The exhibition of paintings by Mervyn Williams at the Gus Fisher Gallery is a spectacular show to accompany the publication of an equally spectacular book (Mervyn Williams by Dr Edward Hanfling, Ron Sang Publications, $135). The show is a retrospective of a pioneering painter in New Zealand who began to make abstract art when that was a revolutionary act.

The earliest painting, aptly named Origins (1959), is a combination of lines and circles of colour, deftly done but quite small and subdued. It is tucked away in a corner of the foyer, dwarfed by later, larger paintings.

The main hall is lined with confident paintings in rich colour, all abstract and showing Williams' concern for optical effects. Both sides of the room are arranged in more or less chronological order. At the near end is a big colour field painting of rectangles called Bastion (1963). It has a square of bright plain red on a background of carefully modulated blue and grey/green with hints of red and a base of brown at the bottom. It is a fine example of an international style.

At the far end is So Red, painted more than 40 years later. Its simple circular composition on the far wall has red that has become richly luminous and the style is all Williams' own. It has remarkable carrying power. Down the walls to the right and left are pieces that mark the journey of his continuing development.

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Williams belongs to the generation of Pat Hanly and Ralph Hotere, who injected so much confidence into our art, but his style is markedly different. Williams' early work as art student, designer and printer have sustained his style ever since.

The first major works on show are from the Delta Series, notably Vane, a complex composition of green triangles on red from 1980. On the right are works from the Daedal Series, patterns of circles tensioned by a grid. They owe much to the then international Op Art. By 1986 the work had developed into "Crusties" where the surface was textured and in places had irregular raised areas with lighting painted in a way that emphasised their prominence. Desert Sand is a fine example.

It was this slightly three-dimensional tactile effect that led to a style that made Williams' work unique and added something of a mystery to his art. By careful control of light and shade he suggested apparent relief elements to his colour fields. This chiaroscuro was so convincing that any viewer would perceive elements of the work as standing out from the canvas. It was easy to assume some trickery, possibly photographic, was involved. Close inspection, however, showed the surface was completely flat and the raised elements and folds were the result of masterly brushwork.

On the left side, Summers To Come (1996) has rich fields of gold and green fixed by five raised circles giving tension and life to the colour. On the right of the room Flying is just as magical but with an effect of shapes like the rotation of a propeller sweeping the surface.

Among these stunning paintings are some works done in driftwood found at the mouth of the Whanganui River. The reputation established by the unique effect in the paintings led to further explorations of visual perception. Williams now often uses computers to design circles and intricate stripes to make the optical effects of his colour lyrical and luminously strong. This is the mature climax of staying with abstraction throughout a long, distinguished and continuing career.

Sculpture can also be abstract but naturally exists in real three-dimensional space. At the Sanderson Gallery in Newmarket Ray Haydon shows his own way of making his work move in space. In some of these pieces real movement is made possible by pivots in the base or in the piece itself. This is a pleasant extra but the real impact of the sculpture lies in the way their linear quality leads the eye on a dance that twists back and forth and in and out in an endless loop. The style flows best in the freestanding forms in carbon fibre but the works in wood on the wall have the same quality of an endless rhythm. The curves are carefully modulated to widen on the tighter bends. The sculptures throughout are elegantly and seamlessly made.


Clay Lakes by Saskia Leek.

The Ivan Anthony Gallery is showing the work of two established artists who produce small, muted formats and mix elements of abstraction with recognisable objects. Saskia Leek uses the charm of her harmonies of pastel tone where the subjects - still life or landscape - are stylised in paintings that sometimes lap over their white frames. Georgie Hill's intriguing watercolour patterns are overlaid with clippings of bright blue and red from which shapes of furniture emerge. Her remarkable techniques get more complex with every exhibition.


A sculpture from Ray Haydon's Volume Series.

At the galleries

What:

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From Modernism to the Digital Age, paintings by Mervyn Williams.

Where and when:

Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to November 1.

TJ says:

A retrospective survey of an artist who has long pursued abstraction through vividly coloured works with unique qualities of perception.

What: Volume by Ray Haydon.
Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary Art, Osborne Lane, Newmarket, to September 28.
TJ says: Stylish, immaculately made sculpture in carbon fibre and wood that weave energetic loops in space.

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What: Clay Lakes by Saskia Lee; Rainbow Rose Parallelogram by Georgie Hill.
Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, cnr Karangahape Rd-East St, to October 2.
TJ says: Two well-established artists make their quiet, effective works in contrasting styles of direct charm in oil and technically complex watercolours.