What: The Labours of Herakles, by Marian Maguire
Where and when: Lopdell House, Titirangi, to April 11

Printing can be a slow art. The fire of creation is tempered by the need to break down the composition into colour bands, to reverse in one's mind the image going on to stone or steel plate, to draw knowing no line can be erased, and finally the careful repetition of making each edition.

It took three years for Marian Maguire to produce the 20 lithographs in The Labours of Herakles, on show at Lopdell House.

They follow on from an earlier series at the Titirangi gallery in 2005, The Odyssey of Captain Cook, where Maguire explored ideas of printmaking, Polynesia, contact between civilisations and all the other ideas that may come into one's head while grinding a slab of limestone perfectly flat.

Maguire learned printmaking at Christchurch's Ilam art school, heading off after graduation to the legendary Tamarind workshop in Albuquerque, New Mexico to learn how to be a professional printmaker.

She returned to Christchurch in 1987 to run the Limeworks lithographic studio, later starting her own PaperGraphica studio, which she shares with her partner, artist Nigel Buxton.

She has now stopped printing for other artists. "My work takes me so long, I can't get to anything else. I need a lot of research time, reading and thinking. My images are densely layered with subject matter, and when there are small details to add to the subject, I had to understand all the details."

Art and architecture, New Zealand history, the classics, all feed into the brew. She seized on Greek ceramics as a way to tell layered stories visually, drawn by the way violent themes could co-exist with elegant settings.

"I thought it was interesting that one culture could have this philosophy and architecture and simultaneously this brutish mythology," she says.

The tale of a champion given 12 tasks went down so well when it was first recited around the fires of Greece 3000 years ago that it's still told today. After using Cook/Odysseus as a way to consider how she came to be living as a Pakeha in Polynesia, Maguire saw Herakles as a way to look at the notion of pioneering a nation.

In visual terms, the Greek demigod was easily recognisable with his club and lionskin cape. But archetypes can be tricky for artists to use, because they come loaded with their own previous history and character.

It's a problem Maguire considered. "There is a broad idea of who Herakles was in Greece. He was very determined, he didn't have much of a sense of humour, he had no doubt."

While much of that is good for pioneering, which is extremely task-oriented and physically hard work, Maguire realised Herakles was not a broad enough character for a pioneer so she changed his nature, giving him doubts.

"I could not have picked someone like Odysseus as a pioneer, he would not have done the work. He's a more complex character."

Maguire says because she was looking at the 19th century from the perspective of a settler, she could not also try for a Maori perspective, not least because "it would be an entirely different visual problem. I would need another single character from the Maori side, and considering the size of the work, it was just not feasible. I wouldn't get it done in 12 labours.

"The Cook work was different in that it was about contact, but in this one I needed in a way to throw up the blind purity of the pioneer. If I made it more political, with more Maori things, I worried it would look PC."

And unlike a written work where an argument can be framed and presented, "with any one picture, it is not possible to make a statement. Artworks are very manipulative in the way they manipulate people to think, but you can't force people down a set of logic."

Where Maori figures are included, Maguire often draws from 18th rather than 19th century engravings, creating an anachronism in keeping with a classical demigod striding the Taranaki plains.

Herakles replaces Von Tempsky fighting off Maori, discusses boundary issues with a tattooed neighbour, and stares down a manaia figure before clearing the forest.

"I have addressed [Maori issues] to some extent because the viewer knows it. I do not need to throw it in viewers' faces, Maori walking off crying."

As well as the lithographs of labours Herakles achieves, there are smaller etchings of things he tries but not necessarily achieves.

There is considerable wit here: attempting to construct a chariot from No 8 wire, attempting rabbit control, attempting to repulse the Amazons (ie, suffragettes).

In one etching, Kupe and Herakles sit over a map disputing "the whereabouts of the pass while Julius Haast affects disinterest".

"Haast used to be called Herculean. He was a robust man. People thought of themselves in those terms back then, being physically strong, striding over mountains," Maguire says.

She says appropriating older images affects the way she approaches her drawing.

"The thing with historical stuff is if it is part of historical memory, you have to render it accurately enough so it flicks into people's perceptions. You can't use expressionist gestures because you need that reminder.

"I also wanted them to have the look of printmaking because in the 18th century voyages were written up in books and the graphic appearance of printmaking from that time is part of the way the imagery is seen."

Some of the imagery is drawn from photos, and Maguire has to fight 21st century modes of seeing.

"The way people look at photos now is very fast, they flick through them. I have to make them slow down, and one way is to have variation in scale within the picture so they have to crawl over it."

Also at Lopdell House is Nga Hau e Wha, four large portraits by Lisa Reihana.