gold and black metal foil as collage or pale tissue in red and blue.

Allan McDonald in his show at Anna Miles Gallery is referred to as a "documentarian". In this show, his principal subjects are the forecourts of disused petrol stations. In all of them, even when their petrol pumps, bright lights and advertising have been stripped away, the pillars and canopy over the pumps remain. They are not the picturesque ruins of ancient civilisations but just a sober reminder of the inevitable changes made by commercial conditions.

A big photograph of a large, neglected garden filled with blooming trees running rampant behind a fence of barbed wire gives this small show a piquancy that the shots of petrol stations lack. This image too is about continual change.

Another small show is a touching exhibition by photographer Marie Shannon at the Sue Crockford Gallery. She was the partner of the late Julian Dashper. The works include three photographs of a plaster cast of the mask he was obliged to wear as protection during treatment for cancer.

They have the same dignity as a long-buried marble head of some Roman emperor.

More deliberately documentary is the photograph of stacks of paintings in the studio after their return from an exhibition.

Yet it is the plainest work of all that reveals with intensity the situation that faces all relatives after a death - a video which is simply text in a plain typeface read by the artist as it scrolls up the screen. Called What I Am Looking At, it shows him talking of works of art, memorabilia and the decisions of what to keep and what to discard. It is at once personal and universal.

The work of Clinton Watkins at Starkwhite has the quality of revealing moments of perception as only the moving image can.

The exhibition begins with a loop given away at an art fair. The loop shows fingers spinning a CD. As it turns, we get the dull side, then the delicate prismatic recording side. Then it turns more slowly and finally lapses, inert. The spinning is slowed down and makes us really look again at this commonplace object.

In the same way a video called Wave makes us aware of the power and force of water as a mighty wave falls into a river. In Stride, we are shown the movement of a pacing horse planting its forefeet. We see what we have never seen before: the way a horse flicks its hoof just before contact with the ground.

The short loop gives the effect of continual motion but it is really a few seconds repeated again and again. It is a revelatory use of the medium.

Stride is a large piece. On the stairs you can watch, on a small screen, the distant view of a hawk effortlessly turning, supporting itself on thermals. It is mesmerising.

A big video loop that makes great play with horizontal bands of colour dominates the gallery's main part. It is the biggest thing in the show but seems conventional, even trivial, compared with the insightful recording of natural rhythms.

The confident and stylish work by Julian Hooper at Ivan Anthony Gallery is the splash of painting in the week. He pays tribute to his Hungarian background with variations on the image of Vlad the Impaler.

There are larger works too, where furniture morphs into women in curious interiors, but the really snappy works are two small paintings where the relationships are more explicit but still dreamlike.

The most notable is Trio where two sea creatures are wooing a third, who for all his stylised oddity is positively smirking at the attention.

AT THE GALLERIES

Annual World Press Photo Competition Exhibition

* Where and when: 40 Nathan Club, Customs St East, to October 15

* TJ says: Extensive exhibition of press photography with emphasis on horror but look for the bullfight shot.

Phantasma by Fiona Pardington; Paper, Scissors, Rock by Stephen Bambury

* Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to October 22

* TJ says: Once again Pardington finds her subject in an old museum collection and turns quaint reality into magical art to match the magical mushrooms; Bambury pursues his abstract images through use of varying media.

Six Petrol Stations and a Garden

* Where and when: Anna Miles Gallery, 4J/47 High St, to October 22

* TJ says: Documentary photography of the imposing canopies of derelict petrol stations.

What I Am Looking At by Marie Shannon

* Where and when: Sue Crockford Gallery, Endeans Bld, 2 Queen St, to October 15

* TJ says: An intimate memorial to the late Julian Dashper.

Selections by Clinton Watkins

* Where and when: Starkwhite, 510 Karangahape Rd, to October 22

* TJ says: Videos where the recording of natural phenomena make more impact than large colour abstractions.

Seven Nights by Julian Hooper

* Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, 312 Karangahape Rd, to October 22

* TJ says: Stylish surrealistic dream of rooms, women, furniture and fish combined with variations of the portrait of Vlad the Impaler that inspired Dracula.

- NZ Herald

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