He was talking about the winner of the Trust Waikato Nati' />

On Close Up last week the vociferous Paul Henry asked again and again, "But is it art?"

He was talking about the winner of the Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award, a sculpture by Dane Mitchell that was made of trash. It was the wrong question. It was art by a number of definitions: it was in an art gallery, it was created by a recognised artist and the judge admired it.

The real question is, "Is it good art?" It certainly suffers from the major sin of recent art - irony - and it may be ephemeral.

The piece was made from the packaging of works sent in for the competition. It is about the care that the competitors take of their work as well as the whole ritual of entering and being chosen as a finalist in an art award. It is a statement about the process of art awards. It is about conceiving a work rather than producing it and concept art is nothing new.

What really got up the popular broadcaster's nose was that it was not the painting done laboriously on a rectangular canvas that is widely accepted as the orthodoxy of art.

In Auckland this week there are two exhibitions in public galleries that have not a painting in sight. There is also an art award showing a remarkable variety of conventional paintings of varying degrees of excellence. Yet that award was not won by a painting but by a photograph.

In the show called AC/DC The Art of Power at the University's Gus Fisher Gallery, there is a little sign, not so much painted as lettered, by the well-known artist Billy Apple. He probably did not do the lettering but he thought up the idea; concept art if you will.

AC/DC is a good title for the show that is about works of art that use electricity. It also comments on aspects of art itself. The little work by Apple is divided according to the golden section, a scheme of proportion that is almost as old as art itself. It states alternative sources of power and also suggests the "artist's cut" and the "dealer's cut" - the share of the money when art is sold. There is also the colloquial sexual reference.

The rest of the work is on a much larger scale. Billy Apple features again with a video of him sleeping and a soundtrack of his brain waves.

There is a neon work by Mary Morrison called Breathe that has 18 flashes a minute, about the same as the human breathing rate.

Mary-Louise Browne contributes two electronic signs which, like her stone sculptural seats in Lorne St, mutate from word to word by changing one letter. The whole is dominated by a big work by Bill Culbert where light slowly floods from one tall vessel to another and then back again. Once again, there is a work made from rubbish. Joanna Langford has an extraordinary tower constructed from discarded computer keyboards and bamboo skewers with the whole lit by twinkling lights. In the foyer, hanging from the ceiling, is a light fitting peculiarly New Zealand because it is a light bulb made by Joe Sheehan from pounamu from the Haast region.

All of these pieces reflect the contemporary art situation which finds inspiration and expression in all kinds of materials. Its mood is cool, intellectual and just a little detached, and once again frequently ironic.

In K Road, Artspace has its New Artists' show that they advertise as a highlight of the Auckland Exhibition Calendar.

This year it has been given a special twist because they have asked not individual artists, but three artists' collectives, to put forward work for the exhibition. One is from central Auckland, one is from Otara and the third is from Dunedin.

The Auckland collective, Newcall, chooses to include an artist from Australia Joshua Petherick. His work Units in Glissando includes shelving, video loops, books, prints, posters and paper. Curiously the bookshelves are levelled by being stood on a copy of The Goonshow Companion and it seems as irrational and irreverent as that celebrated show but with less point.

There are more shelves and books in the middle of the room which are Artspace's own book collection which will be modified by the collective's members and by people travelling to or from London. This seems in keeping with the title News Travels Faster in a Room with No Walls.

Around the corner there is a set-up with carpets and mattresses where you can watch a video work from the Fresh Gallery of Polynesian women discussing difficulties with straightening their hair. There is obviously an oblique political reference here but mostly they seem concerned about how to avoid getting their hair wet, which undoes all their work.

The Dunedin group None show a static projection of a chaotic arrangement of things that look suspiciously like rubbish.

After these excursions into manifestations of modern art theory, many viewers might go to the Aotea Centre where the finalists for the Wallace Awards are on display. Here there are dozens of intensely worked paintings in all the valid styles of contemporary art because, no matter how esoteric the exploration in some areas, image making will always maintain its power.

Yet the winner of the principal award is the co-operative work of two people and is as obscure in meaning as any pile of found objects.

The two prints that make up the work are sharp and clear and contrast maturity and innocence. The relationship between the bearded man who wears a sheep skin toy like a penitential garment on his head and the beautiful but vulnerable little girl in a petticoat is not made explicit.

There is a hint of absurdity and irrationality and yet the tension is strong. It leaves much to the imagination. Sadly, the judges did not feel it necessary to give reasons for their choice.

Both at the Aotea Centre and at the Salon des Refuses at the Wallace Trust Gallery just above the Town Hall there is much striking, but not particularly individualistic, work to admire - notably a self-portrait by Zarahn Southon, a shadowy cupid with bow by Leah Marshall, and the balanced, sensitive abstraction of Roy Good and a very spectacular painting after Courbet by Garth Steeper.

Charlotte Huddleston from Te Papa, who judged the Waikato prize, remarked that there are a multitude of ways to view the world and as many ways to represent it. This week's art clearly demonstrates her point.

AT THE GALLERIES
What: AC/DC : The Art of Power
Where and when: The Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, until October 3
TJ says: This imaginatively curated exhibition shows artists putting electricity to ingenious and sometimes startling artistic use.

What: New Artists Show: Fresh Gallery, Newcall, None
Where and when: Artspace, 300 Karangahape Rd, until October 10
TJ says: Three artists' collectives showing a variety of experimental work typical of the output of contemporary art schools.

What: 18th Annual Wallace Art Awards
Where and when: The Edge, Aotea Centre and Wallace Trust Gallery, 305 Queen St, Salon des Refuses until October 2
TJ says: The variety and often the raw energy of painting and sculpture selected from the huge entry for these awards makes for fascinating viewing at the Centre and even more in the Queen St gallery.

For gallery listings, see www.nzherald.co.nz/go/artlistings