Shane Cotton’s new show reveals richness and a powerful ambiguity

In the Christmas flourish of exhibitions one of the biggest names is Shane Cotton. His show called Blank Geometry is at the Michael Lett gallery. It is an exhibition that does not aim at grandeur but rather a quiet tracing of ideas. The work is of modest size and though everything is done with a subtle skill, the subject is very open.

The best guide is a large work on panel. The Paradox of Settlement has a dark smoky background, making a wide, deep space beyond a horizon. There is the feeling that this space has taken some imprints but is still waiting for more. Below the space are some simple koru forms and patches of fertile green. Above are geometric shapes, triangles and circles that have the potential to occupy the waiting emptiness. Thin trails link some of these emblems.

This movement to occupy an unmarked area could be applied to land, thought or authority. The powerful ambiguity is the source of the strength of the work.

Then there is a series of nine substantial dark works on black paper where the emblems are sometimes confined within a diamond shape. The darkness is occupied with mists or smoke and an atmosphere of transient expectations allied to mixed groupings of imagery.

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In another series of smaller paintings the centre has hardened into a rock or a skull. These shapes gather brown patches or even, in one case, a circle of bright blue that almost obscures it. The skull recalls the artist's previous use of a Maori head as an evocation of the past but on these there is an imprint of the present.

What is obvious is the painterly richness of the images despite their ambiguities. It is not one of Cotton's most powerful series but it may be a portent of works to follow.

Another set of works that is highly polished in execution but initially enigmatic in intention is Recalibrate, a uniform series of painted sculptures by Brett Graham at Two Rooms. They stretch in an exact line the full length of the upstairs gallery. Each is a perfectly circular shape that swells forward. These raised surfaces are moulded in a special material called corian. On this curved bowl-shaped surface are various precise patterns.

The most immediately striking are patterns of concentric circles in keeping with the artist's previous sculptural work that has often dealt in circular forms. The most significant of the patterns is an arrangement of blocks of three short groups in a number of different sizes and orientations which are are of markers across the United States that give air force planes exact locations. The artist has given each pattern the name of a tribe of indigenous Indians beginning with the tribe that originally occupied the island of Manhattan.

Although the sheer elegance of these sculptures makes them attractive in themselves they function as markers of the dominance of the march of European settlers over the land.

Downstairs at Two Rooms four large paintings, all called Motus, by Jeena Shin are, paradoxically, simultaneously very simple and immensely complex.

The simplicity comes from the use of only black and white geometrical shapes. The complexity comes from the rhythmic vigour of the patterns of light on dark or, in a blink, dark on light with the light shining through.

Shin emerged on the scene as an important talent with white on white or white on cream combinations where slight variations of surface texture played their part. A splendid example was the now lost mural on the staircase at Artspace inexplicably painted over. These bold paintings are just as subtle but have a stronger immediate impact.

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Dashing brushwork allied to insight into character fills the exhibition of Richard McWhannell's work at Orexart. The indefatigable painter provides a survey of his portraits of women since 1982.

Early works like Donogh have an appealing lightness of touch. Later work is more heavily modelled. The most delightful of the earlier period are two portraits of Renee notably, Just Back from France. The subject is seated in a deck chair and the face is caught in profile and his usual colours that incline to grey are modified by the green and blue of the sitter's dress.

Later portraits are more heavily modelled and The Poihaere Tondo is a thoughtful example.

At the galleries

What:

Blank Geometry by Shane Cotton

Where and when:

Michael Lett, cnr Karangahape Rd-East St, to January 25

TJ says: As always Cotton's paint quality is immaculate and the images come across as deeply pondered yet remain enigmatic.

What: Motus by Jeena Shin; Recalibrate by Brett Graham
Where and when: Two Rooms, 16 Putiki St, Newton, to December 23
TJ says: Jeena Shin has changed the extraordinary subtlety of her work in white on white for the impact of black and white in paintings of impressive size. Upstairs are elegant sculptures by Brett Graham which recap aspects of the history of indigenous people overwhelmed by European "Manifest Destiny".

What: Women Painted by Richard McWhannell
Where and when: Orexart, 15 Putiki St, Newton, to December 20
TJ says: An endlessly fertile painter shows his skill in painting women extending back to
1982.