The higher one climbs, the more rarefied the air.
The Sue Crockford Gallery is only on the second floor but its new exhibition breathes very thin air indeed. The show is called The House with the Mezzanine by Richard Frater. We are told the opening was one of the most crowded for years. Surely they must have been puzzled by what they saw: two poor-quality pillowcases.
More pillowcases are on the floor, laid carefully in front of small screens at floor level. Hence, perhaps, the reference to "mezzanine".
Four such screens show video loops of varying length with fuzzy images out of focus. The shortest loop is 14 minutes. In this time we see a ball (soccer or basketball) move across a floor and stop against the wall. Nothing else happens. In the other longer loops, one as long as three-quarters of an hour, we can look down on what are apparently eggshells.
In another, called Detroit, a dimly perceptible tank contains a structure that is slowly dissolving. It might be possible to link this to the derelict nature of the once booming city in America, but it is a stretch of the imagination.
Metaphor or symbolism is hardly the point of another work called Sweet Apparition, which appeared in a previous show. There is a grid, apparently made of sugar, the "sweet" of the title, that also dissolves over a space of about 20 minutes.
Make what connections you will, it remains simply an experience of a white grid gradually crumbling.
The question such shows always raise is: why? Why are these displays at floor level? Is it to bring us down to earth? To make us aware of the banal? It is about the boredom of life?
Why the pillowslips in front of each screen? Are they tokens of sleep to reinforce the theme? The pillowslips' presence in front of the images, though raising puzzling questions, has answers that are not beyond conjecture. They represent sleep or everyday life when pillowslips must be washed and ironed ... perhaps.
Whatever the answers, the show raises little excitement, and the whole is rounded off by another work in the smaller gallery which is a piece of blue "polyester silk" with a digital image on it.
The creases in the artificial silk make it impossible to perceive the image. One viewer saw curtains parting, another a tree.
Obviously the show is well regarded and it is in a prestigious gallery, but it is meaningful only to those prepared to play the game of ironical banality.
During the week, there was a gathering that ascended to the 20th floor of a tall building in Shortland St for a reception of besuited men and elegant women there to celebrate that law firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts had extended $23,610 credit to the artist/philosopher Billy Apple.
The credit will help extend the registration of Apple's trademark Apple to the United States.
The quid pro quo for this is that Apple designs a painting in an immaculate red, black and white that acknowledges the credit. This matches a similar image painted on the wall of the reception lounge of the legal firm, acknowledging $100,000 credit.
The painting is exactly in keeping with the black leather seating in front of it. There are elegancies noted by purists in that the second smaller painting is exactly in ratio to the larger one according to the "Golden Section".
The purist may also note that it is part of Apple's Transactional Series. He makes his art out of the economics of making art. The air is rarefied 20 floors up.
Yet distilled essence of things may be the keynote of contemporary art. The group show called Subject as Object: Considering Portraiture at the Jensen Galley has a work by the German artist Gunter Umberg that is intense black powder colour on a small square. The black is so intense and so even that sometimes it is an immaculate surface and sometimes looks like infinitely deep space. Other times it just looks like black paint.
Elsewhere the portraiture is more explicit. The show includes an elegant Burmese standing Buddha and a refined portrait of a court lady in a Japanese woodblock of great sophistication and extraordinary technique.
This is as close as anything in the show comes to being a portrait, except for a fine work by Jude Rae where the real subject is the play of light in an interior as much as the sitter. The most memorable piece is a DVD projected on two fibreglass shapes by the American artist Tony Oursler, who has a substantial international reputation. In a theatrical flourish the gallery chooses to show the work hidden around a corner under the stairs.
Both shapes have eyes and a mouth. The shape on top is older, the lips are darker, and the form underneath is notably younger with pinker lips.
There is a constant dialogue going on between these two disembodied forms. Their eyes and lips are perpetually active. The movement of their eyes, especially from the being on top, is keyed to the dialogue and the movement of the lips. The speech is enigmatic but involves instruction, help or counsel in a disturbing way.
The instructing character may say, "I am sending you my light" and the lower, more innocent shape says, "I cannot see the light." Together the shapes have an extraordinary vitality but a horrifying sense of dominance comes through.
The theatricality of hiding them away under the stairs does not quite come off. The stairs, open as they are, get in the way. The work would be better in a darkened corner of the gallery.
The vast space of the Jensen Gallery is now partitioned and shared with Tim Melville. He has made a feature of showing Aboriginal art, and his latest show of paintings from Mornington and Bentinck Islands is spectacularly colourful.
It shows the contrast in style in present-day Aboriginal work. One room is given over to closely worked patterns, most impressive in the work of Annika Roughsey.
The larger room hosts the kind of big, freely painted works that remotely evoke landscape or patterns of tracks and dance, notably in work by Sally Gabori.
At the galleries
What: The House with the Mezzanine, by Richard Frater
Where and when: Sue Crockford Gallery, 2 Queen St, to April 23
TJ says: Totally enigmatic show of video loops and pillowcases. The artist has immaculate credentials so there must be more than seems apparent to the innocent eye.
What: Transactional Series, by Billy Apple
Where and when: Arranged through Starkwhite Gallery; on display in the offices of Minter Ellison Rudd Watts, Lumley Bldg, 88 Shortland St, to June 3
TJ says: Apple continues to extend his statements about the nature of art transactions and the extension of his brand name.
What: Considering Portraiture, by Nauman, Oursler, Umberg, Rae, Harrison, Knobel
Where and when: Jensen Gallery, McColl St, Newmarket, to April 30
TJ says: A group show notable for a haunting sculpture by Tony Oursler where visuals and speech are exactly matched.
What: The Heart of Everything: Aboriginal Painting from Mornington & Bentinck Islands
Where and when: Tim Melville Gallery, 11 McColl St, Newmarket, to April 30
TJ says: Two contrasting colourful styles of painting from Australia.Blue You, by Tony Oursler.
Check out your local galleries here.
The higher one climbs, the more rarefied the air.