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Good portraits and landscape paintings fix in images things that are in constant change. Both feature in this week's art.
Opposite the door in the John Leech Gallery, where Martin Ball is showing his portraits, is a huge likeness of that well-known formidable painter and writer, Jacqueline Fahey. Ball's portraits are lighter in tone this time round and this particularly suits the astringent personality of the sitter.
The question rises: why make it so large? There are two huge portraits in the show alongside a handful of smaller ones. The second one is also of an artist, Reuben Paterson. The sitters may have been singled out because they belong to two generations; old and new. However, the enormous enlargement is not just a fashion but a tribute, fixing them in time and space.
The principle features of the picture of Fahey are the sharp countenance and the direct look, conveying a strong sense of character. In the portrait of Paterson, the eyes look sidelong behind fashionable glasses. The mouth is resolute but the eyes show maturity is on the way, but not yet arrived at.
The smaller portraits do not have the same carrying power but the one of Max Gimblett in profile catches his confidence and assertion. Again the spectacles - a feature portrait artists often struggle with - are well handled. A likeness of Sara Hughes is full-face and fills the picture space.
Hughes is a comparatively young artist but has an enormous body of work of a singularly colourful and ambitious nature. This bland face lacks the spark of intellect and drive that must be behind her work.
Equally ambitious and often large in scale is the work of David Ryan at Whitespace Gallery in a show called Elsewhere. He paints remote, difficult landscapes and depicts countenances that show the drain on those explorers who chose to venture into them. He also references the documentation that remains after their death. The landscapes, watercolour and oil, are marvellous things. The technique that creates them is mysterious and amazing. It is equally capable of catching the tumultuous rush of water, wind-driven clouds or a bare face of rock.
These paintings have something of the atmosphere of Turner's alpine watercolours and the handling is as fascinating as the intricate work of a confident abstract expressionist.
The oil Elemental Mountain with its tiny glimpses of blue and the sweep of wind in Never Walking Mountains are particularly spectacular examples.
As in his previous work, Ryan's skill is to make each work a special thing by adding the characteristics of old documents. To achieve this, the paper is browned and hand-written notes and diagrams are added.
His portraits are of men who might have explored such a wilderness. The strain of their efforts is writ large on their faces, especially in the eyes. Yet there are elements of heroism, notably in Traveller 1 (lines of sight), where the profile of the traveller has eyes lifted resolutely towards the distance.
The paintings are supported by sculptures, enhanced photographs and a CD of sound effects and song. Ryan is an artist of many things and they all sit somewhere between reality and vision.
Another man of mountains and the Romantic sublime is John Madden, whose exhibition Pararaha is at Orexart. The title refers to one of the more remote outposts of the Waitakeres, near Awhitu.
For many years, the artist has tramped in this region. From his close study, he has produced sombre paintings in the manner of Toss Woollaston.
There are almost no signs of human occupance. The weighty hills against the blue sky are his whole subject, although the sea intervenes at times. There is a general feeling that the New Zealand landscape is pleasant, green and benign; this is the contrary view that catches the real strength of the land but emphasises the darkness of gullies and the steepness of slopes.
The best of the paintings have drama conveyed by the vigour of the brushstrokes. For the most part, this handling really works to convey the painter's emotion and involvement in the hills, as well as an acute observation. Sometimes, the style is pushed too hard and a vigorous last touch is added that does not read as anything at all.
In the otherwise admirable Awhitu looking to Whatipu, a post that establishes the foreground is accompanied by a flourish of brown paint that describes little. On the other hand, the massive weight of the hills in Pararaha in Close, with its steep slopes and the dark shadow of the saddle between the hills, or the vast vertical drop of Te Ahu Cliffs, are extraordinarily powerful. The emotional thought gives power to an image that works for anyone who may never see the hill.
The group show The Blue Room is the work of 13 artists exhibited at the Pah Homestead. The thought behind the show is to collect the work of artists who "respond in a psychic way" and "deal with space beyond the real". The thought may be interesting but the things are disappointing. Rebecca Pilher shows a late 20th-century chair with a cushion that conceals a speaker that talks in riddles. It is not strange enough to be magic and too obvious to be ironic.
Stuart Shepherd has two television monitors back to back, which show both sides of a couple embracing. This is charming but hardly psychic.
The single most effective piece is three framed photographs in red, violet and blue. They each have a hooded figure with ghostly hands making strange shapes, suggesting ritual incantations. The artists add to the ritualistic carry-on. By naming themselves as e l. august and I. a clifton , who did not create the images, they "channelled" them.
Like everything else in the show it is surrounded by a mass of words. We are told that the figure is Eos, a Greek goddess, and the artists are channelling her emanations from the grand central sun. The pointed headdress of the figure alludes to Aleister Crowley, the pornographer and would-be mystic.
This academic show is accompanied by a booklet that contains two eloquent introductory articles but they only succeed in covering with a cloud of words what is thin material.
At the galleries
What: Recent Portraits by Martin Ball
Where and when: John Leech Gallery, cnr Kitchener & Wellesley Sts, to August 27
TJ says: An artist painting other artists and making bigger better.
What: Elsewhere by David Ryan
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, to August 20
TJ says: Powerful painting of sublime remote places and the explorers who ventured there.
What: Pararaha by John Madden
Where and when: Orexart, Upper Khartoum Place, to September 3
TJ says: The sombre power of coastal hills painted with great verve.
What: The Blue Room
Where and when: Pah Homestead, TSB Wallace Arts Centre, 72 Hillsborough Rd, to August 28
TJ says: A dozen artists using a variety of media to investigate or parody seance and psychics.
Check out your local galleries here.