While a lot of attention in the Auckland art scene has been focused recently on the Contemporary Art Fair in Sydney, in which many New Zealand galleries have participated, the depth of work here is apparent in three exhibitions showcasing traditional, illustrative painting.

That the painting of recognisable images is not exhausted is shown in the contrast between these shows. One cultivates the romantic sublime, the other a historical working-class struggle and the third is still-life.

In Peter James Smith's paintings at Whitespace he leaves behind his recent practice, which has been complicated by incorporating a variety of sculptural elements and found objects. This exhibition is done conventionally in oil on linen canvas and each image has a heavy black frame.

Almost every work represents water in movement, sometimes turbulent sea, often waterfalls. Above these lonely and thunderous scenes, vivid skies are flooded with the light of the setting sun.

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Smith, a distinguished mathematician, has reverted to his former custom of incorporating mathematical formulae and other information written as if with chalk on a blackboard.

This writing is connected to the subject in different ways. A View of White Island Towards Bay of Plenty, for example, has details of the chain of volcanic activity that runs across the North Island. Smith's remarkable skill in conveying moods of the ocean has wave patterns and the complex formula about their shape in The Curvature of the Wind.

Sometimes the connection is not entirely clear. A dramatic painting of Fox Glacier is lettered with the name of Mahler, composer of the Alpine Symphony. Alongside is the title of his song cycle The Song of the Earth that ends in praise of the eternal renewal of the greenness of the Earth. This is a little at odds with a powerful painting of rock and ice.

The consistent aspect of the show is the glory of light as the subjects range from The Tides on the Kaipara to the observatory in Greenwich and on to a grand painting, The Falls of the Gods, in Iceland.

All these effects of light are done in the grand manner. Only when the light is absent and demonstration takes over as in Dark Origins, which is chalk lines scribbled on black like a metaphor for a chaos theory, is there a feeling that the professor has taken over from the artist. For the rest, romantic it may be, but collectively it makes a display of consistently accomplished painting.

Bob Kerr, at Whitespace, grounds his painting in a text, from letters written by Tim Armstrong, then a wharf labourer, to his children from Lyttelton jail. He had been given a year in prison for sedition because he opposed conscription during World War I. He became prominent in union activity at an early age and later was a much-respected MP. He describes his life as a young man leaving school at 12, working in the flax industry, railway construction and the gold mines of Waihi, and walking the roads with his swag hundreds of miles between jobs.

Before I was 12 Years of Age by Bob Kerr.
Before I was 12 Years of Age by Bob Kerr.

The 14 paintings in the show illustrate passages from the letters and effectively recreate the times. The show is titled It Was the Fun of the World and the only time bitterness creeps in is in the painting of Armstrong and his wife and young children leaving Waihi when he had been blocked from employment for union activity.

The plainness of the painting effectively matches the text. Kerr uses a very thin paint over a hard surface with a limited palette, mainly blue and brown. It works well in describing extensive flax along a river flat or the big cliffs of a railway cutting. Clever use is made of runs of paint and resistance techniques to provide the appearance of texture.

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The images are straightforward: the flax and the act of cutting it, the size of a railway cutting and the tools and wagon used to hack through it, the rough roads and the vitality of young men walking them, swag on back.

Illustrative painting of this kind is rare now unless linked to a book but this show effectively gives insight into a personality and history with considerable artistic skill.

An unusual phenomenon on the art scene is an unheralded first exhibition that was an immediate and complete sell-out. Even more unusual is that it should be a quiet show of botanical paintings based on flowers.

The appeal of the unpretentious paintings by Melanie Mills in FHE's front gallery on Kitchener St is the colour. It is soft and pleasant but never saccharinely sweet. It is combined in unusual tones that really sing.

Two Vases of Leaves, by Melanie Mills.
Two Vases of Leaves, by Melanie Mills.

A touch of naivety adds character but the composition of the work is varied and supports the harmonies that elevate the repetitive subject into varied and individual paintings. Two White Vases is a pale delicate harmony of blue and white, whereas Gum Flowers poses blue against hot orange and gold and Two Vases of Flowers relies on muted browns.

Altogether it makes an exhibition of quiet charm and obvious appeal.

At the galleries

What:

Line of Sight by Peter James Smith

Where and when:

Orexart, 1/5 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to September 26

TJ says:

Artist and mathematician Peter James Smith paints oceans and waterfalls from many parts of the world in paintings filled with sunset light and grandeur.

What: It Was the Fun of the World by Bob Kerr
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to September 26
TJ says: Delving into the past, Bob Kerr mines the letters from prison by unionist Tim Armstrong, to illustrate the life of a young worker early last century.

What: A Few Green Leaves by Melanie Mills
Where and when: FHE Galleries, 2 Kitchener St, to September 26
TJ says: A highly successful first solo show of still-life full of carefully modulated but rich colour and arrangement.