Auckland galleries this week feature shows by women artists meditating on the position of women. They show women of different ages in different situations, women portrayed realistically and with an imaginative flourish of Gothic Romanticism.
Up from Dunedin for her first Auckland show is Sarah Dolby at Oedipus Rex until May 31. Her exhibition is called Art of Darkness and one of her most effective paintings is Dunedin Gothic. It is the simplest of the works and shows a modern young woman with an elongated neck clothed in a hood that is more like a monk's cowl. It sets contemporary style at one with history.
Other works are much more elaborate and literary. This is obvious in a work called Ophelia's Choice where, amid a mass of Pre-Raphaelite plants, an exceptionally young, wide-eyed Ophelia is up to her knees in water. Then there is a portrait of Mary Shelley, wife of the Romantic poet Percy Shelley and author of the novel Frankenstein. In the painting, Mary is a femme fatale with jewelled choker around her long neck.
All of these paintings are done with immense care. Dolby's accurate detail shows brilliant skills that match her imagination. Sometimes these skills are apparent in flowers and brooches, other times in the great massing of clouds behind the figures.
These extraordinary women owe something to the brilliance of West Coast American comics but are more refined than those racy images. The effect is comic cover or poster crossed with Gustav Klimt. The feeling of elegant decadence is complete and compelling, though the figures inhabit a romantic world of the imagination.
Much of the exhibition by Mary McIntyre at Whitespace Gallery in Ponsonby until May 31 is strictly, even sternly, realistic. A series of seven little oval paintings of nude women is strikingly unsentimental. These figures are painted with an exacting eye that sees them without a hint of idealism.
Yet the breasts of these women are linked with the character conveyed by their likenesses and, furthermore, the faces themselves exactly express a variety of common emotions. They are worried, pensive or assertive. They are also all knee-deep in a sticky morass, caught and limited.
These low swamps are matched with the volcanic hills of Auckland. Another series of small paintings shows isolated pieces of sculpture, an arm, head and ear on the terraces.
The larger paintings combine all these things. The exhibition is called Sculptural Trail and the painting of that title that shows sculpture on Mt Eden is a remarkable work.
The sculpture, beginning with a nude female figure, goes in a series of related figures up the terraces of the great cone and each stage appears to salute a higher work. The whole painting has an impressive sense of ritual even though men are reduced to tiny figures forever climbing a ridge.
A painting such as A Silvery Goddess is the equal of Sculptural Trail in visual appeal and fertile ambiguity. After a long career, McIntyre's drawing is as sharp as ever and her intellect and wit even sharper.
Meditation on the position of women continues in the curious work of Alexis Neal at the Lane Gallery until May 24. A large part of this show are prints in mezzotint, a laborious process of print-making that produces intense blacks and impressive textures. So a work such as Portrait with the Huia has, among other merits, an accurately rendered soft blanket.
The huia feathers in this image are an essential part of the show, which features them as images of nobility, memory and history. An extreme case is the print called Self Portrait which is simply, and rather grandly, two huia feathers.
The exhibition, with the exception of a couple of recycled photographs, is about the relationship of Maori to past and present. Throughout the show, pieces of bird have become ornaments in a number of prints and drawings but they all seem displaced, bony survivors.
The sense of displacement extends to two important images which show a young woman with a musket. In both cases, there are distortions of lip and eye which initially look badly drawn but, given the accomplishment of the rest of the works, must be deliberate. Their awkwardness suggests something from the past does not quite fit with the present.
This show is intensely personal, the result of exceptionally hard work and, moreover, hard thinking, but the ultimate effect is of sadness.
Melancholy is not part of the new work called Inflorescence by Emily Siddell, which graces the walls of FHE Galleries until June 20. It is joyous. One wall is dominated by heavy petalled flowers in glass that look good en masse but each has individual character.
On another wall, ceramic leaves spill down and across a shelf. These have considerable charm but the most impressive are those extending the monumental necklace sculptures the artist has done in the past.
A piece called Whiri is a new extension of this form with leaves interspersed with shards of glass, taking Siddell's grand concept to a new and more subtle level.
The ceramic leaves are also used as part of ketes made with knitted wire. Siddell's work continues to be simple in form, innocent in manner, with an apparent naivety that tempers the strong character of the pieces.