Photo abstractions, painterly wit, veteran retrospective - five galleries reward a visit with variety writes, T J McNamara.

One of the innovations of the 20th century was the recognition of the effectiveness of abstract art. Such art, especially geometric abstraction, has become a staple of academic work but its extremes are dangerous territory. The danger of the puritanism of abstract design is that, taken to a logical extreme, it becomes so plain as to be banal.

The extremes are tested in an exhibition by Ava Seymour at the Sue Crockford Gallery. Her work is large colour photographs of plain, pale areas of colour divided by a narrow blank space. Pink Study, Blue Study, Grey Study are titles that describe the work exactly.

Photographs have a uniformly shiny surface so these works have a mechanical precision that leaves no room for the imagination to work or to hold an emotional commitment. They are an extreme exercise that leaves the viewer unenlightened and untouched.

A rather richer kind of abstraction is part of the exhibition titled Cimmerian Shade at the Jensen Gallery. The legendary Cimmerians dwelt in darkness at the edge of the world, and there is certainly a lot of shadow in this show.

A small, dark abstraction by German painter Helmut Federle is a convincing example of what can be achieved by colour and simple geometric shape. Cornerfield is a magnificently rich, almost black purple in a corner of a mass of green. The colour combination is unusual but effective and the surfaces are rich and dense.

There are larger works by British artist Callum Innes which show broad fields of dark colour counterpointed by bands of light. The tension in this kind of abstraction arises from the intersections of colour which force against each other to produce ragged edges or bleeding. This is balanced in all three of Innes' paintings by a strong horizontal, like a horizon. Size and forceful contrasts make these abstractions work.

The highly atmospheric architectural set-ups of cavernous ranks of arches flooded with rippling water by James Casebere complete the international representatives.

All of this work is outstanding in a purist way but is eclipsed by the single charcoal drawing by Jude Rae which has much more sense of human presence though it shows an empty room.

Brilliantly, the white of the paper is used to convey bright light outside the room while inside objects - a chair, a shelf - are moulded by light and shade. The sheer size of this splendid drawing and the virtuosity of the draughtsmanship make this example of an everyday space a work that catches at the heart as well as the eye.

Some painters begin by working in abstraction and evolve back to a more humanist style; the retrospective show of work by veteran painter Jan Nigro at Jane Sanders Art follows just such a journey.

Though it begins with a well-observed piece of art-school work - Café Girl, done in 1950 - by the 1960s, Nigro's work had dissolved into abstraction. Debris from the Sea shows no actual objects but is a green and blue composition of curves counterpointed by broken shapes. Mining Baroque is made up of rectangles, some in relief on the surface of the work.

Both are done very skilfully yet, by the 1970s, it was obvious that the artist found abstraction unfulfilling and turned back to figurative subjects. Drawings like Wide Boy, 1973, show an interest in personality deftly conveyed by lively line. Erotic elements are added in Impressions of a Stripper with its emphasis on suspender belt and crotch.

In this period, too, there are drawings that are not explicit but full of sinister mystery, in a series about an unsolved murder under Haast Bridge. Then Nigro expanded into the vivid colour of her celebrations of personality and female figures that confirmed her high reputation and continues in her output right up to the present.

Any outstanding artist's work is dispersed by sales but this selection of work, kept by Nigro throughout a long career, makes a worthy survey of her copious creation.

The female shape is used thematically in Paul Radford's The Goddess Series at Remuera Gallery. His rare shows usually revolve around a central shape. Last time it was a stylised, sculptural head; this time it is the rounded outline of an unmistakable female form.

The invention of his work has two parts: the lively images or colour within the outline of the form and the subtle and varied painterly surfaces outside the shape.

Some of the paintings have more depth of reference than others. Fortuna, which makes use of the Queen of Hearts, is charmingly decorative. Ceres, with warm red inside the figure and elegantly painted still-lifes of fruit, wheat and fern outside the shape, offers a much more rich imagery that evokes the goddess of fertility and all fruitful things.

Virtuoso feats of painting are everywhere in this show. In Hestia, naive colourful images of houses and trees are childlike without being childish, matched with extraordinary painting of peeling weatherboard as background.

Women within the thematic female shape can range from a variety of pin-up bathing beauties from last century in Venus Marina to the 15 elegantly drawn figures in Aphrodite.

It all adds up to a delightful, witty exhibition where unpretentiousness conceals great inventiveness and skill in handling paint.

The very title of the exhibition at Satellite Gallery suggests even more unpretentiousness. Small Studies is a joint show by Robyn Gibson and Clare Purser.

Gibson's works are, for the most part, uniformly tiny portraits bordering on caricature, sometimes with added elements in wire or beads. The figures are awkward, all head but little body, and emphasise the dark side of the sitters' personalities. The deftness of the painting is also shown in the atmospheric landscapes interspersed among the images of these strange people.

Purser works on small pieces of demolition kauri and keeps the battered surface, knot holes and all. On this ground are set small, oval, dark landscapes. These scenes are evocative of many things from rugged coast to park trees and, as cameos, are effective not so much in depicting scenes as in evoking how lonely places without people can remain in the memory.

At the galleries
What: Compositions 2010 by Ava Seymour
Where and when: Sue Crockford Gallery, 2 Queen St, to Oct 8
TJ says: Pale, minimal abstraction photographed, not painted.

What: Cimmerian Shade: Jude Rae, James Casebere, Helmut Federle, Callum Innes
Where and when: Jensen Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to Oct 16
TJ says: Accomplished abstract painting by a German and a Scot and remarkable set-up photography by an American all eclipsed by a charcoal drawing by an antipodean.

What: Encounters and Journeys by Jan Nigro
Where and when: Jan Sanders Art, Level 1, Blacketts Building, cnr Shortland & Queen Sts, to Oct 2
TJ says: A survey of the long artistic journey taken by one of our most respected veteran artists.

What: Goddess Paintings by Paul Radford
Where and when: Remuera Gallery, 360 Remuera Rd, to Sep 28
TJ says: A set of variations within a woman's shape shows wit, skill and invention.

What: Small Studies: Robyn Gibson & Clare Purser
Where and when: Satellite Gallery, cnr St Benedicts St & Newton Rd, to Sep 25
TJ says: Two artists working on a small scale, one painting landscapes on salvaged timber, and the other tiny personality studies.