Many serious contemporary artists tend to embrace the murky and shun sweetness and light. Niceness is something they must not do. The exhibition So Tired by Campbell Patterson at the Michael Lett Galleries, which takes many forms spread across a large space, demonstrates this tendency towards what is initially unappealing.
It avoids being heroic even when a mural stretches across a big wall. The mural, painted over a pattern of diagonal lines of tape, is almost the same colour as the wall. The ends of the tape make an irregular ridge, an intervention that is almost imperceptible and offers little reward. Similarly painted canvases on the floor look no more than dirty mats.
The works avoid pleasure. If the artist is featuring water it is not the beauty of reflections on a lake but a DVD of a tormented figure (the artist?) in dirty sandshoes kneeling to blow bubbles in a drain. It reads as a curious reference to water boarding and to add emphasis it plays simultaneously on two screens.
Paradoxically, the noise of this work called Puddle Song fills the room and compels attention. The image itself stays printed on the mind.
Another thing some avant garde artists must not do is suggest a narrative or even give a context to explain a situation. Here, an act of painful sacrifice recorded at great length called Long and Slow is shown on a screen lying against a wall with a bedspread as cushioning. The protagonist slowly, with strong tweezers, pulls hairs one by one from his moustache. The progress leaves his upper lip painfully red and spotted with blood. It has a horrid fascination.
Everywhere charm, pleasure and even cleanliness are forbidden. On the floor is a mattress covered by a pile of paper towels, an onion and shreds of tobacco. This is life as a prison.
There is some painting. A rectangular yellow canvas surface is marked with black but as a colour-field painting it is contradicted by having a collage of a photo of pots and pans on it.
There is a force in the DVDs and the mural. Smaller items in the show - torn towels, images of bare feet with a plaster on one, or twisting their toes - are trivial by comparison. A pile of washing powder solidified into a hint of crushed marble ruins are demonstrations rather than considered works. It all makes a big, curious show which is rather aptly titled.
Much more conventional is the second exhibition at Michael Lett, a series of small mixed media works on canvas by Imogen Taylor, all almost identical in size spaced around the walls at regular intervals. A similar exhibition won the prestigious Turner Prize for Tomma Abts in 2009 but her work did not have pumice, drinking straws and bits of string that Taylor has added to her backgrounds.
The result is a series of paintings with odd juxtapositions of effect. Stamen Wave has a stylised curved shape alongside a relief element of pumice coloured bright yellow. Kramer features loose bits of string. Fire and Lighting uses sponge and linoleum, while Sisters has taut strings springing from one point on the canvas where the colour of folding forms is exceptionally rich.
But there is a problem. Parallel to fighting against using conventional techniques the artist generally avoids appealing combinations of colour in favour of experiments with astringent colours that give an acid, awkward edge to the work. An exception is Mamaki where she totally surrenders to light and soft colour but adds a bit of paua shell for effect. Such gestures save the show by giving it inventiveness and an element of wit, notably in Hearding Cats (sic) where there is an element of impossibility among the strings and straws.
Exhibitions by Lisa Rayner at Whitespace and Tracey Walker at Sanderson in Parnell are more conventional in approach. Rayner paints beach landscapes with thick, confident flourishes that give her work energy in a manner familiar since van Gogh. She uses no shading but simply overlaps colour to convey the sense of space.
The most effective of these works are in the window, best seen from the distance of the car park. In the gallery some splashes of high-key colour add a special zest and break up the feeling that the sum of the show is the repetition of the same painting.
The struggle to be different is also apparent in some measure in Point of Reference by Walker. Her paintings on aluminium have a hard, shiny surface. They are mounted so they stand proud of the wall. Individual images come in many sizes from a couple of centimetres to 20-30cm. They range from dark landscapes and groups of shadowy figures to glowing geometric abstractions.
These small images are assembled in strips, sometimes irregularly.
The abstractions glow and the figurative images are dark but often the reasons for the combinations are arbitrary. They are a triumph of style over substance.
One show that fulfils rather than challenges assumptions is the show of editions of images from Grahame Sydney's book of photographs of Central Otago. They are at their best when they show old roads reaching toward the horizon under a wide sky. They exactly reflect the mood of James K. Baxter's poem, High Country Weather: Humans are "strangers" in this land but should "surrender to the sky your heart of anger". Winter Road, Becks and Fallow Fields are just such works. Sheds, houses and animal skins on fences, though picturesque, are simply digressions from the empty images of the land and pathways that go deep into the heart.
At the galleries
What: So Tired, by Campbell Patterson; Balls Deep, by Imogen Taylor
Where and when: Michael Lett, 2/285 Great North Rd, to February 26
TJ says: One artist shows common objects and painful actions to present the murkiness of life while the other shows odd juxtapositions of paint and things with a wit and colour that is sometimes acid and occasionally charming.
What: Paintings, by Lisa Rayner
Where and when: Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, Ponsonby, to February 11
TJ says: A suite of paintings of hills and the shore done with dashing brushstrokes and vivid splashes of quirky colour.
What: Point of Reference, by Tracey Walker
Where and when: Sanderson Contemporary Art, 251 Parnell Rd, to February 5
TJ says: Small, glowing abstractions and dark figures and landscapes painted on small rectangles of aluminium, arranged as moody ensembles.
What: Central Otago, photographs by Grahame Sydney
Where and when: Artis, 280 Parnell Rd, to Feb 5
TJ says: Individual photographs enlarged from Sydney's recent book; especially outstanding when land, sky and mountain show only the tracks of people.Check it outFor gallery listings, see nzherald.co.nz/gallerylistings