T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Opus of enigma variations

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Powerful and sometimes perplexing surreal images stretch the imagination

Green Landscape with Wood by Andrew McLeod. Photo / Natalie Slade
Green Landscape with Wood by Andrew McLeod. Photo / Natalie Slade

Enigmatic is a word applied to both people and things. It certainly characterises Andrew McLeod because his work at Ivan Anthony ranges from a tiny painting called Pond, a gloomy image of dark paint that looks liquid and in which you can perhaps see a face, to very large figure paintings that recall academic works of the 19th century. In between are moderately sized, reticent abstractions with a gentle dance of forms that are a mixture of camouflage and koru.

The big paintings are particularly enigmatic, though done with great authority. They contain lots of detail for the eye to explore, quotations from art of the past, neat still-life and a variety of atmospheric effects. Yet they remain mysterious and difficult to decode.

Simplest are the paintings that quote figures and situations from the work of renowned Victorian painter of antiquity Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (There are three of his paintings in the Auckland Art Gallery.) In Classical Scene with Blue Sea, McLeod has adopted a typical scene by Alma-Tadema - now in the Manchester Art Gallery - of women in classical robes posed on a balcony with a pool overlooking the sea.

He has added a dark, intrusive woman in a striking headdress in the foreground. The blue of the sea is very Mediterranean.

Another work, similar in composition but not in atmosphere, is Seascape with Dandelion where a blue-eyed woman is matched by a dark-haired woman, both overarched by a giant dandelion. Here the sea is dark and foreboding. These are intriguing but are trumped by two splendid large works with a surreal atmosphere where quotations play a much smaller part and the whole image becomes more intricate. One is the two-part Landscape with Holly, where one side is dominated by a sacred holly tree and a banner taken from a painting by Durer, a statue of Diana and a shape like a bear on a rough chair. The left side is dominated by vigorously painted spreading oleander, orange magic mushrooms and a Delphic Sybil with raised hands behind a classical urn that is a fine piece of still-life. Equally deftly painted is an owl that hovers, surely as a symbol of ill omen. The whole thing has a certain splendour but is difficult to interpret.

The second large painting has a clearer theme. Green Landscape with Wood portrays wood everywhere as great beams or as a gnarled branchless trunk. The work also shows tables, chairs, a ladder and even a wooden bucket from an image of the domestic life of the Christ child. We see a saint in a vivid red robe and a grieving woman from a painting by David. Little twists in perspective remind us that it is all a construct, not just a simple painting of some obscure narrative.

Whatever interpretation we put on these works they are extraordinarily interesting and have a grand, ambitious presence that is exceptional in New Zealand painting.

The work of Emma Pratt at Whitespace Gallery is much more directly pictorial. She is a New Zealand artist who lives in Seville and her paintings show aspects of that city. The technique is a very loose combination of pencil and acrylic diluted to the extent that it has the transparency of watercolour.

Everywhere the paint is allowed to run and drip and the resulting images are of a Seville where it rains, rather than a conventional, romantic, sunny Spain. Nevertheless, in the best works, the effect of light on white walls is delightfully captured and matched well with the green of trees, notably in El Patio II.

In other work there are pleasant touches such as the presence of a child's trike weaving together domestic details with historical cityscapes. Yet some sudden injections of bright colour as in El Huerto del Rey Moro III break the spell. Vivid blue may reflect the blue of wall tiles common in Seville or red a passing bus but they are out of place in the construction and mood of the paintings.

It makes for a mixed exhibition having at its best considerable charm.

Tucked away at the back room of Black Asterisk Gallery is an exhibition called Traum by Paul Blanchard. The German title translates as dream, fantasy or illusion and these paintings evoke all those ideas.

The technique combines oil paint with resin to create dark, thick background colour. From these textured backgrounds emerge darkly menacing eyes that stare directly at the viewer. There is usually only one eye from a head distorted and lost in shadow. This striving for romantic intensity is successful in Death and the Maiden where the eye is combined with a skeleton echoing of the old ballad and Schubert's superb setting of it.

The formlessness of some of the heads, particularly in several preliminary studies, detracts from their mystery but there is genuinely spectral imaginative power in works like Figure at a Crucifixion.

At the galleries

What: New Paintings by Andrew McLeod

Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, Level 1, 312 Karangahape Rd, to September 14

TJ says: In a show of works that range from miniature to camouflage patterns to exceptionally large figure paintings, it is the big, enigmatic canvases that most express the artist's idiosyncratic power.

What: Paintings by Emma Pratt

Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to September 7

TJ says: Lively studies of Seville that emphasise the charm of white walls and wet green foliage.

What: Traum by Paul Blanchard

Where and when: Black Asterisk, 10 Ponsonby Rd, to September 7

TJ says: A macabre set of paintings where one eye stares at the viewer out of a black background, sometimes with truly nightmarish force.

- NZ Herald

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