The old bank building on the corner of East St and Karangahape Rd is now home to three galleries. One is yet to open but the two established galleries are showing substantial exhibitions of work from opposite ends of a wide spectrum.
At Michael Lett the ever-controversial art collective et al, led by Merilyn Tweedie, is showing one of its most approachable installations for some time. It is understandable but by no means comfortable.
Its unease sits well with the setting. The lower floor at the gallery has inherited the old bank's deepest vault, isolated in narrow, gloomy brick corridors. Et al's work, the common good, fills the vault and corridors and even spills into the toilet cabinets.
The gloom of the setting reflects the artist's view of the human condition. The video in the vault shows things passing at speed and repeated text about war and the swords and guns "aimed at our breasts". The walls of the vault are lined with comfortless seating.
In one corridor stands a work consisting of an archive of digital prints reproducing magazine covers from a 1923 German weekly magazine called Die Weltbuhne (Theatre of the World) devoted to politics, art and economics. In the artist's characteristic manner much of the text on the cover is blackened out to indicate it is in the past and useless, although significant words emerge. One addition to the covers is a bar graph of political victims. The magazine covers are a rich, though unnatural, red-brown and this colour sets the tone throughout the show. It matches well with black.
The remaining words have curious implications. One limits a title to "Die". On another cover the word "Caliphate" can dimly be perceived as a possible reference to present-day oppression. Throughout the show are photos and collections of playing cards with frivolous pictures on them blacked out.
More German influence is apparent in the darkest brick corridor where there are blankets, a worn carpet and simple stools. All suggest the work of the influential German artist Josef Beuys, but he used such things as comforters. Here they have a sinister bareness. Beuys' use of felt is followed in the hangings with slogans that front the toilets. The use of Google Earth on a TV brings things up to date.
It all combines to make an uneasy vision of humanity and the world but it is given a grim fascination by the inventive use of the setting. One painting, separate from the rest at the doorway of the gallery, shows two areas of intense darkness connected by a chatter and clatter of lines that suggest people and machinery. Unusually for the artist it is close to a conventional painting but powerfully sums up the whole installation.
Further up East St at Ivan Anthony is an exceptional show of painting by Liz Maw. It features two of her big portraits. In the foyer you are confronted by Dark Lord, who wears an Elizabethan doublet and tall boots but no codpiece. His handsome face has a brooding Hamletesque quality. His garment is a fine piece of detailed, realistic painting. Behind him, painted in a totally different flat manner of a Japanese comic, is a guiding spirit in a long robe. The contrast is very stylish. In a nearby room is another portrait, Charlotte from the South, well over life-size.
Nothing is ever simple in a work by Maw. In this painting the curling hair is stylised into a tight rhythm. The feeling of the cold south is reinforced by the fur coat. What transforms the painting are thousands of tiny water drops, not in the conventional tear-shaped way but leaving a trail while remaining circular. Some become more prominent as they shine like stars around the head.
The subject's character is beautiful in a complex way with a touch of acerbic challenge and enigmatic smile that challenges the Mona Lisa.
Equally unusual in its own way is a small heavily framed landscape painting of the Wairarapa. It shows a skyline with bare trees and rough pasture under a lurid sky. The view looks cold and wet and far from idyllic but it is done with great virtuosity and independence of mind.
Another contrast is the work of Tony Lane at Black Asterisk. This is an unusually large exhibition for the artist, with no new departures but a refinement of his works as precious objects with a gilded iconic background.
Recurring images are veils torn to reveal land beyond allied to mountains and tears that fall in patterns. Two of the most striking of these rich paintings are Veil and Veronica and reference the veil of the Temple and St Veronica without actually showing incidents in the gospel.
Add stylised clouds and mountains and Lane continues his work very effectively.
At the galleries
What: for the common good by et al
Where and when: Michael Lett Gallery, 312D Karangahape Rd, to July 25
TJ says:An installation's grim tone conveyed by video, found objects and graphic art exactly suits the cavernous vaults where it is located.
What: The Age of the Multiverse by Liz Maw
Where and when: Ivan Anthony Gallery, 312C Karangahape Rd, to July 18
TJ says: This show includes two of the artist's startling over-lifesized figures painted with flair and quirkiness, as well as smaller symbolist works and a landscape done with equal skill.
What: Facts and Fictions by Tony Lane
Where and when: Black Asterisk, 10 Ponsonby Rd, to July 22
TJ says: Tony Lane makes paintings like icons with a traditional background of gilding. His individual imagery of tears, veils and chalices evoke a spiritual presence without being directly scriptural.