Whether to paint soft atmosphere or hard detail is one of the many choices available to the contemporary artist. At Starkwhite Gallery until September 29, Andrew Barber goes for soft out-of-focus atmospheric effects. His show called Country Paintings is largely landscapes, painted in shades of green. Patches of darker green suggest trees and hedges, and occasionally a hint of brown to indicate a building. Despite their soft simplicity, the work is effective because it conveys the feeling of the landscape as it is remembered and because of the way they have been ghosted on to the paper, leaving the edges open to clearly show the act of painting.
This declaration that these are representations, not imitations, is made abundantly clear in one of the bigger paintings, Averys Peak, where the title is not tucked away discreetly at the bottom but is planted across the slope so name and landscape and painting become one. Lettering half buried in the ground is a Barber specialty. The walls of the gallery have copious examples.
The flourish of the immediate process of painting does not always work. Study is on an irregular canvas and is simply a field of blue painted with an old brush so fibres remain stuck in the paint. To glorify the process, these fibres are touched with gold. It is a bright idea but a mess of a painting.
The audacity of approach that Barber is capable of is shown in a gigantic wall painting done in acrylic on linen. It is simply a field of yellow occupying a whole wall, as a painting of a wall. A white strip at the bottom indicates the skirting, and another white strip at the top as the ceiling moulding. Two simple rectangles of white are a door and a tiny rectangle is a power point. It looks like an immense abstraction but, paradoxically, it is a representation of a particular place.
Such brave singlemindedness and huge scale should be rewarded and the field of yellow does have a luminous glow but the extreme simplicity does not offer enough to really involve the viewer.
The paintings of Neal Palmer, at the SOCA Gallery in Newton until September 27, are also exceptionally large. The subject, when it is vegetation, is enlarged far beyond its natural size. The results are often vivid and the appropriately titled Flame Thrower is a surge of scarlet flowers spread in great detail across three panels. The painting is given weight by the column of the main stalk of the flax flower and the drooping weight of decaying leaves.
In another work the intricate patterns of flax make rhythmic patterns that are curiously inviting. Again the title Come On, Come On, Let's Get Together reflects the way the painting seems to invite a physical encounter.
The enlargement of the natural forms works equally well on the detail of White Kowhai where the harmonising colour of calyx and petals makes a fine play of shape though it is a pale variety of kowhai. The show is completed by some lifesize paintings of horses which, by their very size, look impressive. The sheen of the hide is their principle merit, the absence of context a drawback.
Sculpture too can have its contrasts. The two sculptors, Louise Purvis and Charlotte Fisher, whose work is on show at the Bath Street Gallery until September 29, both make massive forms in materials such as bronze, cast iron, wood, stone and concrete.
Purvis does the unconventional thing of making sculptured landscape.
Her Landmap is made up of massive forms in jet-black granite. The tops of these blocks are carved into a series of grey terraces like landforms that have stood for eons. The same landforms also make weighty sculpture when cast in iron with a rich rust colour and in polished stainless steel. The emphasis in these powerful works is not just on the enduring nature of landscape but the qualities of everlasting material.
The work of Fisher is more varied but has an equal emphasis on permanence. A typical work is Bearing II, which is a concrete plinth supporting a large disc, all supported on a big steel plate making a work that is monument and marker. Other works are tree trunks cut from macrocarpa and pohutakawa.
These strong forms suggesting torso and legs are also reworked in cast bronze and contrasted with the tools of the sculptor's trade, notably in a work that also incorporates marble and is titled How We Work.
Together these two artists have created one of the most impressive exhibitions of sculpture for some time.
Nothing could form a greater contrast than the sculpture of the latest darling of the avant-garde, Eve Armstrong. Her work, called Dressed and Shaken, is at the Michael Lett Gallery until October 6. A list of materials in a work like Run Off includes shelving, a clotheshorse, filing trays, peg board, a chrome towel rail, rubbish tins, a plastic bucket and a pot plant. And those are only some of the ingredients. These found objects are stacked in a heap or, if you prefer, heaped in a stack. There is a kind of unity in the shapes and the colour but, to the unconvinced eye, it looks like a heap of rubbish. It is claimed that this conceptual and operative framework provides us with new insight into the nature of objects all around us. But the assemblages in this exhibition are too random to be convincing demonstrations of the theory.