Since 2002, few people going up Symonds St past the University of Auckland fail to see a bright, luminous red neon mural in the foyer of the Engineering School. Titled Colony, it is the creation of Paul Hartigan.
Neon features prominently in the long-overdue retrospective exhibition of Hartigan's work at the Gus Fisher Gallery. Born in New Plymouth, his unconventional attitudes were apparent as early as 1970 when, as a schoolboy, he won a prize in an open competition with a painting called Spring. It was a stylised version of a coiled steel spring from a car.
The painting is not in the show but New Zealand Breakfast, done a couple of years later, is. It shows two eggs on toast and coffee on a blue and white gingham tablecloth seen directly from above. It subverts the ideas of traditional still-life painting and, like Spring, is homegrown pop art.
One wall at Gus Fisher is given to a huge painting of the masked face of The Phantom, a hugely popular strip comic hero. In this compelling image, the paint has been allowed to drip and run. This was a gesture against fine finish and much else taught at art school. The influence of Andy Warhol is clear.
The subversive element continues in a series of Landscape paintings done on the back of glass that show a flat plain sown with stylised, completely unnatural shapes made three-dimensional by tricks of perspective with bits of mirror added.
Inventive paintings line along the same wall. In Equation's White Tomb signs emerge from under the surface of the painting rather than on it. Other works, energetically painted, introduce the figure 8 which, when horizontal, becomes the infinity symbol. The loop also has connotations of a toy car track in the artist's childhood.
Printmaking has always run alongside painting in Hartigan's practice. An early example shows nail polish being applied and much later is the wonderfully opulent Aphrodisia, which combines a statue and flowers.
Hartigan has also always been at the cutting edge of technology, computers and inkjet printing, and Sonic and Blent are superb large examples.
Neon is where Hartigan's commercial and art worlds come together. Neon went out of fashion because of its limitations but Hartigan still managed to use it in a number of spectacular commercial displays.
His work with neon as art is much more enigmatic and often consists of marks and apparent doodles. Significantly, one of the first neon pieces is titled New Language where the symbols are like the writing of some unknown script.
The most recent are part of a large series of abstract, small sculptural works shown in the smaller room at the gallery. Often they are in mixed colours on circular backgrounds and their intricate twists and turns play effective variations.
The outstanding ones sit on pedestals within an enclosing box. Most striking of all is the hot evocative red of My Cardinal Sins (all in one room).
This fine exhibition, which marks the publication of a handsome book on the artist by Don Abbott, is a comprehensive survey of the achievement of one of our most inventive artists responding to the subjects and techniques of a rapidly changing modern world.
Other exhibitions tread much more conventional paths. At Orexart, Sarah Dolby creates melancholy, fragile but beautiful young women painted half-length in the manner of traditional portraits. Her technique is immaculate in rendering detail.
One figure in a tall hat is called The White Rabbit but the connection with Alice in Wonderland is hard to follow. No rabbit but the threat of large bees with prominent stings suggests underlying fears. Closer to the present is the touching Porcelain. This is a long-necked woman in a black dress with her hair in a vast knot like a burden on the top of her head. The butterfly tattooed on her neck is a modern assertion of self.
A similar topknot adorns the figure in All that Binds Us. Her spread skirt sets her firmly against a turbulent sky yet her shoulders are pinned like a specimen of a butterfly and around her neck she has a lock. She is a prisoner with problems.
These superficially conventionally beautiful paintings have Victorian imagery but with a sense of tense underlying angst.
Worry and tension also fills the painting of John McLean at Artis Gallery. This large exhibition shows his characteristic mannered painting of people. His subjects are illustrations of a personal mythology set in rural New Zealand.
Barefoot gold diggers furtively hide their gains. A farmer's wife is counting eggs as the children leave home on a pickup truck. Pioneers enter The Promised Land with a pa on a distant hill. An intellectual is comforted by an attendant Muse in contrast to a hearty man striding alone toward the hills. Birds, accurately painted, are everywhere and Bird Catcher Dreaming has an operatic hint of The Magic Flute set among New Zealand native birds.
It is all painted with great care and achieves special elements of quality and an atmosphere all its own.
At the galleries
Vivid: a retrospective of the work of Paul Hartigan
Where and when:
Gus Fisher Gallery, 74 Shortland St, to December 19
A remarkable history of work by an artist who has always rebelled against conservative ideas and manners while embracing pop art, neon and the latest in digital technology.
What: Creatures of Habit by Sarah Dolby
Where and when: Orexart, 15 Putiki St, Arch Hill, to November 28
TJ says: Paintings of attractive young women done in the manner of Victorian portraits but incorporating a good deal of modern angst.
What: Passing Through by John McLean
Where and when: Artis Gallery, 280 Parnell Rd, to November 22
TJ says: John McLean's art tells stories using a cast of pioneers, Maori, fishermen, farmers and farmers' wives to create his own anthology of legends.