What and who: New paintings by John Walsh.
Where and when: John Leech Gallery, Corner Kitchener and Wellesley Sts, until October 9.

The figure lounges on a couch, arms thrown back, chest thrust out, feet entwined in front of its crotch.

It's not overtly threatening, but it's not to be trusted either.

The painting is loosely based on a pare, a door lintel, an idea artist John Walsh been playing with for several years.

"Every time I take it on it seems to be looking less and less like a formal pare and taking on other forms."

Pare to My Place was done while Walsh was in Xiamen, China earlier this year as part of a sister city exchange with Wellington.

"We had to produce some work over there and we didn't have a lot of time. I knew the format of these pare, so I flew into that, and the idea was of having to go through this pare and this guy, who is not quite menacing, but he certainly gets your attention, to get to the landscape and the little house on the hill.

"I didn't want to spook (the viewer) but I wanted them to feel you had to puzzle your way through this guy to get beyond him."

Walsh operates in a territory which combines a painterly take on New Zealand light and landscape with Maori signifiers.

It's territory which has to be navigated with care. Slapping a tiki on the canvas won't save a bad painting, and loaded ideas can go off in unexpected and unwelcome ways, or fail to fire completely.

Myths and stories may have jealous owners, or they may defeat the artist by having more power than the artist is able to harness.

For every Tony Fomison mining myths to illustrate his personal torment, there may be 100 rote renderings of creation stories.

Walsh gets around that by steering clear of classical or tribal narratives.

"I'm orchestrating my own characters and stories. Sometimes I do reference specific characters and incidents, but generally I am making them all up, constructing things round current events," he says.

"I've had enough kicks up the arse from working in this field for 30 years to know there is no point to going into areas where you know you will give people material to attack you with."

Walsh gives his whakapapa as New Zealand Irish and Te Aitanga a Hauiti from Tolaga Bay.

He did a short spell at Ilam art school in Christchurch in the 1970s, before returning to Tolaga Bay to teach himself painting and get involved in marae restoration and community arts projects, as well as fishing and farm work.

He credits Maori artists and writers' organisation Nga Puna Waihanga as his real school, where he fed off the creative drive of artists like Selwyn Muru and Para Matchitt.

"That was where I got my energy for this whole area, that's why I'm in it now. It was from Para and Selwyn, through those Nga Puna Waihanga hui every Easter through the 70s and 80s.

"All these arty people and hangers on would cruise out to some obscure marae, hang around in the beer tent and tell lies and we all grew from it.

"That's what helped to make contemporary Maori artists stronger, as out to the left there we were firing away. That has gone. All the young artists are not connected in any way like that."

Towards the end of the 1980s Walsh fell into museum work, first with the Tairawhiti Museum in Gisborne and then to the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington as its first curator of contemporary Maori art.

"When they were developing the Te Papa idea they felt it was time to stop having non-Maori curating Maori art.

"That was a fantastic thing and lured me out of the East Coast and brought me in to the heart of New Zealand art where I was able to mix and meet everyone who was doing anything of relevance."

He says the challenge then as now was ensuring contemporary Maori art and artists are seen as part of the main thrust of contemporary New Zealand art, rather than "that it should be over in the ethnology section at the back of the museum."

Walsh himself ranges widely through the art museum, picking on bits to use.

Some of the paintings present Arcadian vistas, a classical European idea of the ideal rustic paradise, within the landscape of an imagined pre-European Aotearoa.

He admits to striving for something we have lost, "that what we are doing to the land and the landscape is almost irretrievable, this pristine landscape I am playing with.

"I was thinking of the huge watercolours of John Gully from the colonial period, though not referencing them directly, the way they were very light and airy."

The control of paint and light are evidence Walsh's work has been getting better on a technical level in the decade since he left Te Papa to devote himself to his own work.

"It's very difficult to get that stuff right, especially since I don't put white in, that is the white of the canvas. I am happy with the work because I've pulled off something I've not done before, using so much negative space."

One of the paintings, where a tiny horse makes its way into the centre of the picture, is called The National Bank. Another, of whare clinging to the edges of a gully under a massive sky, is Auckland City Council Meeting.

"Most of the paintings in the show hang off the big work, the idea of what is behind the pare, going back over the hills behind that guy, so I've followed that idea going down the valleys to the little houses."

He seems surprised and pleased by his output.

"In some ways I have no control of it. It just pours from the end of my brush. I'm watching New Zealand society evolve and develop and I feel this is the way I can make comment on current issues, by reaching into the past that I understand," Walsh says.