Art styles are international, but there are some forms special to New Zealand, and these are derived from Maori design. The classic example is the koru shape, but almost as widely used is the form based on beautifully carved, pre-European fishhooks.
Often the shape is used as a pendant but in the exhibition by Chris Bailey at the FHE Galleries it is carved as a massive stone sculpture. The piece is called Matau (Hook ) and is made from black basalt. The shape is stylised, keeping the high polish and the sense of sharp edges but it is also roughened and has been subjected to heat.
It combines the polish of utility with the roughness of the earth to form a powerful symbol of our connection with land and sea.
As sculpture it is notable not only for its weight, but for the rhythm of its curves, supported by the high degree of finish.
Other work in the exhibition allows the deep cutting of the carving to be fully evident. This is particularly true of the totem figures in the show. They stand tall but the roughness of the finish and the faces reduced to hints suggest the passing of time and a tradition as old as Easter Island.
A powerful combination of the rough and the smooth forms a basin which like everything else in the show emphasises the nature of the stone. There are only seven pieces but the combined weight is several tonnes. Each work has taken on the strength of stone and is something special to this land. It is an exceptionally fine exhibition.
Just round the corner at the City Art Rooms there is another exhibition that takes something from our heritage and gives it a new spin. The major work in the show by Gill Gatfield uses the rubric, I AM, taken from Exodus and famously used by Colin McCahon to indicate not just the name of God but also in recognition of a spiritual presence and as a personal assertion. Since it was used by McCahon it has been taken up by younger painters and sculptors and has become a part of New Zealand iconography.
Gatfield has made the letters from toughened glass, sand-blasted to give them a prominent edge. Cleverly they have been made to reach up from a very small support. The "I" has been made solid and square with a strong top and base. It is a real assertion. The "A" is narrow at the apex and much less assertive while the "M" is even more awkward since the middle "v" does not reach the floor. This deliberate fading of the message puts the emphasis on the individual, rather than collective, spiritual strength.
Although the glass is thick and strong, its transparency adds to the effect of fading of faith and confidence.
A feature of the work is a live wire stretched across the alcove where it is housed. This suggests some sort of inner sanctum that is dangerous to approach - but the wire is so easily ducked under that it does not really impart a sense of ritual magic. This is even truer of a second alcove which houses a single registration plate lettered with QR8 and called Curate. A curate is a clerical stand-in of sorts and perhaps modern cars replace spiritual leaders, but this symbol is very bare.
The exhibition is completed by abstract works which incorporate pins, living grass and casts of masonry. This exhibition is full of ideas but no consistent point of view emerges.
Two artists who work in a consistent style share Whitespace Gallery. One is a New Zealander working in Europe and the other a European working here. Pete Wheeler, who works in Berlin, has evolved a consistent style of dark, Germanic angst where spare, grim images emerge from a dark background. The images are painted with dash and assurance. Although control is evident everywhere, there is a sense of spontaneousness too. There is just enough material for the viewer, having admired the dash of the paint, to begin to construct a history or a context for each image. A longing face looms up from a barely perceived image of a prone body in Hoping for Romance. Power has a hand and bones raised in a salute, and the hint of an eye in the darkness. It has a sense of the passing of triumph.
The more explicit work such as an untitled work of a man in a uniform cap has definite Gestapo overtones and there are big works like the Archetypes of Heroes which are so ambiguous there is not really enough for the imagination to work on. The overall feeling of the exhibition is of a considerable talent struggling to bring big themes to his skills.
The work of Agneta Ekholm in the adjoining gallery does not wrestle with big themes, it floats elegant looping shapes across pale backgrounds. The work is cool, calm and seductive, but among the elegant shapes are sudden areas of red that break like a shout through the veil of silence and suggest sacrifice.
There is a return to New Zealand in the work of Stephen Howard at the SOCA Gallery in Newton. He paints New Zealand architecture and landscapes but always with a twist that gives an atmospheric sense of strangeness. Contrasts are his thing: a tree against the repetitive patterns of an apartment block, a pale concrete building with a dark doorway and rust over the door. The most effective of these images is where a sense of movement is added to the dream and the portentous light - as in the windswept trees of Flow 2 and Flow 3.
THIS WEEK AT THE GALLERIES
What: Motuaarairoa, by Chris Bailey
Where and when: FHE Galleries, 2 Kitchener St, to July 31.
TJ says: Local stone carved into weighty works based on Maori idiom.
What: Current Work, by Gill Gatfield
Where and when: City Art Rooms, Level 1, 28 Lorne St, to July 19.
TJ says: Remarkable use of materials to recycle the great I AM.
What: Last stop before timelessness, by Pete Wheeler
Orbit, by Agneta Ekholm
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, to July 12.
TJ says: Angst-ridden shapes in one room and pallor shot with hectic red in the other.
What: Recent Paintings, by Stephen Howard
Where and when: SOCA Gallery, 74 France St, Newton, to July 5.
TJ says: NZ landscapes with a strange light and a surreal twist.
For gallery listings, see www.nzherald.co.nz/arts